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Fried chicken is either something you have always made, or never make. People who have always made fried chicken usually learned from a parent or grandparent or other close family, often starting with secrets like spice rubs, brines, soaks, and frying techniques, sensing by color or smell the moment the chicken is perfectly finished. There is often a pan or pot reserved just for the frying of chicken, and lots and lots of hot oil.
Or, like me, you grew up with fried chicken provided solely by restaurants or in takeout buckets, and the idea of cooking fried chicken at home was both daunting if not a bit terrifying. But over time I not only got over my fear, I worked out a hack that makes fool-proof, delicious fried chicken every time, and has much less fuss, worry, and hot oil. Best part? It could not be easier.
The secret to easy, fool-proof fried chicken
The trick is a secret step before that bird ever hits hot oil. First, poach the chicken until fully cooked in seasoned buttermilk. Then dredge it and shallow fry it just to warm through and make that great crispy exterior. There's no deep frying, no worry, and perfect chicken every time. More reasons to love this technique? You can use any combination of parts you like: I usually do a combination of thighs and wings, because those are my favorites, but have done it with even boneless/skinless breasts for making sandwiches. (I've found that the white meat doesn't risk drying out the way it can sometimes during traditional frying—another reason to love this hack.) Here's how to do it.
How to make pre-poached fried chicken
It couldn't be easier. All it takes is getting started early!
1. Season whatever chicken parts you are using liberally with salt, pepper, and any other herbs or spices you like.
2. Place them in a ziptop bag, fill the bag with buttermilk (or regular milk, or a combo of the two). Seal the bag and chill in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours, or up to 24.
3. Pour the contents of the bag into a high-sided saucepan, add a bay leaf or two if you like, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
4. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, cook at a low simmer for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your chicken pieces. (To check for doneness, make a small slit in the thickest part of the thickest piece of chicken just to ensure there is no pinkness.)
5. Let the chicken cool in the milk poaching liquid in the fridge to prevent it from drying out. You can make the chicken ahead to this point up to three days in advance.
6. When it is time to fry the chicken, make a dredge of seasoned flour (salt, pepper, and cayenne are the traditional spices, but add whatever you like). Set up a rack over a sheet pan and spray it with nonstick spray. Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and shake off excess, then dredge in the seasoned flour and set on the rack. If you like your chicken "extra-crispy" style, you can repeat this dredge process by re-dunking the pieces in the poaching liquid.
7. Leave the coated chicken at room temp, uncovered, for an hour to dry slightly and let the coating set, or put uncovered in the fridge for up to 8 hours.
8. For the fry finish, heat about 1 ½ inch of high-heat oil like canola, avocado, or peanut (or vegetable shortening or lard), to about 325-350°. Cook the chicken pieces about 2-4 minutes per side, just long enough to get a nice deep brown color on the outside and hit 165° internal temperature (this temperature is more for optimal eating pleasure; since the chicken is already cooked through, it is not about food safety here).
9. You can keep the pieces hot on a rack over a sheet pan in a 200° oven for up to an hour before serving, but it tastes great room temp. And, there is no better breakfast cold right out of the fridge!