When you hear Kentucky, most people think of Kentucky fried chicken. Sadly, the fast food chain that made this dish so incredibly famous has sold it short, and sort of ruined its reputation, so people think of it as trash, junk food. Fried chicken, from my point of view, is one of the world’s greatest chicken dishes. And screw the health warnings, look at all the French dishes that are loaded with fat and cream and we laud as sophisticated. There is an art to making fried chicken, one that has been perfected by generations of cooks, who have made it in the small mom and pop restaurants in and around Kentucky. Fried chicken is the sort of dish that when laid in front of people at a table, at the first bite, induces a solemn silence.
My mother in law is from western Kentucky, where fried chicken is a speciality. She told me about the best she has ever tasted. When she was a child, every once in a while as a treat, her grandmother would make fried chicken on a Sunday after church. In her grandmother’s garden, where vegetables grew, such as green beans, corn and cucumbers for pickling, a chicken would be chosen from one of the chicken houses. It would be killed fresh and hung out on the washing line. Another wonderful story to add to the great tradition of southern country cooking, with all the myths and lore dedicated to the search for the most perfectly fried chicken.
When we visit family in Kentucky, there are always recommendations, where the best place is to try a certain specialty. Last time, we had the opportunity to try Cololel Bill Newsom’s ham. The famous country ham, made in Princeton, smoked over the traditional hickory wood. It was so good, and the lady was so enthusiastic about her ham, we ended up spending a small fortune taking it back for friends and family to taste. And then, there are the places to go for fried chicken. In Nashville (Tennessee) they make very hot and spicy fried chicken, a tradition started by a now very famous restaurant called Prince’s Hot Chicken. Whereas in western Kentucky, it’s more traditional to make quite plainly spiced fried chicken, often just with salt and pepper. Both very different, both very good. What they have in common is that crunchy outside with incredible juicy meat inside. It must be, and always is, well seasoned.
The recipe for this fried chicken has come from experimentation, after having tasted fried chicken all over Kentucky and the south. I like making it plain in the Kentucky style, but with a little bit of heat. I cook it in a lodge skillet, given to me by my mother in law. This is the traditional way of cooking it. I use beef dripping to cook fried chicken – not traditional at all, but it is ready available in Britain and it produces such crispy, flavourful results. I have no qualms about using beef dripping. Fried chicken isn’t something you eat everyday, and I am happier using animal fat rather than vegetable fats that are hydrogenated, which is something they use quite a bit of in Kentucky. It takes a bit of time to prepare, but you really don’t need anything else with it. I reckon the only really good way to eat fried chicken is on its own, with some ice cold beer. This should serve three, but in reality it serves two. Disgusting I know, but quite a realistic estimate. It will inspire serenity and greed, all at the same time.
A guide to some of the best restaurants to try southern fried chicken
Bon-Ton Mini Mart
2036 Madison St
Henderson, KY 42420
I’m not sure I can even class this as a restaurant. It still looks more like a shop. The set up is so basic, with just a few tables and chairs and an open kitchen. To be honest, I couldn’t care less for the ugly surroundings after having tasted the fried chicken here. The outside of the chicken is incredible crunchy, sealing in lots of very juicy meat. This place is renowned and people will travel far to taste it. Last time we were there there was a huge team of ladies making up orders for homemade pies for thanksgiving.
Windy Hollow Restaurant
42301 State Route 81
Owensboro, KY 8260
A lot of people will go to this restaurant for breakfast/brunch after church on a Sunday. In fact this is the only time you can go as it is shut for the rest of the week. Their fried chicken is supposed to taste almost as good as what your grandmother would make. They serve a buffet, which sounds awful, but it is always very busy, so everything is always hot and fresh. They make the most wonderful light and fluffy doughnuts as well.
Arnold’s Country Kitchen
605 8th Ave S
Nashville, TN 37203
This is a cafeteria style restaurant that is always packed, and always has a queue that goes out the door. The menu changes from day to day, so if you want fried chicken you have to go here on a Monday. Theirs is spicy, but not as hot as Prince’s Hot Chicken – purported to be the spiciest fried chicken around. Prince’s Hot Chicken was closed when we went so I can’t give a review. Everything they serve at Arnold’s Country Kitchen is delicious, the collard greens especially, cooked for a long time with ham and a little red chilli.
Recipe for Southern Fried Chicken
For safety, and good cooking, you really need a thermometer for this. I use a thermapen. Not cheap, but they work and they are accurate. It is an incredibly useful tool to have in the kitchen. I use it all the time.
1 chicken 1.5kg – 2.kg
500g beef dripping
extra sunflower oil or rapeseed (canola) oil for cooking
20g sea salt
2 tsp cayenne pepper – you can add more if you like it really spicy
plenty of plain flour for dredging
Joint the chicken into eight pieces. You want to cut it up in a way that every piece is on the bone.
If you don’t know how to do this you could buy your chicken from a butcher and get them to do it. I suppose you could just buy pieces already cut up, but you don’t get the variety of cuts, so its not as good. Click here for a good youtube video showing you how to do it.
In a large bowl mix the salt with the buttermilk. Stir the chicken through and leave to marinate for 2 – 3 hours. Some people leave it for longer, and others even leave it overnight. I haven’t noticed much difference. In my opinion two hours is enough. Turn the chicken once in a while to make sure all the pieces have been well exposed to the buttermilk brine.
Take another large bowl, or flat dish, and tip in two large handfuls of flour (200g – 300g). Stir in the cayenne pepper and lots of black pepper from a mill. Shake the excess buttermilk off the chicken, but don’t wipe it, and toss in all the flour. The chicken soaks up a lot of flour and it is important to have more than you need. Make sure the chicken is heavily coated in flour, this is not a light dusting but a heavy dredging. Transfer to a clean plate so it is ready to be fried. You want to leave this now for 15 – 20 minutes so the flour soaks into the buttermilk, forming a crunchier crust.
Add the beef dripping to a large heavy based casserole pot. I use a lodge skillet (12 inches wide and 3 inches deep). Melt it and see how far it comes up the sides of the pot. You want the fat to come just under half way up. If there is not enough top it up with sunflower or rapeseed (canola) oil. Heat this up to 180˚C. When it has reached this temperature, slowly drop in each piece of chicken. I use long handled tongs to do this. Carefully place each piece in to the pot so they are not touching each other. Once it is in, try not to move it so you don’t knock off any crust. If you don’t have a pot big enough you may need to do this in 2 batches. The temperature should drop down to 150˚C when all the chicken pieces are in. You may need to adjust the heat to maintain this temperature. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the chicken is 74˚C. It should be a nice deep golden brown. When the chicken is ready lift it out with tongs, or a fine mesh strainer, to a cooling rack lined with kitchen paper. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before eating it.