Thursday, August 11, 2011

Recipe Flashback: Fried Chicken (And a little science to boot!)

Good evening everyone! After Maggie's learning experience with smoke point & chicken last night - I got to thinking about a similar run in I had a little over a year ago. Since our work schedule this week is - to put it nicely - hectic, we only really had time to work in one new recipe for the week. So, with our learning experience from last night fresh in our mind I thought tonight would be a great time to feature a dish from last summer where I learned all about smoke point.

For those who aren't aware, smoke point is the point where a liquid (usually a fat or an oil) will begin smoking when it reaches a certain temperature. The temperatures usually vary between oils - that's the reason you'll see some recipes call for a light vegetable oil or a heavier olive oil. The chef is taking in to account pan temperature and is trying to bring out or avoid the smoke point of the oil.

Certain oils undergo a flavor transformation when they hit or near their smoke point - which is why some recipes call for the oil to be heated until just smoking. Usually these recipes typically add something immediatly to the skillet or pot, which instantly drops the temperature of the oil - thereby ending the smoking. The flavor transformation has happened and the smoking has stopped - win win for the at home chef.

Last night, Maggie ran into an insteresting situation that I didn't anticipate. She switched the called for chicken - drumsticks - for chicken we had on hand - chicken thighs. Typically this wouldn't raise a problem in a recipe. The two perform fairly similarly and aside from adjusting cooking time slightly - you don't really have to worry about much change.

However, there was one difference between drumsticks and thighs that came into play - fat content. Chicken thighs are significantly fatter than drumsticks (logically, look at 98% of human legs for example. You thighs are likely larger and a bit more fatty than your legs). Her recipe called for 12 drumsticks, which she reduced to 4 chicken thighs (only cooking for two - we didn't need any more). She otherwise followed all of the instructions and created an unintentional perfect storm in the oven.

Now, I'm only theorizing here because I don't have the exact temperature measurements from the oven, but I believe that this is what happened. Fewer pieces of meat in an oven without adjusting the original temperature likely resulted in each piece of chicken being cooked at a slightly higher temperature. (It's the 'crowded skillet' theory - the more you add to a skillet, the more the heat is distributed, thereby lowering the overall temperature of each item in the skillet - the same concept should apply in the oven)

This higher temperature caused the fat from the chicken to melt earlier in the cooking process, creating a fatty 'oil' at the bottom of her baking sheet. Now, as we said there is more fat on a thigh than a drumstick, so you are creating more oil. After about 10 minutes cooking, light smoke began to rise from the baking sheet - this was actually expected (this is a common problem with chicken in an oven) and was nothing that our overhead range couldn't fan away. After another 5 minutes, however, we clearly had an issue. The oven was producing more smoke than the fan could keep up with and we were quickly opening windows and attempting to pull the air from the apartment.

So in short: 1) fewer pieces of meat in an oven set for 12 pieces resulted in each piece heating up faster and at a higher temperature than called for. 2) This resulted in the fat melting into an oil earlier than it would have with 12 pieces. 3) Thighs in place of drumsticks allowed for much more fat to be melted. 4) Larger pool of oil earlier in the cooking process allowed the smoke point to be reached about 1/2 way through cooking - causing a lot of smoke during cooking.

In the end, it still turned out to be a fairly good recipe! I'd caution against following Maggie's method to a 'T' however. You can use thighs, I would simply drop the temperature by 25 degrees and increase the cooking time by about 5-10 minutes. That should prevent the fat from hitting a smoke point - or you could simply follow the original recipe as 12 drumsticks will likely not hit a smoke point until the very end of cooking and will likely not produce much smoke at all.

All in all we learned a lot. I thought I'd start tonight's blog off by sharing what exactly went wrong with last night's recipe and how we found to correct it. Maggie doesn't like to be as verbose in her blog posts as I do and she sort of skimmed over the 'why' last night.

Now, let's get into the real reason you're all here - RECIPES! Maggie's learning experience brought up memories of my very own smoke point learning experience - and just like Maggie I still ended up with a decent recipe despite all of the rolling smoke. Let's dive in to a dish from last 'season' a revisit an Out Of The Culinary classic: Fried Chicken

The Recipe: Easier Fried Chicken 
Original Recipe Found In: Cook's Illustrated September / October 2010 Issue 

What You'll Need: 

1 1/4 Cups Buttermilk 
Table Salt 
Hot Sauce 
3 Teaspoons Ground Black Pepper 
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder 
1 Teaspoon Paprika 
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper 
3 1/2 Pounds Bone-In, Skin On Chicken Pieces (We used thighs and drumsticks) 
2 Cups Unbleached All Purpose Flour 
1 3/4 Cups Vegetable Oil 

This recipe begins by using the cooking process known as 'brining'. Brine, as you may know, is water that is saturated with salt. Many meats (especially turkey and chicken) that are fried or roasted are brined before cooking because the salt changes the chemical makeup of the meat, allowing it to retain more moisture (I.E. Juicy goodness) during cooking. 

In addition, most fried chicken is soaked in some form of buttermilk before frying. The lactic acid in buttermilk tenderizes the meat, causing the finished dish to be extremely tender and soft. Some recipes may call for other forms of milk, such as whole milk - but the lactic acid in those milks are much more intense than buttermilk. The milder acid in buttermilk will tenderize you meat, but not turn it into a gooey ooze if you leave it in the marinade too long. 

For this recipe, we combine both practices into one easy step. By saturating the buttermilk with salt, you effectively turn the buttermilk into brine. These two work together - first the buttermilk (and the lactic acid) activate the cathespin enzymes in the meat. These enzymes break down the proteins into small molecules - effectively tenderizing the chicken. The salt meanwhile, changes the protein in the meat so that it will retain more moisture, even under intense heat. It's a perfect partnership that will lead to delicious fried chicken. 

To make your own buttermilk / brine super team, begin by whisking 1 cup of buttermilk, 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, a dash of hot sauce, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon paprika and a pinch of cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Drop your chicken pieces into the bowl and turn over a few times to ensure an even coating. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for at least one hour. You can let the chicken soak overnight if you wish (I opted to make this brine the day before and let the chicken soak all day until I came home from work). 

Giving the chicken an overnight bath 

Once you have brined to your heart's content, adjust your oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk your flour, baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, the remaining 2 teaspoons of black pepper, as well as the remaining garlic powder and and paprika. Add a another dash of cayenne pepper to this mixture as well. (The baking powder releases carbon dioxide while cooking which causes the breading to 'pop' and crackle. This leaves a very nice crispy outer crust.)

Using tongs, grab one piece of chicken at a time and roll it in the flour mixture. Turn several times until the entire piece is coated in flour. Don't be afraid to apply liberally. Place the coated chicken on a clean plate and continue the process until all pieces are coated. Once finished, check over all the pieces to search out any dull spots. Sprinkle any remaining flour over those spots. 

Chicken coating assembly line

Now, things get interesting. Heat 1 3/4 cups of vegetable oil in a 11 inch straight side skillet (or large pot) until it reaches 375 degrees. If you have a hot oil thermometer, congratulations, this should be a breeze. If you don't (like me), this part gets a little tough. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes on medium heat to get the oil up to this temperature. During this time the oil will pop out any air bubbles that may be lurking amongst it (sounding like small bouts of gun fire) this throws a lot of oil, so be sure to cover the pan with a splatter screen. 

Now, oil smokes when it reaches 375 degrees - that much I knew. However, what I didn't think about (and what the folks at Cook's Illustrated fail to mention AT ALL in their recipe) is that 1 3/4 cup of vegetable oil smokes A the fire department, crawl on the floor to see clearly, so thick you cough and can't see....A LOT. Now, this is not too much of an issue if you have a good overhead fan above your stove. We don't. 

By the time I noticed the smoke rolling pot, it was already too late. I was working on another aspect of the recipe while I was letting the oil heat up. Bad idea. I turned to find the entire apartment clouded in a wall of smoke. Blinding 'it burns my eyes and hurts my lungs' kind of smoke. Needless to say, an adventure I really wasn't looking for. 

After opening the windows, pointing the fans out the door and otherwise completely ventilating the apartment, I was ready to proceed. 

Place you chicken pieces (one to three at a time) into the hot oil. Allow to cook for about 2 minutes or until nice and golden brown. Flip the pieces (carefully) and cook the opposite side for another 2 minutes. Set the finished pieces aside on a clean plate and repeat the steps until all the pieces have been fried up. 

Now, while your chicken has a nice, golden color to it - it's not ready to eat. If you take the temperature - you'd find that the thighs and drumsticks only register about degrees, well below safe eating levels. So, to finish off the cooking we will turn to the oven. (Which should be a nice and warm 400 degrees by now.) 

Place a wire rack inside a baking sheet (as pictured) 

and then stack your chicken pieces on the rack. This rack will do two things - first, it will allow the excess fat and grease to drip off of and fall below the chicken (healthy!) secondly, it will allow the air to circulate around the chicken and prevent you from burning the bottom portions. Stick the chicken in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the breast pieces register 165 degrees and the thighs and drumsticks register 175 degrees. Once at the right temperature, remove the chicken from the oven and let set for 5 minutes before serving. 

Now, I chose to make a quick side dish with this recipe. Roasted skillet potatoes sounded like a nice simple choice to compliment the fried chicken. So simple in fact, you don't even need a full recipe to make it. All you need is 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 pound of small red potatoes and 15 minutes. 

Add your olive oil to a small skillet and heat until shimmering. Meanwhile, slice your red potatoes into halves or quarters (I chose quarters) and rinse well. Set the potatoes on a clean kitchen towel to dry fully. Once dried, place your potatoes, cut side down, into the skillet and cook for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, rotate the potatoes to either the skin side (if you halved them) or to the other cut side (if you quartered them) and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Next, stir the potatoes well and cover the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve. 

The Results: 

I was pleasantly surprised with the results. The chicken had a very nice, crunchy and flavorful outer crust (I am not one who usually eats the chicken skin but had to take a bite after all of the work I went to in making it). The meat of the chicken, however, is the real star of this dish. The chicken was incredibly juicy and just loaded with amazing flavors. This was, hands down, one of the top pieces of fried chicken I've had in my lifetime. Oh, and the potatoes were tasty too. Very simple and clean - yet full of natural flavor. 

That being said, I'm not sure if I would attempt this recipe again without a significant upgrade in equipment for my kitchen. A pot with a built in oil thermometer is absolutely essential to making this dish without having to call the fire department or disable the smoke detecters (which never did go off...I'm not sure that's a good thing...) Also, a range hood that has a serious fan is essential. I'm not even sure our fan leads outside, and it certainly didn't have the horsepower to keep up with the smoke from frying the chicken. In the end, tonight's recipe wasn't so much difficult to make as it was difficult to execute. We simply lacked the full tools necessary to make this dish without hassle - something to consider before you tackle this one on your own. 


That's all we have for you this week. We're off on Monday - but back to cooking on Tuesday and Thursday next week. Stop in Tuesday night to see what we've got cooking! Until then, 


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