There are, by my count, at least seven levels of fried chicken. The worst of them is good; the best, which I waited forty-four years to find, led to what can only be called an out-of-body experience. Let’s start at the bottom. (I am leaving out any kind of chicken fingers, nuggets, or wings. They are beneath the dignity of the name fried chicken.)
6: Frozen fried chicken that is cooked in an oven. Is this even made anymore? It was the curse of my adolescnese – desert-dry, impossible to cook through in less that 40 minutes, and utterly bereft of flavor.
5: Sideline chicken. This is the stuff thrown into the hot oil wells at gyro restaurants and chop-suey joints. Only the skin is edible.
4: Bad fast food chicken, from dedicated fried chicken places using open fryers. The best of these, like Popeye’s and even Bojangles can make me happy – for a little while, anyway.
3: Good fast food chicken made in pressure cookers. Now we are entering real fried chicen territory – chicken that is dark and moist, with a surface that actually has some flavor. Good supermarkets often have this, especially in the south, and KFC’s pressure cookers produce chicken which, at its best, is totally unique in chain restaurants.
2: Great fried chicken made in pans with oil. Another dividing point is the cast-iron threshold. Is someone cooking this chicken in a big pan, turning each piece, letting it get beautifully golden, covering it as needed? If they are, it’s gonna be good.
1. Great fried chicken made in pans with animal fat. Sometimes it’s lard; sometimes, as with my friend Adam Sappington in Portland, it’s beef tallow. Maybe it’s even chicken shmaltz, so obvious and yet so rare. But this is the highest form of fried chicken cookery, and, not coincidentally, the one closest to the dish’s primitive origins.
Sean Brock, a Charleston chef who is shaping up as the next Thomas Keller, made fried chicken for me on Sunday. He had two big pans filled up with lard. Oh, did I say lard? I meant to say say lard, country ham fat, bacon fat, and chicken shmaltz. He also brined the chicken in sweet tea for a day, and doused it in country buttermilk before breading it with cornmeal, flour, and “the soul food superweapon”: MSG. This chicken was great before it ever hit the oil, but when it did, Brock handled it virtuosically. First, owing to the low smoking point of all that animal fat, he never let it get too hot; when the chicken went in, it neither spattered nor screamed. It just started bubbling. After a few minutes he turned it, and then turned it again, and when it was the color of straw he put a lid on it; then he took it off; then he turned it, and lidded it, and turned it, several times more, adjusting for heat all the time and rocking out to the raw Delta boogie of R.L. Burnside. The heat came out of the chicken pans, to say nothing of the steam coming out of a giant stock pot and a bubbling vat of homemade ketchup on the back burner. But we were in a state of bliss by then.
The chicken is done when it stops bubbling; that means the water is all cooked out of it. You pull it and rest it, and then – at Husk, at least – they serve it with hot sauce and honey. Personally, I abhor both, and took mine straight. I had found the seventh level of chicken. The eighth came when Sean’s sous chef, Air, made the cream gravy and I dunked it. Or was that the ninth? I can’t think now. I only know it was the best fried chicken I ever had.