It’s hard to beat the pure, visceral pleasure of eating fried chicken—breaking through the craggy crust, tearing into moist flesh, and letting the hot juices from the bird run down your forearm. For home cooks, the task of recreating this holy experience can seem daunting: equipment concerns (who has a deep fryer?) and nightmares of a messy pool of explosive hot grease stop many of us before we’ve even begun. But Sarah Simmons of NYC’s Birds & Bubbles insists that a cast-iron skillet and some clever dredging techniques are all you need to achieve golden glory in your own kitchen.
Unlike other recipes from City Grit—her collaborative dinner series that calls upon a rotating roster of guest chefs, including Sean Brock and John Besh—Simmons’ chicken comes from the original source of her cooking jones: her family.
“My grandpa only made two things, fried chicken and boiled peanuts,” she recalls. Born and raised in North Carolina, Simmons says she was constantly approached by diners who assumed she made the best fried chicken. As much as she loved eating the Southern classic, no one in her family had saved any written document of the heirloom recipe. So she conferred with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and spent 30 days in her Lower East Side apartment perfecting the best recreation of her grandfather’s fried chicken that she could muster.
Simmons offered the recipe during Sunday Suppers at City Grit. One night, following service, a customer brought some champagne back to the kitchen as a friendly gesture. While they were sitting around, munching on crispy hindquarters, it dawned upon Simmons: the dry, bubbly sparklng wine—usually reserved for oysters and caviar—paired astonishingly well with fried chicken grease. A new type of Southern hospitality was born, forming the centerpiece of her latest high-low restaurant, Birds & Bubbles.
While the restaurant keeps its proprietary spice blend under lock and key, Simmons showed us the secrets to making pan-fried buttermilk fried chicken as a home cook. Throw some oil in the pan, pop a bottle, and celebrate the good life.
How to make skillet-fried chicken, à la Birds & Bubbles
Yields 3-4 servings
- 5 lbs. skin-on chicken quarters and boneless breasts (Simmons recommends organic chicken from Whole Foods)
- 1 pint buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup water
- 3 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons Kosher salt
- 2 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
Step 1: Prepare the spice blend and season chicken.
Mix kosher salt, black pepper, smoked paprika, and cayenne into a bowl to create the dry brine for the chicken. “We don’t submerge the chicken in liquid; we want to prevent bloating that might occur from extra water,” says Simmons. Sprinkle the seasoning onto the various chicken pieces and chill them in the fridge for 24 hours. Before frying, remove chicken from the fridge and allow it to sit for 30 minutes.
Step 2: Dredge the chicken.
Whisk eggs and buttermilk together. Buttermilk adds an element of acidity that you won’t find in regular milk.
In another shallow baking dish, mix together AP flour, cornstarch, salt, and pepper. Use a plastic container to spread evenly over a sheet pan.
Using your left hand, dip individual pieces of chicken into the egg mixture, letting it drip over the bowl.
Place chicken piece onto the sheet pan. Using your right hand, coat it with flour.
Gathering excess flour to cover the piece of chicken, packing it like a small child in the snow. Turn over chicken, and repeat. Designating your hands for dipping and dredging is a nifty trick that allows you to avoid clumpy hands.
Step 3: Heat the oil.
Pour canola oil into a cast-iron skillet halfway and heat on medium-high until the temperature rises to 350°F. Simmons also likes peanut oil: “It’s the lard of oils,” she says. Just don’t use olive oil. It has a low smoke point and will burn before you finish cooking all of the chicken. 350° is the sweet spot for attaining a golden crust: too high and it will burn, too low and it will remain greasy.
Step 4: Fry.
Because different pieces cook faster than others, fry like-sized pieces at the same time. Place skin side down.
Cook for approximately three to four minutes, then flip. You’ll turn the chicken over when you see a golden crust develop on the underside.
After removing the chicken from the grease and placing it on a rack, a home cook can do two things: finish it off in the oven at 350° for six minutes; or, if the host wants to entertain guests, hold it at 250° for 1 to 1½ hours in the oven. This decreases the risk of serving greasy chicken.