Chicken, Duck & Turkey

The Best Fried Chicken 1: Season Ahead Or Not?

There are so many myths about how to cook fried chicken that I’ve lost count. Some are so ridiculous that I can’t even imagine who dreamed them up. The worst I’ve heard is that the chicken must be seasoned just before frying because letting it sit in salt or any marinade with acid in it will dry the meat. Really?

The Best Fried Chicken 1: Season Ahead Or Not?

The seasoning is what gives the cooked fried chicken its flavor. To make sure that the innermost portion of the meat absorbs the seasoning, you have to give the chicken TIME to soak up the flavors. Seasoning can be in the form of a dry rub or a marinade.

BUT. But some people say that salt draws out moisture from meat. And if the marinade has anything acidic in it, like vinegar or citrus juice, the acid will “cook” the meat and make it very dry by the time it reaches the frying pan.

The debate is endless, believe me. I am of the position that when we talk about seasoning chicken, we’re not CURING the meat. We’re not adding so much salt to turn it into ham. Too much salt can have the effect of curing meat but the right amount of salt will flavor the meat correctly, tenderize it and still leave it moist. 

But that’s me, you say. There are people who are so star-struck that they will only accept as gospel truth anything said by some well-known chef, but won’t accept the very same statement as true if it comes from just some food blogger like me. It’s tempting to be patronizing but I somehow understand — Kris Aquino calls herself a food blogger but I wouldn’t believe anything she (or whoever does the actual writing) says in her blog. So, let me just cite some corroborating evidence for my truth about salt and meat.

In a 2009 article in Food and Wine magazine, Oliver Schwaner-Albright (he’s a famous chef; Google him) did an experiment on two roast chickens. One was seasoned the day before and the other was seasoned just before roasting. He described the result as follows:

I roasted both for about 45 minutes at 475 degrees, which is in line with what professional kitchens do. I didn’t add any ingredients to enhance the flavor (butter, olive oil, spices or herbs), just salt and pepper.

The skins of both birds became crispy and golden in the oven, the breasts juicy and delicious. But the skin of the chicken that was seasoned just before roasting tasted saltier than the meat, and while I’m not sure I’d have noticed it on its own, when I sampled it next to the other chicken it seemed clumsy, an amateur effort. The chicken that had been seasoned the day before was more flavorful, but more than that, it tasted more balanced… more succulent.

Merriam-Webster defines succulent as 1) full of juice; 2) moist and tasty; and 3) of a plant: having fleshy tissues that conserve moisture.

You can read the full article on Food and Wine and note that the chef got different results with dry-aged steak, a rack of pork ribs and lamb shanks. He didn’t explain why but I can say why. The day-ahead seasoning technique only works on meat with enough fat content to counter any drying out effect that the salt might have. Season a very lean rack of ribs several hours before cooking and the meat will be dry. It’s that simple. That’s precisely why good ham has fat and why fatless ham is stupid.

The Best Fried Chicken 1: Season Ahead Or Not?

If we translate it in chicken language (and I am talking about a cut-up chicken here), when cooking fried chicken with skinless breast meat, it’s a better idea to season just before cooking. But when cooking red chicken meat, skin on, it is smarter to season several hours before cooking. Naturally, we exclude from this rule tiny pieces of chicken meat meant for stir frying. Those will be well seasoned within 30 minutes given their small size.

What about acid in the marinade? Most marinades contain one or more acidic ingredients like vinegar or citrus juice. Won’t the acid dry the meat if it sits too long in the marinade? Again, we go into the AMOUNT of acid. The acidic ingredient in marinades is so measured to create a balance with the saltiness and, in some cases, the sweetness. We’re not talking about enough vinegar or citrus juice to make ceviche.

What is the better seasoning for fried chicken? A dry rub or a liquid marinade? Read about dry rubs.

What do I like to use for my fried chicken? A combination. I coat each chicken piece with dry rub, line them up in a container then pour in milk. It was something I discovered last year (see 2-milk fried chicken) and I have stuck with the technique.

See also:

The Best Fried Chicken 2: How To Fry
The Best Fried Chicken 3: Breading and Glaze

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