Digging into the cluckin’ awesome world of our favorite fried food.
While my husband and I were still just dating, we courted over Popeyes fried chicken. What better way to really get to know someone than by getting elbows-deep in biscuit crumbs and chicken grease? Since then, Popeyes’ crinkly exterior and clamorous crunch has become our gold standard for fried chicken. But because we already have so many fried chicken recipes on Serious Eats (like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one), I never thought I’d be here adding one of my own.
Luckily, the internet is a big, wide world, and there’s really no such thing as too many fried chicken recipes. So here’s my version—or, more accurately, my husband’s version. Inspired by Popeyes, a key culinary influence in both our lives, this fried chicken has that signature airy crust of rugged and scraggy bits, coupled with some personal touches. I can’t be near fried chicken without honey, so I’ve drizzled on toasted-honey butter, which acts as the most delicious glue for a tingling and hot Sichuan spice mix. The chicken owes its texture to a dredge of extra-fine Italian “00” flour encasing the meat, which gets tender and juicy from a low-temperature shallow fry in cast iron.
This fried chicken turns out so crisp and juicy, with a crust that doesn’t fall off or get soggy, that everyone thinks there’s some magic involved. In reality, the steps don’t veer too far off course from any standard recipe—buttermilk brine, dredge in flour, fry, eat. The true secret lies in the details, and always starting with the highest-quality ingredients you can find.
Fried chicken is a special-occasion, celebratory dish in our home, so I really like to splurge. For a dish that’s fully dependent on just three everyday ingredients—chicken, flour, and oil—it could be tempting to go buy it all at your local supermarket, but carefully sourcing each ingredient is an essential step to getting the best fried chicken.
I start with the best chicken I can find. My favorites include the slow-growth Sasso breed from Lapera Poultry and the premium air-chilled brand by Katie’s Best. Chickens from smaller producers tend to be smaller in size, and therefore have an optimal ratio of bone to meat, for a juicier fried chicken. These brands may not be available where you live, so be sure to seek out the best chickens available to you locally.
I opt for Italian Antimo Caputo 00 Flour for its extra-fine grind that fries up delicate and crisp, and stick to fats with high smoke points, such as peanut, safflower, or even clarified butter, for frying.
The Chicken Comes First: Breaking Down and Brining
I always start with a whole chicken, which I break down into parts myself. Chickens that are sold whole tend to be smaller in size, ranging between two and a half and five pounds, while chicken sold as parts generally comes from larger birds. Clayton Miller, a representative from Miller Poultry Farms (the producer of the Katie’s Best label I like so much), explains that the reasons for this are consumer-, retail-, and farm-driven.
From the consumer angle, people purchasing a whole bird are typically looking to feed a family of four, so a larger bird is just too much. On the retail side, many whole birds are destined to be deli rotisserie chickens, which need to be sold at a specific price point that can be accommodated only with smaller birds. And from the farm angle, larger chickens have a better yield when broken down into parts, making it more economical to sell small birds whole. Because of this, I like to buy those smaller, whole chickens to break down myself. That higher ratio of bone to meat keeps my chicken juicier, and the smaller parts fry up fast and even, cooking through in the same amount of time it takes to brown the crust. This means I don’t have to finish my fried chicken in the oven, where the crust can potentially dry out and become greasy.
Another added benefit of starting with a whole chicken is that it gives you the option to break down the chicken however you like. For fried chicken, I prefer to break the chicken down into 10 pieces rather than eight, by splitting each half of the breast in half again. This gives me extra surface area for crunchy crust. I always keep the breast on the bone, for meat that’s less likely to overcook and become dry.
I also split the backbone in half and include it along with the neck, dredging them both in flour to make pieces that are almost entirely crust. You can keep your meaty chicken—the backbone is my favorite piece! Even if you don’t fry the backbone and neck, starting with a whole chicken allows you to utilize those bonus pieces to whip together a homemade gravy for all your smothering needs (or save them for chicken stock).
I then marinate the chicken pieces in a hot sauce–spiked buttermilk brine seasoned with garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper. The acidity from the buttermilk and hot sauce tenderizes the chicken, while salt seasons and brines the meat. An overnight stay of between eight and 12 hours in the buttermilk mixture is ideal; it’s enough time for the acid to tenderize the chicken, but not enough time for the salt to cure the meat like ham, or for the acid to break the proteins down to a mushy texture. The additional seasonings of garlic, onion, and pepper don’t actually penetrate the meat, but instead flavor the exterior. I like to keep the seasonings in the brine simple and max out the flavor on a finishing spice dust, which allows my guests to customize how mild or spicy their chicken will be.
Unlock the Extra-Crispy Secrets: Coating and Frying
The best fried chicken starts crunchy and stays crunchy. I start this extra-crispy journey by maximizing the surface area to be fried. A couple of spoonfuls of the buttermilk brine tossed into the flour primes it with some clusters, which keep growing as you dip each piece of chicken. I bury one piece at a time in the prepped flour before pressing firmly all over, packing the chicken with clumps of flour that fry up light, craggy, and crisp. When you lift the chicken out of the flour, before it’s lowered into the oil, it should look like it’s covered in shreds of fabric or papier-mâché.
Fried chicken has two opportunities to become soggy: first during frying, if not enough moisture is driven out of the crust, and again after cooking, as the meat inside the crust releases steam. To ensure a crispy crust, I start with low-absorbent 00 flour; shallow-fry the chicken at a low temperature, allowing ample opportunity to cook off extra moisture; and finally rest it on a rack to prevent the bottom from steaming.
The low absorbency of Italian-style 00 flour battles moisture from the inside out, repelling the steamy interior of the fried chicken. The “00” marker signifies this flour’s extra-fine grind, resulting in a light powder closer in texture to a pure starch than to bread flour or all-purpose flour. The characteristic fineness of the grind also maximizes surface area for crisping. These unique traits fight soggy crusts and ensure extra crispness at two stages, during the fry and after, for chicken that stays crunchy even the next day.
Even though I use a low-temperature shallow fry in a cast iron skillet, as mentioned above, I prefer oils with a high smoke point. That’s because the rate at which an oil breaks down is a function of both temperature and time, meaning that oils with a high smoke point, such as peanut or safflower, will hold up best in the long term. For example, with proper heat regulation and a clip-on thermometer, I can fry up four whole chickens in the same oil before I need to replace it with a new bottle. So, while oils like canola or virgin coconut may seem suitable to my low-heat technique, over time they can struggle to drive moisture out of the crust, and start to impart burnt and funky flavors.
I start with oil preheated to 325°F (163°C), but once the chicken is added to the skillet, the oil temperature will drop. Instead of cranking the heat to compensate, I allow the oil temperature to slowly come back up to 325°F. This slow and low fry gives the crust enough time to drive off excess moisture, preventing the gap you often find in breaded foods; it also results in tender and juicy meat that almost braises inside the crust.
With smaller birds and this cooking method, I’ve found that by the time the crust is dark golden brown, the meat is always cooked through. Still, if you prefer to check the internal temperature, the dark meat should hit 175°F (79°C), while the breasts will be done at 155°F (68°C). Taking the dark meat to a slightly higher temperature ensures that all the collagen and connective tissue has time to break down, becoming rich and unctuous.
After each piece has fried, I transfer it to a paper towel–lined tray to briefly drain any excess oil, and I season it with kosher salt right away. I then transfer it to a wire rack, which allows some airflow around each piece of chicken, preventing the bottom from steaming and growing greasy while it sits in a pool of oil.
Fancify Your Fowl: Toasted Honey and Spice
I’ve always loved honey on chicken, but I like to add some extra depth and character by deeply toasting the honey and adding butter—essentially making a honey caramel. I start by adding honey to a bigger pot than you’d expect, so that it can accommodate the foaming to follow. I use a mildly flavored clover honey and caramelize it until it’s a nutty brown color, with the aroma of burnt sugar. Off the heat, I pour in a splash of water to add back the moisture lost, so it remains the supple, natural texture of honey instead of a chewy toffee. Finally, I melt in some butter for a creamy and sticky drizzle.
As I said above, I keep the seasoning in the chicken relatively neutral, with just a few spices in the brine and only salt in the dredge, and instead sprinkle on a punchy spice dust at the end. By frying at a low temperature in cast iron, the chicken develops extra-toasty mottled spots where the crust has rested on the pan; this creates intense roasted flavors, but it would burn any spices if they were present during frying. Adding a spice dust at the end lets me have the best of both worlds, while giving guests the option of leaving it off entirely if they like their chicken on the mild side.
This spice dust takes inspiration from my favorite condiment, chili crisp (which would also be great on this chicken). I toast and grind dried chilies, along with cumin, cinnamon, and additional spices, into a fine powder and add a touch of dried porcini mushroom powder for bonus umami punch. You can customize the spice blend however you like, opting for more traditional Cajun herbs and spices, or getting really crazy with a spiced cheese powder for a Dorito-style dust. It’s your fried chicken, and I don’t judge. As long as the seasoning is ground finely, it will adhere to every nook and cranny, even without any sticky assistance. I like to sprinkle the chicken liberally with dust after drizzling with the toasted honey, with extra on the side so I can eat my fried chicken Fun Dip–style.
And if I’m in the right mood, I might even serve the fried chicken alongside a stack of waffles, to tame the tingling spice dust and mop up my sticky honey fingers. It just so happens that this recipe, when made alongside Stella’s buttermilk waffles, uses exactly one quart of buttermilk in total. That can’t be a coincidence, right?