The secret to fool-proof fried chicken

July 1, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Not only is it delicious, but it travels well for a picnic. So I visited with a chef this week to get some professional advice on how to make a batch of fool-proof fried chicken every time.

Lots of people make fried chicken. From Hearty in Lake View, to Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles down south. Each recipe is slightly different. Right in the middle of those two is the West Town Tavern, where they've elevated the dish to near cult status featuring a "Fried Chicken Night" every Monday.

"I've eaten fried chicken all my life. It is one of those quintessential comfort foods, it is the epitome of soulful cooking," said Susan Goss, owner of West Town Tavern.

Goss showed us her secrets. She starts with a whole Amish chicken from Indiana, cuts it up, then adds it to a pan filled with buttermilk, hot sauce and barbecue rub.

"I think the most important thing is to start with a good chicken... I think the other thing is infusing more flavor into that chicken and we do that by marinating it in buttermilk which kind of acts as kind of a liquid brine. We also add our homemade hot sauce and our bbq dry rub to it and more salt. That's one thing people don't want to hear, but it takes salt to really bring flavor into food," she said.

After a night in the buttermilk mixture, she dredges the pieces in flour that's been seasoned with the same dry barbeque rub. At the restaurant, she deep fries the pieces for a few minutes, but for the home cook, shallow frying in a cast iron skillet is fine - making sure there's enough oil in the pan to barely cover the pieces - then placing the pan in the oven to finish them off. Goss says the best thing about this recipe is you can make the chicken ahead of time, then refrigerate them before taking to a picnic.

"If there's anything better than hot fried chicken, it's cold fried chicken the next day. And whenever I fry chicken, because it's a process, I also fry enough to have some leftovers. My favorite is the thigh so I always fry extra thighs so I can have some leftovers for the next day," she said.

West Town Tavern
1329 W. Chicago Ave.

West Town Tavern Fried Chicken
Serves 4

1 fryer chicken, 3.5 pounds, cut into 8 pieces or bone-in chicken pieces of choice
2 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons bottled hot sauce
3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
3 cups flour
1 Tablespoon West Town Tavern Rib Rub (see recipe)
2 cups canola oil, or as needed for frying

Place chicken pieces in a container large enough to hold them in one layer. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, hot sauce, 1 teaspoon of the salt and one teaspoon of the pepper. Pour the buttermilk mixture over the chicken, turning pieces if necessary to make sure chicken is coated with the buttermilk. Refrigerate, covered, overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200F. Place 2 wire racks over 2 half sheet pans and set one near your workspace. Place the other rack and sheet pan in the oven to hold the cooked chicken. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, rib rub, and remaining salt and pepper. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and let any excess buttermilk drip off. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour, coating well. Shake off excess flour and arrange the chicken on the wire rack.

In a large Dutch oven or 5-quart sauté pan over medium-high heat add the oil and heat until almost smoking. Oil should be about one inch deep in the pan. Carefully add the leg and thigh pieces, skin side down, leaving 2 inches of space between each piece.

Let the chicken cook over medium heat until the skin side is golden brown and crispy. Turn chicken pieces and cover the pan with a tight fitting lid. Lower heat to medium-low and cook chicken until pieces are opaque but still moist, about 20 minutes. Check pieces by nicking a small opening in the flesh side. Remove the pieces, cooking them until opaque but still moist, 10 to 15 minutes. Pile the chicken on a platter and serve.

Makes 1 cup

2tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons pure dried chile powder, such as ancho or New Mexican
2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons sweet paprika

In small bowl, combine all ingredients, stirring to mix well. Rub will keep in sealed glass or plastic container for 1 month in cool, dark place.

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