Does fried chicken require deep frying? Ideally, yes. But how many home kitchens have a deep fryer? Even if a heavy deep pan will do, how many home cooks are willing to dump a gallon of cooking oil into a pan for one meal? Not me.
I’m a wok person. It’s the singular cooking pan than I simply cannot do without. You can take away the cast iron frying pan, the glass and ceramic casseroles, the Dutch oven and even the non-stick pans, but leave me my wok. And I fry my chicken in my wok. I use as much oil as is needed to reach more than halfway up the thickness of the chicken pieces. Then, I flip the chicken over halfway through and the evenness of the cooking is like I fried the chicken in a true-blue deep fryer.
How hot should the oil be?
That depends on the kind of oil you are using. Cooking oils have different smoking points and the ideal frying temperature is the smoking point of the oil. In very general terms, that would be between 350F and 375F. Some cooks use an oil thermometer to do away with guessing, I don’t own an oil thermometer so I just watch for the fine wisps of smoke that float above the oil. When I see them, the oil is ready for frying.
Another technique, used mostly by Chinese cooks, is to dip a wooden chopstick into the oil. If small bubbles form around the chopstick and the bubbles rise up quickly to the surface, the oil is hot enough.
Is it necessary to dredge the chicken in flour?
No, but flour does help prevent spatters because it traps the moisture.
The actual frying
So, you have your chicken, it’s been properly seasoned and you’re about to drop each piece into the hot oil. Is that all there is to it? Just drop it in, wait for the chicken to cook and that’s it?
Generally, yes, but if you’re aiming for a specific texture, the frying part gets a bit more complicated. The twice-fried technique is also used in cooking Japanese tebasaki. The chicken pieces are fried over medium heat the first time then on high heat the second time.
So, you see, the actual frying in cooking fried chicken is not always a one-stop process.
Does the temperature setting have to be lowered during frying?
Fried chicken does not cook in one minute. Depending on the size of the chicken pieces, it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for the meat to get cooked through. If you’re frying large chicken pieces or a whole chicken, it will take even longer.
So, when the chicken is already in the oil, do we keep the stove setting steadily on high? Here’s the thing. We’ve already established that the ideal frying temperature is the smoking point of the cooking oil. So, what we want is to MAINTAIN the temperature throughout the frying. Once you drop in the chicken pieces, the temperature will drop (naturally!). Keep the stove on high until the smoking point of the oil is reached once more. Whether to keep it that way until the chicken is done depends on whether you cover the frying pan or not.
Is it okay to cover the frying pan?
Generally, I don’t recommend covering the pan because of steam buildup. The steam will condense and drop back into the oil and that really ruins the fried chicken. When the frying pan is left uncovered, the temperature setting must be left on high all throughout because it’s going to be a wrestling match between the oil temperature and the cooler air temperature. Keeping the stove on high ensures that the oil temperature wins the match.
However, leaving the frying pan uncovered creates a lot of oil spatter in the kitchen. There is also the danger that some dumb insect might stupidly fly over the pan, get killed instantly in the heat and drop into the oil.
There is such a thing as a splatter guard (also known as splatter screen). It’s an inexpensive tool that allows steam to escape while, at the same time, reducing the amount of oil spatters. It also solves the insect problem.
Won’t a regular frying pan cover do? It might if it has generous steam vents. And I mean a lot of steam vents. If you have one and you decide to use it, the stove setting will have to be lowered. With the pan covered, it will be like an oven inside it and if the stove is retained on high, the oil temperature will go up and up and up, and the chicken will burn. When the pan is covered, the chicken cooks in the combined heat and pressure built between the pan and the cover. The meat might, in fact, cook faster.
The downside, of course, is that because you can’t see the chicken with the cover on, you don’t really see how it’s getting along. And you have to lift the cover every now and then to check on the progress of the chicken. Lifting the cover releases pressure; it also makes the oil temperature drop. So, once you replace the cover, you’ll have to adjust the stove setting again to get the right temperature. It can be tedious. I’d really go for the splatter guard.
How do we know if the chicken is done?
Lift one piece, the thickest one like the thigh, take a skewer and poke at the thickest portion of the meat. If the juices run clear, the chicken is done. If the juices that ooze out look bloody, put the chicken back into the frying pan.
Naturally, unless you’re cooking all thighs or all legs or all wings, the cooking time for each chicken part will vary. The wings will cook before the legs and things. Check the smaller portions first for doneness to make sure that they don’t overcook and shrivel to dryness while you’re waiting for the larger ones to finish cooking.