On Saturday morning, I was a student.
I had been invited by the General Manager of our local Viking store to come take a complimentary class and write about it. I chose Saturday’s class from their menu of choices for one reason and one reason only: fried chicken.
The title of the class was Southern Specialties from the Hit Movie The Help. The class included instruction in making macaroni and cheese, slow-cooked greens, biscuits, cornbread and fried chicken.
My dark, closeted secret: I’m a southern girl who can’t fry chicken. I’m surprised I found a husband.
I knew this would be the ultimate test of a cooking school and its Chef Instructor. If they could teach me to successfully fry chicken, it would be a miracle.
To be fair, it wasn’t just about the chicken. I mean, I’ve made my fair share of macaroni and cheese, greens and biscuits and cornbread, so these things weren’t really new to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a thing or two, though.
For instance – to add flavor to your cooked pasta, add whole garlic cloves to the pasta water. Simple, but I probably would never have thought to do something like that. Chef said that sometimes he adds other herbs and spices too – whatever tickles your fancy. Genius.
These classes are for cooks of all skill levels. We began with some basic knife skills, learning the proper way to hold a knife and how to mince garlic and properly dice an onion. We learned how to strip greens from their stems and clean them in a sink-full of water. We learned how to make the lightest, fluffiest drop-style biscuits I’ve ever had.
I still prefer a rolled biscuit, because that’s what I grew up with, but these were really remarkable.
And the chicken. That ever-elusive Sunday dinner staple. That’s what I went to conquer.
The chicken had marinated overnight in a mixture of buttermilk, salt, pepper, and garlic. Chef had members of the class put together a mixture of all-purpose flour, baking powder, cornstarch, salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika. Then we each took a turn dredging the marinated chicken in the flour mixture. The key, he said, to crispy fried chicken was to allow the chicken to rest after the flour dredge, and making sure that the oil is the right temperature.
We pan-fried the chicken in a cast-iron skillet using vegetable shortening. I was admittedly not thrilled about using hydrogenated vegetable shortening, but as Chef said, this isn’t exactly health food. We didn’t use a deep-fry thermometer, relying solely on Chef’s knowledge of “what the bubbles should look like” to tell us whether the oil was at the right temperature. I got a pretty good feel for what we were looking for – small, relatively fast moving bubbles concentrated around the outside of the chicken pieces. If they slowed down, or became too small, the oil was too cool – if they got bigger and faster, it was too hot. The key is to not cook it too fast – you don’t want the outside to get brown before the inside is done. Too slow, though, and you end up with a greasy mess.
After watching and participating in three batches of fried chicken, I felt pretty good about what I’d learned.
I tell you what – food that you’ve had a hand in making tastes pretty darn good. And food that’s part of a group effort? Tastes even better. When we saw the feast that we’d prepared, the five of us and Chef, we were pretty proud.
And when we bellied up to the bar to enjoy the fruits of our labor? Silence. Not a sound save that of forks and knives on plates. And the occasional satisfied “hmm…” This was good food. And the chicken? Some of the best I’ve had. This is the kind of food you want to share with people, even a group of strangers. We were wives, mothers, husbands, friends. Most of us were from the south, but one of us hailed from New York. Some of us cooked regularly for our families, others rarely set foot in the kitchen. But we all were there to learn. And we all looked forward to sharing what we learned with friends and family.
I headed home satisfied. I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some buttermilk and chicken. I was going to fry up a mess of chicken for Sunday dinner the next day, come hell or high water.
On Sunday morning, as I stood in my kitchen, I was a teacher.
My six-year-old son stood next to me on a stepstool, carefully pouring pre-measured ingredients into a mixing bowl. We were making pancakes.
He had requested them for breakfast the minute I stumbled out of bed, and in a sleep-induced moment of parental neglect, I shot back “are you going to make them?”
Mother of the year, right here.
He looked at me and replied, “but I don’t know how.”
A few minutes later, after I’d had a moment to collect myself (and had fortified myself with some strong black coffee), I asked him if he’d like to help me make the pancakes. His face lit up like a candle, and he rushed to the kitchen to get started. He was impatient as I gathered ingredients – flour, oats, baking powder, sugar, baking soda, vanilla from the pantry; sour cream, milk, eggs from the fridge. By the time I had everything laid out on the counter, measuring tools included, he was practically jumping out of his skin. I carefully measured each ingredient, handing the cups and spoons over to him so that he could put everything in the mixing bowl. I then let him whisk it all together. It was a messy process, but he was so proud of his accomplishment.
He asked if he could help me ladle the pancakes onto the griddle, but when he felt the heat radiating from the surface of the appliance, he became reticent. He stood back and watched as I measured them out into neat little rounds, and again as I flipped the first batch. After that he was off to conquer imaginary bad guys, quickly moving on to the next thing on his to-do list for the day. I was left to finish the pancakes on my own.
Even though it was the same pancake recipe that I’ve made for years, it somehow tasted better because of his hand in the process. And I felt good about including him, passing on some of my love of cooking to him.
On Sunday afternoon, I was a cook. I took the things I’d learned in class the day before, and I applied them to my home kitchen. I had put the chicken in to marinate the night before, so it was all ready to go by Sunday afternoon.
I opted to fry in a mixture of expeller-pressed coconut oil and non-hydrogenated palm kernel oil. I realize that this is not health food, but I just couldn’t bring myself to use hydrogenated shortening. As you can see in the photo above, I had some issues with the oil foaming during the frying process. This did not seem to inhibit a successful outcome, however.
It was crispy on the outside and moist and flavorful on the inside. The coconut oil added a bit of extra flavor, but not enough to really be distracting. If you didn’t know that it was there, I don’t think you could identify it as coconut. It’s just a hint of sweetness in the background. It played nicely against the heat from the cayenne and black pepper.
As confident as I am in the kitchen, there is always something new to learn. I hope I never forget that.
As much as I enjoy being in the kitchen, it should never be at the expense of my family. I hope I never forget that.
As much as I love to cook, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if I didn’t have people I cared about to share it with. I hope I never forget that.
Southern Fried Chicken (adapted from Viking Cooking Schools’ recipe – my notes in italics)
prep time: 10 minutes
marinade time: 24 hours
cook time: 20-30 minutes
yield: 4-6 servings
- 1 cup buttermilk (I used low-fat because it’s all I could find – they suggest full-fat)
- 1 tablespoon garlic salt (I used two cloves fresh garlic, minced)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (4-lb) fryer (preferably skin-on) cut into 8 pieces (I used a pre-portioned griller pack from the grocery store that contained 4 legs and two breast halves, which I then cut in half again to make 4 small breast pieces)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste (I used the full 2 teaspoons, and it wasn’t too spicy for my kids)
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- healthy pinch of kosher salt
- 24 ounces vegetable shortening (such as Crisco®) for frying (I used 12 ounces of coconut oil and 12 ounces of palm kernel oil)
- For the chicken: whisk together the buttermilk, garlic, salt and pepper. Place the chicken pieces in the buttermilk mixture and completely submerge. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
- Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, cayenne, paprika, black pepper and salt; place in a large plastic bag. Lift a piece of the chicken out of the buttermilk mixture, allowing the excess buttermilk to drain off. Add one piece of chicken at the time to the bag, and shake to thoroughly coat. Place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet to rest until ready to fry. Continue with the remaining pieces of chicken.
- Spoon the shortening into a large, deep cast-iron skillet or dutch oven. Place over medium-high heat until the melted shortening regiserts 350F on a deep-fry thermometer. The fat should come halfway up the sides of the pan. (Note: an even oil temperature is key to the success of this recipe; a deep-fry thermometer should be kept in the pot at all times. Make sure the temperature never drops below 325F or rises above 365F during the cooking process. As I stated – we did not use a thermometer, but I do recommend it the first few times you try this recipe).
- Once the fat has come to 350F, fry the chicken in batches, skin side down, until golden brown and cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes. (Note: do not overcrowd the pan, or the chicken will not cook evenly). Turn and fry until golden brown on the second side, about 6 to 8 minutes more. Between batches, use a skimmer to remove all crispy bits floating in the oil. (Note: if chicken is brown but not quite cooked through, place in a 350F oven to finish the cooking process, about 5 to 10 minutes). Cook white meat to an internal temperature of 165F, and dark meat to an internal temperature of 175F.
Disclaimer: I was invited to take this class for free. The opinions in this post are my own. Click here to see a selection of cooking classes offered through Viking Cooking School Atlanta.