Updated: Includes Charles Gabriel's restaurant information, below
Is there a more beloved food than fried chicken? That love, though, has a darker side: fried-chicken partisanship, fried-chicken parochialism, fried-chicken orthodoxy and fried-chicken cooks who insist on convoluted and superstitious techniques.
To me, fried chicken was one of those foods so steeped in lore that, no matter how many recipes I read, I always had the sinking feeling that you have to be born into it to make it. The master chicken fryer Charles Gabriel freed me, teaching me his technique, a technique he's been putting to work for more than 50 years, a technique handed down from his mother. So he was certainly born into it, but he didn't seem to think frying chicken would be beyond me: You season it, dip it in eggwash, flour and fry it.
"So what about all that stuff like buttermilk? Or letting your chicken dry with the coating like I read about?" I asked him.
"Nah, I don't believe in that," he said flatly. "I can make those other things, but I like to cook my own food."
OK, so maybe he's a bit of a purist too. But his technique is not convoluted. It's super straightforward, and it makes extraordinary chicken: flavorful and juicy beneath a thin, crisp sheath. And now here I am, totally unintimidated.
Charles Gabriel's Country Pan-Fried Chicken
Serves 2-4. OK, I ate the whole damned thing myself.
1 whole 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 parts, or chicken parts with skin and bone
Salt, pepper, and seasoning of your choice or design (see step 1 below)
½ cup milk
3 cups all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil (Mr. Charles prefers soybean)
The widest, heaviest pan you have, cast iron or some such, at least 2 inches deep. You want it wide so you can cook more at once, and heavy so it cooks evenly. If you have to choose, go for heavy over wide.
- Mr. Charles's first step is key: season the bird 8 hours before cooking it (a few more hours won't hurt). He belongs, though, to the Secret-Seasoning School of Cookery. That is, he'll show you how to make whatever you want, but please don't be so rude as to ask what's in his blend of spices. "I put my own flavor into that," he says. For me, it's the technique that's important; seasoning the meat far ahead of time allows the salt to work its way into the meat, and salt does magical things to protein, causing it to expel and then reabsorb water, leaving the chicken extra juicy. Just make sure you have 2 teaspoons of salt and a few good cranks of black pepper per 3 pounds of chicken, which is already enough to make fantastically delicious bird. Beyond that you can do whatever you want with spices, garlic powder and the like. I confess to using what I thought was a packet of Chinese five-spice powder, only it turned out to also have a hit of the good stuff: MSG. Am I proud? Maybe not. But did it taste amazing? You know it, Holmes. Anyway, sprinkle the salt and seasonings over the chicken and rub it all over. Refrigerate for 8 hours or more.
- Heat your pan over medium heat and add oil to a depth of ½ inch.
- Meanwhile, beat together the egg yolk and white in a small bowl, beat in the milk and season with a healthy pinch of salt, a couple cranks of pepper, and a pinch of your spices.
- Season the flour in a big bowl. How much? Give it a couple of pinches, dip a clean finger in, and taste it. It won't be delicious, but if you can tell the salt and seasonings are in there, you're good.
- Pour the eggwash over the chicken. Stir it a bit to distribute it evenly, then quickly take out a couple of pieces and toss them in the flour so they're well-coated. Shake off the excess, and lay them on a platter, trying not to let them touch. Repeat until all the chicken is coated. I like to use tongs to move the chicken from the eggwash to the flour so I don't get dough forming on my thumbs. Yum, chicken dough!
- And now: the torment of boiling oil. Dip a piece of chicken into the pan. "You want to see a sizzle," Mr. Charles says. "You want the grease hot enough so it doesn't soak in." The sizzle you're looking for is like a fizz, not an angry, searing boil. If it's the latter, turn off the heat and wait a few minutes, then try again. If it looks right, turn the heat up to high and start adding the chicken skin side down, beginning with the thighs and legs. To prevent horrible injury, don't drop the chicken in and splash hot grease everywhere. Try gliding the pieces into the pan in a dragging motion away from your body, almost like giving someone the brush-off gesture in slow motion.
- Add as many pieces as will fit without touching one another. This is important; if they touch, they won't brown. Adjust the heat down, erring on the cool side: The bubbling should be steady and vigorous, but again not violent. It shouldn't make you afraid to be near it. If you're using a thermometer, it should read around 350 degrees without touching the pan bottom. (For a visual cue, check out this video, especially the opening shot and the 1:45 mark. Don't you want to give Mr. Charles a hug?)
- After about five minutes, take a peek at the underside of the chicken. If it's taken on some color, flip it. When that side becomes that same color, flip it again. Continue doing this, cycling through the pieces, watching for particularly brown spots where the chicken touches the pan, and somewhat favoring keeping the skin side down. You might occasionally get an extra jolt of sizzling, probably from a thigh. Don't worry. At this point, Mr. Charles stabs at the center of the thigh pieces with his tongs, around the bone, to let the hot oil get in there and cook it thoroughly; otherwise the breasts will finish cooking several minutes before the thighs.
- When the chicken is the color of walnuts, after about a total of 15 minutes of cooking, it should be done. Go ahead and cheat a little and poke the thickest parts with a sharp knife. If the breast is all white and the thighs have no blood, you're good. Remove the pieces and drain on paper towels. Let them rest for a few minutes before piling them up, and don't cover them; the steam will get the crusts soggy. Don't forget to turn off the heat! And before you serve, take a piece for yourself and eat it, right there, in the kitchen. Nothing in the world tastes as good as your first piece of fried chicken.
Some people don't recommend this, because used oil can be dangerous if left on high heat too long (read: burst into flames), but Mr. Charles is fond of keeping his oil. After it's cooled, strain it through a very-fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. "The oil is better used," he says. "It gets better color; it builds up flavor." He mixes it ½ and ½ with new oil for his next batch of chicken, which helps keep it safe.
And I suppose I don't need to tell you this, but all lovers of fried chicken especially love cold fried chicken. My theory is not that it actually tastes better, but that any chicken being left over at all is cause for celebration. But you may have your own opinion on the matter.
Photo by Francis Lam
Of course, if you'd like to eat Mr. Charles's chicken in situ, visit him at:
Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken
2839 Frederick Douglass Boulevard
New York, NY 10039-2158