Photographer: Zack DeZon/Bloomberg

This Perfect Fried Chicken Recipe Took 100 Attempts to Develop

The cook behind the Food Lab perfects the fried chicken sandwich in Harlem.

On Saturday, the writer and recipe developer J. Kenji López-Alt could be found butchering raw chickens at Harlem Shake, a bustling retro-style diner on Malcolm X Boulevard. As he broke down the birds, an audience of about 15 crowded in and cheered him on, while others slurped red velvet milkshakes and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Kenji López-Alt, the author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, at Harlem Shake.
Kenji López-Alt, the author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, at Harlem Shake.
Photographer: Zack DeZon/Bloomberg

It was about fried chicken. López-Alt was preparing to fry some for the day's popup following the method detailed in his new cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, where a meticulous, 20-page lesson on frying introduces his recipe for Extra-Crunchy Southern Fried Chicken (see recipe below).

New York’s appetite for fried chicken—and fried chicken sandwiches, in particular—seems to be at an all-time high. David Chang’s restaurant group just opened Fuku and Fuku+, which specializes in the stuff, while a few Shake Shack locations recently added a fried chicken sandwich to the menu. Over the weekend, the southern chain Chick-fil-A opened a three-story, 5,000-square-foot location in Manhattan.

At the comparatively tiny restaurant, Harlem Shake, the chicken was stuffed inside a soft potato roll with plenty of thickly sliced pickled jalapeños and a little smear of mayonnaise. A dribble of hot honey was in there, too (and a squeeze-tube full of it at the table, in case you wanted to add more). It was a simple and excellent sandwich: The fried thigh meat was seasoned right through, with a rugged, crunchy surface that gave way to tender, pleasingly salty meat.

Fried chicken thighs in a Martin's potato roll with pickled jalapeños, hot honey, and a little mayonnaise.
Fried chicken thighs in a Martin's potato roll with pickled jalapeños, hot honey, and a little mayonnaise.
Photographer: Zack DeZon/Bloomberg

To achieve this, López-Alt explained he’d soaked the meat in salty, paprika-darkened buttermilk, which tenderized the chicken and helped it retain moisture during cooking. He pulled some marinated pieces from the brine and, to build up the crust, dredged the meat in flour he'd mixed up with a little of the same brine. "Oooooh," an audience member cooed, "that's how you do it!" This created tiny lumps that would later, if all went well in the fryer, offer bonus texture and crunch over the surface of each piece. 

“I like to heat the oil to about 425 degrees,” López-Alt shouted over the clatter of the afternoon rush, "because as soon as you add the cold meat, the temperature drops down to 300.” That’s right where you want it for cooking the chicken. At home, López-Alt recommends doing an initial fry and finishing up the chicken on a rack in the oven. The secret to extra crunchy chicken, however, is taking it a step farther: Refrigerate the meat overnight and fry it a second time the next day just before serving.

To create extra crunch, López-Alt mixes some buttermilk brine with flour before dredging the chicken. 
To create extra crunch, López-Alt mixes some buttermilk brine with flour before dredging the chicken. 
Photographer: Zack DeZon/Bloomberg

At Harlem Shake, the narrow open kitchen has no oven, so the meat had been fried once earlier, close to midnight, chilled down, and fried a second time this afternoon. The results were magnificent.

The development of this somewhat labor-intensive chicken technique involved a level of experimentation and attention to detail, fueled by a pure giddy nerdiness, that is often the hallmark of López-Alt’s recipes. He identifies delicious qualities he'd like to amplify—a potato gratin's cheesy crisp topping, a meatloaf's intense savory flavor and moistness—then engineers his recipes to get them every time. López-Alt went through 100 chicken iterations to reach this one.

At his popup at Harlem Shake on Saturday, López-Alt served fried chicken and fried chicken sandwiches.
At his popup at Harlem Shake on Saturday, López-Alt served fried chicken and fried chicken sandwiches.
Photographer: Zack DeZon/Bloomberg

Like many of the techniques in the book, the fried chicken may seem overwhelming on reading the lead-in, with its frequently asked questions and detailed charts, but it doesn’t actually require expensive equipment or hard-to-procure ingredients. Even a basic recipe for scrambled eggs in the new cookbook will involve a few pages of explanation first. In this case, it's to make the case for salting early and resting the eggs for 15 minutes with the salt, to help prevent weeping later on (that thing where the cooked eggs release a sad little puddle of water). The recipe itself is just a quarter of a page, though, simple and easy to follow, with photos of every step that give beginner cooks visual clues.

López-Alt, who is 35 and lives in San Mateo, Calif., also took his own photographs for the book. He’s an editor and columnist at Serious Eats and a former editor of Cook’s Illustrated. He grew up in New York eating KFC (and until recently lived just a couple of blocks away from Harlem Shake), then attended MIT and worked for seven years in restaurant kitchens, after which his idea of what makes “perfect” fried chicken changed.

Harlem Shake is a bustling retro-style diner in Harlem.
Harlem Shake is a bustling retro-style diner in Harlem.
Photographer: Zack DeZon/Bloomberg

In the introduction to the chicken recipe, López-Alt said he was still after a “deep chicken flavor; a flab-free skin; juicy, tender meat; and crisp, spicy coating.” Mission accomplished. It's no wonder that before the end of the year, Harlem Shake plans to add that fantastic fried chicken sandwich drizzled with hot honey to the menu. In the meantime, if you want a taste, you'll just have to make it yourself. 

 

Extra-Crunchy Southern Fried Chicken
From The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Ingredients
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Kosher salt
1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds, cut into 10 pieces (or 3 1/2 lbs. bone-in, skin-on breasts, legs, drumsticks, and wings)
1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 cups vegetable shortening or peanut oil

Method
1. Combine the paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, oregano, and cayenne in a small bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork.

 2. Whisk the buttermilk, egg, 1 tablespoon salt, and 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture in a large bowl. Add the chicken pieces and toss and turn to coat. Transfer the contents of the bowl to a gallon-sized, zipper-lock freezer bag and refrigerate for at least four hours and as long as overnight, flipping the bag occasionally to redistribute the contents and coat the chicken evenly.

 3. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, 2 teaspoons salt, and the remaining spice mixture in a large bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of the marinade from the zipper-lock bag and work it into the flour with your fingertips. Remove one piece of chicken from the bag, allowing excess buttermilk to drip off, drop the chicken into the flour mixture, and toss to coat. Continue adding chicken pieces to the flour mixture, one at a time, until they are all in the bowl. Toss the chicken until every piece is thoroughly coated, pressing with your hands to get the flour to adhere in a thick layer.

 4. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the shortening or oil to 425°F in a 12-inch straight-sided cast-iron chicken fryer, or a large wok, over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature, being careful not to let the fat get any hotter.

5. One piece at a time, transfer the coated chicken to a fine-mesh strainer and shake to remove excess flour. Transfer to a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet. Once all the chicken pieces are coated, place skin side down in the pan. The temperature should drop to 300°F; adjust the heat to maintain the temperature at 300°F for the duration of the cooking. Fry the chicken until it’s a deep golden brown on the first side, about 6 minutes; do not move the chicken or start checking for doneness until it has fried for at least 3 minutes, or you may knock off the coating. Carefully flip the chicken pieces with tongs and cook until the second side is golden brown, about 4 minutes longer.

6. Transfer the chicken to a clean wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 150°F and the legs register 165°F, or about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces to a second rack or a paper towel-lined plate as they reach their final temperature. Season with salt and serve. (Or, for extra-crunchy fried chicken, go to step 7.)

7. Place the plate of cooked chicken in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, and as long as overnight. When ready to serve, reheat the oil to 400°F. Add the chicken pieces and cook, flipping them once, halfway through cooking, until completely crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet to drain, then serve immediately.

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