IMG4138-main_FullIf you had to pick one dish that is most iconic of Southern cooking, what would it be? My guess is most people would say fried chicken.

Growing up in the South, I know I ate my share. But the last couple of times I’ve seen fried chicken mentioned on this Web site, I’ve had a revelation of sorts. Yes, I ate fried chicken — at restaurants, at social gatherings, occasionally in other people’s homes — but never once do I recall fried chicken being cooked in my home. In fact, I don’t recall being in any home where it was being cooked.

About the only dishes I can remember being batter fried in the houses of my childhood were okra (fairly frequently) and catfish (much more occasionally).

In my own home today, we’ve made fried chicken only once, and that was years ago. In fact, we don’t fry much of anything, although we do eat fried food when we’re out.

My question is how normal are we? Do you cook fried chicken at home? Did you grow up in a home where someone did cook it? And if you do cook fried chicken, do you want to share any secrets about how you do it?

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20 Comments
  1. Nelly there is a smell that comes from the mixture of flour, black pepper and chicken beening fried in a “spider” (black cast iron pan) that litterally brings tears to my eyes from remembering my Father getting up early on Sunday morning and frying the chicken for the picnic we were going to have after church. This menu also included pimento cheese sandwiches, baked beans, and potao salad and quart size Ball jars to drink sweet ice tea . I figure this one practice should qualify me for the sons of the confederacy.The only secret I learned from watching him was controll of the temperature of the grease or oil was very important. The seasoning was as to taste salt and black pepper mainly and the thickness of the “crust” was controlled by if the raw chicken was dipped into a milk and egg mixture before or after being dipped into flour. If the milk-egg mixture was first the “crust” was thinner. This was his prefered method. If dipped in flour first and egg-milk mixture and then redipped in flour the “crust” will more breaded than crispy.

    I am above retirement age and that smell still rminds me of a great southern childhood.

  2. I can remember my mother shaking pieces of chicken in a paper bag with flour and seasonings nearly every Sunday. She had a sturdy aluminum frying pan that was used for nothing else. It was “Southern” by way of Missouri, a Montana cattle ranch and Southern California, but it was good. Frying stopped in the early 60s (that move to Kansas?). I’m a good cook, but have never quite gotten the knack of frying chicken. There’s still time, I guess.

  3. My Mother was an excellent cook, and that included fried chicken. But my wife was the best at fried chicken I can remember. Notice, I said was, she hasn’t fried anything at our house in well over 20 years. I’m just thankful for my long term memory.

  4. Robert Lamb

    I believe I’m the only Southerner who doesn’t like fried chicken, but I think it easily wins the title of The Iconic Southern Dish, and I’ve seen it cooked and served in many homes. But boiled peanuts, which I love, is probably a strong contender, along with okra and green butter beans.
    I’m not a food writer, but I’ve often thought that an interesting column could be written about the foods that seem to divide the world into two camps: those who love it and those who hate it. Okra seems to be one. So does coconut. And oysters.

  5. Terri Evans

    When I was young, my mother fried chicken about once a week. It was a staple. The “boys” (my dad and brother) always got the breasts – make of that what you will. As the youngest in the family, I generally survived off wings, although, invariably, I got to participate in the ritual breaking and wishing of the wishbone. Looking back at my lifetime, I’d say most of those wishes came true — save the fame and fortune part. Come to think of it, I suppose one actually has to cut up their own chicken to get a wishbone now. I’ve never had one in store, or restaurant-bought version. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in our contemporary lives. Bring back the wishbone!

  6. I don’t recall my mother ever frying chicken at home but I will never forget the mouthwatering aroma coming from the freshly purchased bucket of KFC my dad would pick up on our way to picnics and family reunions. It was absolute torture sitting in the backseat of the station wagon with the bucket on the floorboard and being told I had to wait until we arrived at our destination before I could help myself to a drumstick. As for frying chicken at home, my ex-mother-in-law made the best I’ve ever had and she always attributed her success to an electric skillet so she could regulate the temperature. I also think of Deacon Burton’s when the subject of fried chicken comes up. Although I remember being in that space and seeing all the skillets firing I, unfortunately, don’t recall enough to comment on how good or greasy it probably was.

  7. I grew up in the north where fried chicken was only presented in a big bucket. My grandmother, a southerner, never made fried chicken or fried anything. She was disinclined to deal with the mess. I’ve made fried chicken a few times over a 36 year marriage with mixed results, mostly good, I’m pleased to report. Like my grandmother, I hate the mess.

    But the last time I made fried chicken was on September 11, 2001. I was watching the “Today Show,” then got my purse and went to the store. I had a fear, not so much from terrorists as from the masses stripping the shelves in panic. I wasn’t panicked. I knew by then we would be having company — the whole large family would gather at our house that evening, and I had nothing to serve. And I was alone in the store, anyway.

    I got some fixings — salad itemss, vegetables for the barbecue, beer. Plus a few canned foods. Corn meal and other staples like one would want in preparation for a hurricane. And I bought chicken. A lot of it, along with a gallon of oil.

    The kids played. The adults commisserated, dusted, dipped, fried, watched and worried. We hugged. We wondered. We could barely imagine. And in the end — no surprise — we were left with a big mess.

  8. My father would walk out of the back pew of First Methodist Church there in Albertville, Ala., after mother sang in the choir. He’d go home to fry the chicken, so that the main dish served for Sunday dinner was almost ready when Mom got home. He’d cut it up, wash the pieces and drop them into a brown grocery sack. He’d have already dumped flour, salt and lots of pepper into the sack. Sometimes, he’d first dip the pieces in buttermilk. Then he’d shake the sack to coat the chicken. He fried the chicken in a cast iron skillet in about a half-inch of hot oil, with a little bacon grease added for flavor. First, he fried one side with the lid on the skillet to cook it thoroughly, and he left the lid off when he turned the pieces over, to make the outside crusty. He always fried it until the coating became a rich red-brown color. Next, he’d drain the chicken on another brown paper sack while he made what he called white-horse gravy: First, he’d pour out most of the oil, being sure to leave in all the pieces of crust that fell off the chicken. Then, he’d add flour, salt, pepper and milk and stir it until it was smooth. We’d spoon the gravy on rice and on popover rolls that we bought at the Home Bakery every Sunday morning. Mother would then come home to prepare the vegetables, usually English peas or asparagus, the Sunday vegetables, and a pear salad. One of us three children would eat the meat on the pulley bone, and the others would eat a thigh or leg. I’m getting hungry as I write this.

  9. Yes, we do cook fried chicken at home however it is a bit modern. Skinless boneless breasts with whole wheat flour and canola oil. My house smells for days and I always regret not frying up bone-in skin-on chicken. After reading this I may just be inspired to do it the “right” way.

  10. My great-grandmother, Mandanna, always fried chicken for a late Sunday breakfast. Her cooking method must’ve been pretty much like Bill Keller’s dad’s, because she taught my mother to cook, and that was her method. Only she fried the chicken crispy on both sides first, and then put the lid on the skillet to cook the chicken through. Somehow, it always came out perfect. She’d serve it w/ fried eggs, homemade biscuits and milk gravy (with all the crispy bits) and sliced tomatoes, if it was summer time. Even though our family was poor, she always made enough for extended family and would be family who invariably showed up. Yum, yum.

  11. Nelly it seems that you have brought out the backlog of memories from children of the south. You may have been searching for recipes but you found much more. Thanks

  12. Oh yes, I do recall those wonderful Sundays when my mother would stand over the stove and cook fried chicken, white gravy, mashed potatoes and all day cooked green beans. I would always eat the crumbles on the paper toweled plate where the pieces were resting while the rest of the chicken was cooked. And I would pull part of the crust off of some of the bottom of the pieces so no one could tell.
    And I used to make fried chicken at home, coated in the paper bag and all, if only on the Fourth of July. Then I discovered Popeye’s Fried Chicken and found I couldn’t tell the difference and it was a lot less trouble. But it sure doesn’t bring back the memories!

  13. I love fried chicken! How do you keep the flour from coming off in the pan?????

  14. q d I thought some of the cooks here would have an answer for you but it looks like Popeye’s is their answer these days.
    Heat oil before you start, dip in butter milk or a milk egg mix and then in the flour. A bag can be used to coat with flour. The main issue is to have the oil hot enough to cook the flour quick and then lower the heat to finish cooking the chicken useing tongs not a fork to turn. To make sure the chicken is done cooking time is lengthy. Season your chicken before cooking and cook untill golden brown with no blood coming from the bone side of the breast portion. I guarantee it will be better than Popeye’s. My suggestion is to eat while the chicken is hot and then clean up the mess unless you can cook like my Father and clean as you cook.

  15. A cooking point that is frequently left unsaid: without leaving the raw chicken out of the ice box for hours and hours (because you aren’t looking for a bacteria factory), do let the chicken more or less reach room temperature before you start cooking. Starting from cold means the outside will get too browned, maybe burn, before the inside finishes cooking. Experts? Am I right about that?

  16. I grew up in the South, but my parents were from Vermont, so the only fried chicken we had as children was Kentucky Fried – back in the days before KFC. My husband, although from Cleveland, OH, loves to make fried chicken at home, and we usually have it at least once a month. He’s tried various incarnations, but always uses a cast iron skillet and his basic go-to recipe is from the Lee Brothers cookbook. We love having guests for dinner when he’s making fried chicken – otherwise we’d have leftovers for weeks!

  17. I can never be clear on the cooking time for fried chicken. I am from Arkansas, and my dad would always cook chicken in about half and inch to an inch of vegetable oil (yes, I know, not very healthy these days), and would coat the chicken in flour in the brown paper sac (funny, I always thought he was the only one to do that). Unlike a lot of people today, though, I suppose, he preferred to cut up his own chicken. His secret was to put in flour and pepper, but to also add Kavender’s Greek Seasoning into the mix (all seasonings both on the raw chicken w/o flour, to the flour mixture in the sac, and then to the chicken as it cooked). He never covered the chicken as it cooked, but I do recall him turning it frequently (how frequently, I couldn’t say). It does seem like he turned down the heat after a minute, however. If I am remembering right, I think he cooked it all for around forty-five minutes to an hour. Does this sound about right?

  18. Like Harry thinking his Dad was the only one to use a bag to coat the chicken I use to think my Dad was the only Husband to be the one to fry the chicken. The responces here sure prove me wrong.
    Harry you are about right on the time but each defferent piece has to be turned and cooked according to what it is. A breast takes longer to cook than a wing,(etc).
    If you have not tried cooking your chicken outside like a lot of people do their fish you will be supprised at the difference. NO- I don’t know why.

  19. Although my father was a lawyer we owned a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and raised about 40,000 chickens every 10 weeks. The freezer was always well stocked with chicken and we must have eaten fried chicken every other week. My mother’s was very good at frying chicken, and I’ve rarely had any better. Like most southern cooks of her day, she always kept a ready supply of bacon fat. She would drain the rendered bacon fat into a special can and save for vegetables, fried chicken and lord knows what else.
    I’m sure my mother’s fried chicken with bacon fat wasn’t healthy by today’s standards, but at least she had upgraded from lard. I rarely have fried chicken anymore. The good stuff is hard to find. Thelma’s Rib Shack on Auburn Ave in Atlanta has delicious fried chicken, but I hope you don’t get too persnickety about greasy spoons. But why should you worry about some spoon, you’re eating fried chicken for god’s sakes. One of these days I’m going to find me some lard and save up some bacon fat to fix some fried chicken. I’m a fair cook, but it won’t match my memories of my mother’s.

  20. One trick is to stick to small chicken pieces. They will have more flavor and you won’t have to worry like you would about a huge breast being done or not. A large deep cast iron skillet is best (be sure to season your skillet before you use it), but you can also use a large electric skillet. I always use salt, pepper and paprika to season the chicken. I put plenty of this in the flour as well as the egg/milk mixture. You want your skillet to be hot, but not smoking hot. I never used a lid to cover my fried chicken while it’s cooking and never saw anyone else doing it. I would think that the crust would fall off. Don’t be afraid of using too much Crisco, or the whole thing will be ruined. You want to make sure one side of the chicken is really brown before you turn it. Then let that side get brown before you lower your temperature, but not too much or you will loose your crust. I would rather over cook something than under cook it any day. and it won’t burn if you are standing there watching it. After it’s done, just drain all but a few large spoonfuls of pan drippings. Add salt and pepper and a dash of paprika to a little flour. Mix it into the drippings stirring constantly. Add milk and stir constantly until it comes to a full boil. Serve the gravy over mashed potatoes and serve with home made biscuits. Okay, now I’m really hungry. We used to have this all the time when we were kids.

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