Around the office, people get excited when our owner, Joan Whitaker, starts cooking things up in the kitchen. No matter what it is, if Joan is making it, you can bet people will be fighting over the scraps. Literally. Every St. Patrick’s Day, she makes her famous corn beef, and one year a yelling match broke out between two of my co-workers—I’ll refrain from naming names—when one of them went back for a couple of extra slices of meat. Her cooking is that great. So, when I mentioned in a meeting that I wanted to learn how to make really good fried chicken, and Joan offered to teach me, I didn’t hesitate to accept.
An avid home cook, I tend to consider myself rather fearless in the kitchen. I’ve tackled homemade pasta, made beef vindaloo from scratch and whipped up a lamb tagine, all with relative ease. But for some reason, fried chicken has always intimidated me. I think part of it is the physical act of breaking down a raw chicken—terrifying—and part of it is the thought of under-cooking said chicken—also terrifying. Add in a whole bunch of hot, bubbling grease, and it’s all just a little overwhelming. Little did I know when I first mentioned my desire to learn how to fry chicken, Joan was the perfect person to help. Her relationship to frying chicken is much different from mine. Growing up, fried chicken was a weekly staple in her household, and Joan learned the fine art of chicken frying from her mother. At the height of Joan’s chicken-frying abilities, she could put fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy on the table in under 30 minutes, including the time it took to break down the chicken—a feat I simply can’t comprehend. These days, fried chicken isn’t in her typical culinary repertoire, but Joan’s skills came rushing back once the Crisco started sizzling.
If you’ve never seen your employer break down a whole, raw chicken, let me tell you, you’re missing out. Joan hacked into that carcass with the precision and certainty of a surgeon. I wish I could say I was brave enough to partake in the butchering, but I hung on the sidelines for this portion of the event. Once the chicken was broken down, we got to work. In the largest skillet we could find, we threw in a few heaping scoops of Crisco. “You don’t want to crowd the chicken,” Joan says. “You want to give all that yummy grease plenty of space to completely envelope the chicken.” If need be, cook the chicken in multiple batches.
While the grease was heating up, we let the chicken come to room temperature. Next, it was time to bread the chicken. Joan grabbed a medium sized paper bag and threw in some flour. Instead of adding seasoning to the flour, Joan individually seasoned each piece of chicken with salt, pepper and paprika. According to Joan, if you want tasty chicken don’t skimp on the salt. “Fried chicken is not healthy,” she says. “So why hold back on the salt, because salt is good.”
We started with the pieces of dark meat, because they take longer to cook. Once they were seasoned, we threw a few pieces in the bag of flour and shook vigorously, making sure they were thoroughly coated. It was almost time to start frying, but first we had to make sure the grease was hot enough. Joan flicked a couple of drops of water into the grease to test the temperature. “You want to make sure it really crackles and pops,” she says. When the grease was hot enough, we started frying the chicken. We placed the pieces of dark meat in the middle and filled in around them with the pieces of white meat. Joan cooks her chicken for 9 to 10 minutes on each side and only turns each piece once. It can be tough to tell exactly when a piece is cooked fully; if you don’t trust your gut, use a thermometer to check the temperature. The internal temperature should reach 165 degrees.
In the end, the whole process took about two hours, but the result was well worth the wait. The chicken was salty, crispy and juicy, and it was delicious. Before I shared with the rest of the office, I set some pieces aside for myself, then I stepped back and watched the mad dash to the kitchen begin.