We have something of an obsession with fried chicken in my household.
You see, Dave’s dad owned Topsy’s Fried Chicken Restaurant on Route 6 in Swansea, Massachusetts “back in the day,” and I’m told he made the best fried chicken (and onion rings) known to mankind. The restaurant closed in 1973 when I was but a wee lass, and sadly, I never made it there from all the way on the other side of the bay. And the legend of Topsy’s has been passed along not only by Dave, but by legions of fried chicken fans who used to detour for a basket of hot, crunchy, juicy poultry.
Trouble is, Dave’s dad, God rest his soul, took the secret recipe to his grave.
About a dozen years ago, we decided to turn our kitchen into a fried chicken test center every few Sunday afternoons. We’d try any variation we could think of or read about in an attempt to replicate that darn chicken. We brined it, we parboiled it, we soaked it in buttermilk, we made the batter with chicken stock, we used cake flour, we used all-purpose flour, we tested vegetable oil, peanut oil, Crisco…you name it, we tried it. But according to Dave, it was never exactly right.
And then in 2004 I stumbled across a recipe in a free charter issue of Cook’s Country magazine for Extra-Spicy, Extra-Crunchy Fried Chicken. Hell if I know whether or not it tastes anything like Topsy’s — I’m quite certain the recipe isn’t even remotely similar — but we instantly agreed it was hands-down the best fried chicken recipe we’d ever come across. We even managed to improve upon it once we found Thomas Keller’s fried chicken recipe in the Bouchon cookbook. Keller’s brine is the necessary extra step that infuses the meat with tons of scrumptious flavor, knocking this fried chicken out of the park!
I dare say that if my sentimental husband could add a cup of nostalgia to this extra-spicy, extra-crunchy batter, it would rival his glorified memory of his Dad’s chicken. (BTW, we love the chicken with the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes that are in the picture.) So brine, batter and fry up some finger-lickin’ poultry and dig in!
World’s Best Fried Chicken
Inspired by Topsy’s, Cook’s Country and Thomas Keller
- 3 lemons, halved
- 12 bay leaves
- ½ bunch flat-leaf parsley
- ½ bunch thyme
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 head garlic, halved through the equator
- 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 gallon water
Combine all ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely, then chill before using. The brine can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
- 2 cups plus 6 tablespoons buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
- 1 whole chicken (3½ to 4 pounds) cut into 8 pieces, then breasts cut in half again
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 4-5 cups vegetable oil or peanut oil
1. Pour the chilled brine into a container large enough to hold the chicken pieces; add in the chicken, and refrigerate for 8 hours (no longer, or the chicken may become too salty).
2. Remove the chicken from the brine (discard the brine) and rinse under cold water; removing any herbs or spices sticking to the skin. Pat dry with paper towels, or let air-dry. Let rest at room temperature for 1½ hours, or until it comes to room temperature.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together 2 cups buttermilk and Tabasco sauce.
4. In a second bowl or a large baking dish, whisk together flour, baking powder, cayenne, chili powder and black pepper. Add remaining 6 tablespoons buttermilk; with your fingers rub flour and buttermilk together until buttermilk is evenly incorporated into flour and mixture resembles coarse wet sand.
5. Working in batches of two, drop chicken pieces into buttermilk, coating thoroughly and letting excess liquid drip back into the bowl. Then drop chicken into flour mixture and turn to coat thoroughly, pressing flour mixture onto chicken. Gently shake excess flour from each piece of chicken and transfer to a wire rack set over rimmed baking sheet.
6. Heat oil (it should measure ¾” deep) in large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or a large pan with a cover over medium heat until it reaches 375 ° F. Place chicken pieces, skin-side down, in oil. Cover pan, and fry until deep golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes, removing lid after 4 minutes and lifting chicken pieces to check for even browning. Rearrange if some pieces are browning faster than others. (At this point, oil should be about 300 °F. Adjust burner, if necessary, to regulate temperature of oil.) Turn chicken pieces over and continue to fry, uncovered, until chicken pieces are deep, golden brown on second side, 6 to 8 minutes longer. (At this point, to keep chicken from browning too quickly, adjust burner to maintain oil temperature of about 315 °F.) Using tongs, transfer chicken to plate lined with paper towels, let stand for 5 minutes to drain.
7. Sprinkle chicken with kosher salt as soon as the it comes out of the pan. Repeat cooking process for any remaining pieces, keeping cooked pieces in a warm oven. Serve hot.