Love can make you do crazy things, and one man’s love of fried chicken pushed him to find all the best places to eat the dish. Meet Lee Brian Schrager, fried chicken expert and appraiser. He traveled across the United States to find the best representations of this iconic American dish and has filled his book Fried & True with treasured recipes straight from flour-coated hands. Along with more than 50 recipes for fried chicken and sides, Fried & True offers tips, tricks, and trade secrets for frying up perfectly crisp chicken in your own kitchen.
What started your fascination with fried chicken?
When I was growing up, my parents would go out for date night on Saturday nights, and we would often order fried chicken from a chain of take-out chicken restaurants on Long Island. Every Saturday night around 7:00 our parents would pull out, and the chicken truck would pull in. That is my earliest memory of fried chicken. I can’t say it’s the only food I ever ate as a child, but I always had a fascination with fried chicken, and it has continued into adulthood, much to my dismay. Or to my benefit!
Did you find Southern inspiration in the fried chicken dishes elsewhere?
I think every city in the South has its own kind of fried chicken, like the hot chicken from Nashville. We all think of the South as having the best fried chicken, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find better chicken than in the South, but now I think it’s being served everywhere.Whether it’s a schnitzel or a cordon bleu, there are so many different versions of fried chicken these days. What I’ve learned is that everybody has their own take on fried chicken, and they always have a story that goes with it.
What makes Southern fried chicken different?
What seems to differentiate fried chicken in the South from everywhere else is the love that goes into it. Love is a word that came up so many times in the South when people were talking about the chicken. Their love of family, their love of chicken, their love of making food for people—I think that’s why it stands out so much in the South, because of the love that goes into every dish.
What is your preferred frying vessel?
Obviously you can deep-fry it, and it can be perfectly cooked, but there’s just something so authentic about using good oil in a cast-iron skillet. I personally love cooking with lard. I love the rich taste that lard gives the chicken. When I cook at home, I use a cast-iron skillet. I know it’s probably easier to deep-fry it, but there’s something about having the right amount of oil, just covering the top of the chicken, and watching it brown, which a cast-iron skillet allows you to do. And I just love how well seasoned the cast-iron skillet becomes afterwards.
What is the secret to great fried chicken?
I think the common denominator for good fried chicken is the oil—not only having the oil at the right temperature, which is about 370 degrees, but the type of oil that you’re using. There are lots of different types to use, such as canola oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, lard, or Crisco. I think it comes down to a personal preference. The oil really changes the taste of the chicken. Sure, it’s chicken, flour, and seasoning, and you may or may not use a brine, but in the end it’s how you fry it.
What is your favorite piece of chicken?
My preference is white meat, but I’ll eat any piece of chicken. Some people prefer dark meat, and some prefer light meat. That’s the beauty of life—some days coffee, some days tea.
What makes Steven Satterfield’s Yogurt-Marinated Chicken Dish stand out?
I love that Steven’s recipe uses chicken thighs. It’s the one recipe that really specifies a cut of chicken. It uses a traditional dredge, and the Greek yogurt and Sriracha sauce really make it stand out. But it’s really the glaze in this recipe that brings it all together. The serrano peppers, the honey, the sherry vinegar—it just gives it such a perfect bite. The charred vegetables that go with it are unbelievable as well. I love the great contrast of flavors.
Do you have any chicken-frying advice for us?
I have two pieces of advice. First, the temperature of the oil is the most important thing in frying chicken, without a doubt. If the oil is too hot, it cooks too quickly and browns the outside of the chicken but doesn’t cook the inside. If it is not hot enough, the chicken gets soggy. The other piece of advice is a trick I use when I’m frying at home: I always have a pot of boiling water on the stove, with cloves and cinnamon, that takes the smell out of the air.
What stood out to you about the South when you were researching your book? I couldn’t believe the Southern hospitality. You hear about Southern hospitality and Southern charm, but you wonder if it really exists. It certainly does. The South has the most inviting, wonderful, lovely people, and they made writing the book such a pleasure. Everyone was happy to take the time to work with us, sharing their recipes and their stories.
Photos reprinted with permission from Fried & True by Lee Brian Schrager with Adeena Sussman, (Clarkson Potter, 2014)