Fried chicken is a serious business these days. It wasn't always so, of course, once being a food stuff confined to the grimier end of the high street, to be visited only by those with the empty confidence of six pints of lager and a raging desire for the salt and grease that only a late-night Chicken Cottage could supply. And who hasn't at some point, perhaps in younger days, succumbed and ordered a bucketful of browned, battered, grease-covered chicken – with the full knowledge that only indigestion and regret lies ahead?
Today, though, fried chicken comes with no regrets – it has become a spotless thing, a gourmet lunch as much as a chucking- out-time filler. Something to be enjoyed alongside those other foods from humble backgrounds who've done good and moved up in the world: the gourmet burger and the newly middle-class hot dog.
It is the birds, though, which are the biggest news. Just ask the people queuing patiently for their fried chicken and wet wipe at the Roost or Spit and Roast food vans. Or at new Korean joint Bibigo, where fried chicken has become a surprise bestseller. Something probably noted by Meat Liquor founder, Scott Collins, and chef William Leigh, who are soon to open Wishbone, a 40-seat fried-chicken restaurant in London food hub, Brixton Village.
"It is one of life's great joys and my favourite thing in the world," say TV chef and food writer Gizzi Erskine, "but fried chicken hasn't, to put it mildly, always been done well over here."
One place it is done very well indeed is at Rita's Dining in Dalston, east London. Jackson Boxer, the man behind the well-regarded Brunswick House Café, opened Rita's in the summer, to near universally good reviews. "My grandmother [the food writer] Arabella Boxer used to make fried chicken for me as a child. And I wanted to do it justice at Rita's. So we spent six months at the fryer, trying to figure out what was the best cut of meat to use, what to brine it with, how much sauce to use, whether to batter or dredge," says Boxer.
Six months at a fryer? Brining? Batter or dredge? Fast food at this level seems to be anything but. So my task, to cook home-fried chicken for five friends on Friday evening, seems suddenly quite daunting. My confident "How hard can this be?" uttered when given the challenge, is now repeated with a plaintive, wavering air. I perhaps need a steadying hand, a guide.
As Boxer makes the best chicken in town, he seems like the man to ask. Meeting him at Rita's on a sunny Thursday, he gives me both a recipe and the benefit of his knowledge – all six greasy months of it. He has three top tips for me.
The first and most important: "Fry hot, fry hard, fry quick". The trick is to get the oil to 180C and keep it that way. How? By adding only two or three chunks of chicken at a time, so as not to destabilise the oil temperature. A drop in temperature means an increased risk of a soggy piece of bird. And soggy batter on the bird would be an offence against fried chicken's history. Skillet fried chicken, which is Jackson's inspiration, was originally the Cornish pasty of the American South. The batter on the outside would be cooled to form a hard outer shell around the chicken, which meant it could be doled out to those working in the fields, and they could slip it into their pocket, to be removed at lunchtime.
What of the batter, then? How do you get the perfect deep crunch? At Rita's they don't actually use batter – this is his second tip – they use a "multi-stage dredging process" instead. f It may sound like something you do to the river Dee, but actually just means you dip it in flour, then buttermilk, then some more flour.
His final tip is perhaps the most important taste-wise. All the pieces of chicken at Rita's – some 120-an-hour when they are busy – are brined for several hours before cooking. "We put all our chicken in a 10 per cent brine for six to eight hours. This makes the protein firm up and adds an extra dimension of flavour," says Boxer. "Oh," he adds as an afterthought, "buy lots of kitchen roll, too."
This is all academic, because I have not yet taken the first step a home fryer must take: acquire a deep-fat fryer. It is this step that I am most ambivalent about. I like fried chicken. But I do not like fryers. I have seen those episodes of TV's 999 in which hapless people in bedsits are engulfed in flames after a false move with the De'Longhi Quick Fry.
I also do not like them because they smell. The stench of hot oil meeting chipped potato or fish having been an intermittent part of my childhood. The smell of a fryer having so suffused an aged relative's house that to visit, as I often did, was to risk leaving smelling like you had done a shift at the 'Happy Fisherman', despite the actual device having been sent some years before to the shed. I come to home-frying with these prejudices, then. And yet I enjoy the end product, enjoy it lots, in fact; so gluttony being the great driver it is, I settle for a Magimix Pro fryer (with safety lid) and get started.
Armed with a simplified recipe, the limbs of several organic chickens, and the notes gleaned from an afternoon spent at Rita's, I settle in for an afternoon in the kitchen. It is 2pm and my friends arrive at 7pm. So I figure I have ample time for some experimentation. First, though, I debone the thighs with a sharp knife, cleaving hard to the bone. It's fiddly, but worth the trouble: the hardworking thigh being texturally more interesting than breast.
Then I check my notes and I'm pulled up short. There it is in extra big letters: BRINING. Big letters, in the world of my notepad, implying importance. I am supposed to have brined the chicken for at least six hours. But five, in the circumstances, will have to do.
I toss the chicken into a large bowl of salted water, to which I've added lemon, thyme and a couple of bay leaves and some garlic for flavour. And then go off in search of lunch and the vacuum cleaner to spruce the lounge before the photographer arrives.
Cleaning done and a few hours whiled away, I turn my attention to preparing the dredges. Two large Pyrex dishes fill in for the buckets Boxer suggested. The first I fill with plain flour and a generous helping of salt. To the second goes a mixture of flours and spices.
Colonel Sanders famously bragged that he used 11 spices at KFC but I make do with three: cayenne pepper, ground mace and paprika. These are mixed with rice flour, cornmeal and the plain flour ("The starch in each browns at different points, so you get that deep golden colour," according to Boxer).
It's now time to remove the chicken from the brine. Each piece is patted dry; then the thighs go into the first flour mix, then into the buttermilk, and then across into the spice-and-flour concoction. The kitchen roll has already paid its way by this point.
Now it is time to face up to the thing I've been wimpishly trying to ignore: the fryer itself. I set it to maximum heat and we are off. My Thermapen, purchased on Boxer's advice, confirms the pool of molten vegetable oil is soon at the requisite 180C. It almost seems a shame to add my triple-coated, flour-massaged chicken, but in a pair go like sinners into one of Dante's circles of hell. Out, immediately comes that smell, that all-pervasive smell.
Eight minutes later we are almost done. My house smells like a chippy but I can see two pieces of golden poultry in my fryer and everything seems just fine. A quick prod with the Thermapen confirms they are over the magic salmonella-killing 73C, so out they come on to yet more kitchen roll. I quickly repeat with another half dozen pieces; my guests have now arrived and are clamouring for dinner.
And there we have it. A small hillock of chicken thighs, piled on top of one another, in a golden, browned tower of deliciousness. A fitting monument to my day at the fryer – and one that practically evaporates when I put it on the dining room table.
The verdicts come quick, fast and unflinching: "Nice crunch," is the first offering, followed by a reassuring agreement that they are "virtually greaseless" and then comes the ambivalent sounding, "aggressively seasoned – and quite umami-y". They might also have said: "preternaturally juicy", too, but hey, who's keeping score? The last word goes to my housemate, a connoisseur of all things fried and a fast-food gourmand: "It tastes," he says sagely, "better than KFC."
JACKSON BOXER'S FRIED CHICKEN
Serves 4/Makes 8 pieces
8 chicken thighs
1 bay leaf
100g rice flour
500g plain flour
100g sea salt
1tsp cayenne pepper
1tsp ground mace
1tsp smoked paprika
Debone chicken thighs with sharp knife. Soak for 6-8 hours in a 10 per cent salt solution (100g of salt per 900ml water), to which has been added juice of one lemon and a bay leaf.
Take chicken thighs (at room temperature), dredge in 300g of flour seasoned generously with salt.
Submerge in buttermilk, remove and let excess drip away.
Make final dredge of 100g cornmeal, 100g rice flour and 200g white flour, with the addition of 2tsp of salt, one of cayenne pepper, ground mace and smoked paprika.
Add thigh to final dredge.
Submerge thigh in vegetable oil heated to a temp of 180C.
After about 7 minutes, lift chicken from oil, probe to ascertain core temperature. If temperature is in excess of 80C, shake free of excess oil, pat dry with a paper towel, allow a couple of minutes for chicken to cool below mouth-stripping temperature, and consume.