How to make the best chicken and waffles: 'Top Chef' Justin Sutherland shares his recipe

Justin Sutherland, who was a finalist in Top Chef: Kentucky, shares his chicken and waffles recipe. (Photos: Getty; Justin Sutherland)
Justin Sutherland, who was a finalist in Top Chef: Kentucky, shares his chicken and waffles recipe. (Photos: Getty; Justin Sutherland)

Great food combinations are everywhere, from peanut butter and jelly to oysters and champagne to bagels and lox. But one combo that should be a part of your next brunch spread is chicken and waffles. While the meal should be made in a few steps, it's relatively easy for the home cook to execute in their kitchen with a few basic tools and the right ingredients.

What is chicken and waffles?

"Traditionally, chicken and waffles is just that: a waffle, a few pieces of fried chicken and a side of butter and maple syrup," says Mike Kostyo, a trend researcher specializing in food. "That's what you'll get at Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, the [Los Angeles, Calif.] restaurant, and now chain, that's been serving the dish for decades."

The origin of chicken and waffles is a hotly-contested debate among food historians. "There are a lot of arguments over exactly when and where chicken and waffles got started as a combined dish," Kostyo tells Yahoo Life. "We've been eating both dishes for longer than many realize, with some historians dating waffle irons back to the 14th Century, so there was plenty of time for people to try eating them together."

He says credit for the modern version of the dish people enjoy today should go to Black cooks and chefs. "Enslaved Africans created modern fried chicken as we know it," he explains, "and those foods and recipes made their way to Black communities like Harlem."

"Richard 'Dickie' Wells is often associated with chicken and waffles and is usually called the inventor of the dish, which he put on the menu at his Wells Supper Club in 1930's Harlem," says Kostyo. The story is that those who went to the club, whether patrons or musicians, would be hungry after playing and dancing, but it was too late for dinner and too early for breakfast. Dickie combined two foods from the meals and that's how chicken and waffles was born.

"The theory is often disputed, but it makes for a good story," says Kostyo.

Justin Sutherland, who beat chef Alex Guarnaschelli on Iron Chef America and was a Top Chef: Kentucky finalist, says chicken and waffles is a dish he first tried in Atlanta while attending culinary school. "[I was] going to Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles and Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, and that's really where I fell in love with [the dish]," he explains.

What's the secret to making great chicken and waffles?

Sutherland's newest cookbook, Northern Soul: Southern-Inspired Home Cooking from a Northern Kitchen, includes a decadent chicken and waffles recipe that takes the dish to a new level with unique flavors and surprising toppings. He says the secret to great chicken and waffles is all in how you brine and dredge the chicken.

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"I think it all comes down to the brine and the chicken dredge," he says. "[For the brine] we do a little citrus and jalapeño. [It's] just about getting that perfect tenderness in the chicken."

"We brine [the chicken] for 48 hours ahead of time," he adds. "Again, it just imparts that flavor directly into the chicken."

Tips for making chicken and waffles at home

While Sutherland's recipe has multiple parts to execute, it's fairly easy if home chefs make some of the components ahead of time. One thing that's easy to make in advance is the pickled pears condiment, which he says can last for weeks. "The only thing that's gonna happen is they're eventually going to start to break down and get softer just from sitting in that liquid," he explains.

If you can't find pears, use what's in season when you make the dish: "I always do a seasonal fruit that's either pickled or preserved," Sutherland says. "Depending on what's in season [it could be] pickled strawberries to pickled peaches to compressed apples."

For the waffles, Sutherland uses buttermilk, which he says gives more flavor to the final product. "I love using buttermilk in waffles," he says. "I think it gives it another depth of flavor. It also makes them crispier. I don't know why."

He says waffles cook so quickly that you can make them back-to-back and they should retain the crispiness, as long as you don't stack the waffles and allow them to steam. "Keep them laid out individually," he says, "do not stack them. You don't want them to steam and then lose that crispiness."

The fried chicken that tops the waffles is made with chicken thighs, which Sutherland says have more flavor, but if you only like white meat, he says that's fine, too. The real key to having crispy fried chicken is in the type of flour that's used for the dredge: cake flour.

“"It ends up actually making [the dredge] fluffier and allows the chicken to retain the crispiness longer," Sutherland explains. "You want something that's going to not get soggy and hold up." (If you don’t want to make your own dredge, Sutherland sells his own fried chicken dredge on his website.)

For the chicken to retain its crispy coating after frying, he says to lay it out on a wire rack once it's finished cooking. "As some of that grease is dripping down off the chicken, you don't want it to pool on the bottom," he warns. "Then you're gonna have soggy undersides. If you put it on a sheet pan with a [wire] resting rack so the air can circulate around [the chicken] it's not going to get soggy."

Want to try chicken and waffles for your next brunch get-together? Sutherland shares his recipe for the dish, straight from the pages of his newest cookbook.

Chicken and Waffles

Courtesy of Justin Sutherland

(Photo: Justin Sutherland)
(Photo: Justin Sutherland)

Waffle Ingredients:

  • 6 eggs, separated

  • 6 cups (750 g) all-purpose flour

  • 1 1⁄2 tablespoons (19 g) sugar

  • 1⁄4 cup (110 g) baking powder

  • 2 teaspoons (11 g) salt

  • 3 cups (705 ml) whole milk

  • 2 1⁄4 cups (530 ml) buttermilk

  • 3⁄4 cup (180 ml) vegetable oil

  • 3⁄4 cup (180 ml) extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons (23 ml)

  • pure vanilla extract

Optional Waffle Toppings:

  • 6 tablespoons (83 g) honey

  • Cayenne butter (recipe in cookbook, or use regular butter)

  • 1 cup (235 ml) bourbon barrel–aged maple syrup, preferably, or other maple syrup

  • 2 cups (488 g) pickled pears (recipe in book, or use fruit of your choice)

Waffle Instructions:

1. To make the waffles, beat the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment on medium-high speed until the whites form stiff peaks. (Alternatively, beat in a mixing bowl using a hand-held electric mixer.)

2. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks by hand until foamy and slightly pale. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, milk, buttermilk, vegetable and olive oils, and vanilla to the bowl with the yolks. Whisk together until just smooth, then fold in the egg whites. Set aside in the refrigerator while you prepare the chicken.

3. Fry the chicken, following the recipe provided below. If you like it spicy, melt the hot sauce in a small saucepan over low heat. When the chicken is done frying, dunk it in the sauce to submerge it thoroughly, then allow the chicken to drain briefly on a paper towel–lined plate.

4. Preheat your waffle iron. Once hot, grease liberally with nonstick spray, then ladle in the waffle batter and cook until crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and golden brown in color.

5. To serve, smear each waffle with a generous dollop of honey butter, then top with the fried chicken. Drizzle the whole thing with maple syrup and serve with pickled pears alongside.

Chicken Dredge Ingredients:

  • 6 cups (750 g) all-purpose flour

  • ¾ cup plus 2½ tablespoons (104 g) cake flour

  • 6 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon (43 g) smoked paprika

  • 5 tablespoons (30 g) freshly ground black pepper

  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (63 g) kosher salt

  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (30 g) garlic powder

  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (23 g) onion powder

  • 1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper

Chicken Dredge Instructions:

1. Sift the all-purpose flour, cake flour, paprika, black pepper, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne into a large mixing bowl and stir until fully combined.

2. Use immediately or transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place for up to 4 weeks.

Chicken Brine Ingredients:

  • 2 quarts (1.9 L) water

  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (188 g) kosher salt

  • 1 ⁄3 cup (67 g) sugar

  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed

  • 1 orange, halved

  • 1 lemon, halved

  • 1 jalapeño, halved lengthwise

  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 3 large ice cubes

Chicken Brine Instructions:

1. To make the brine, combine the water, salt, sugar, garlic, orange, lemon, jalapeño, thyme, bay leaf, black peppercorns, mustard seeds and red pepper flakes in a large pot. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the ice. Allow to cool completely before straining, discarding the solids. Do not use brine until it is completely cooled.

2. Brine the chicken thighs for 48 hours in an airtight container or plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Fried Chicken Ingredients:

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

  • Peanut oil for deep-frying

  • 2 cups (250 g) chicken dredge

  • 2 cups (470 ml) buttermilk

Fried Chicken Instructions:

1. To prepare the chicken, begin by heating the peanut oil in your countertop deep-fryer or Dutch oven to 325 F (163 C). Set up for dredging nearby with one bowl holding the dredge and another bowl holding the buttermilk.

2. Remove the chicken from the brine, dip it in the dredge, shake off the excess, then dip in the buttermilk, then back into the dredge. Do this for all the chicken, setting each piece aside on a wire rack until you are ready to fry it.

3. Working in batches if necessary, fry the chicken in the hot oil 6 to 10 minutes, until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 F (74 C).

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