Few chefs have the breadth of experience and exposure of Andrew Carmellini. The author of one of the best-selling cookbooks in the country, “Urban Italian” (Bloomsbury, 2008), Carmellini was the chef behind the three-star Italian restaurant A Voce, and for many years before that, the man behind Café Boulud, the most wide-ranging of all of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. A native of Cleveland, Carmellini has cooked everything from tacos to quenelles, but he really opens up when on the subject of American vernacular cookery. I knew that he was the one to talk to about fried chicken and its discontents.
AC, I know that like me, you’ve thought a lot about fried chicken.
I have. There are so many opinions about it, so many dogmatic proclamations of what’s right and what’s wrong.
I know! I make them all the time. But you’ll admit there’s a lot more complexity to the question than appears to the average person.
It’s not a no brainer to cook it, that’s for sure. Even the question of what “fried” means is something people debate. Deep-frying is different than frying in a pan. There’s a different temperature, a different cooking process. Wherever you stand, you have to know how you’re going to do it, and why. A lot of people, and I bet you are one of them, think that pan frying is the only “true” way to cook fried chicken.
You know, I say exactly that in my essay on the subject! So let’s start really getting into the question. I know you hold a heterodox position, and think that it’s better to deep fry it than to cook it in a pan like God intended. But what about the cooking medium?
There’s even a debate about that! The purists will say that you must cook it in a pan with bacon grease or lard, or a combination of lard and oil.
Are they wrong?
No, they’re not wrong. Nobody’s “wrong.” But I like a crispy chicken. I rarely make fried chicken with bacon fat or lard, because it stinks the house up for a week. And it never gets as crispy as I want it. The only way to do that is by deep-frying it. And you can’t really deep-fry in those animal fats, because their smoking point is too low.
I suppose there may be something to that. Even Charles Gabriel, who is my absolute standard in fried-chicken cookery, uses pure vegetable oil in his pan. But that’s because a lot of his customers are Muslim, and they can’t eat pork or lard, even in their fried chicken. Charles even uses turkey bacon in his collards, which is a shame. He uses sunflower oil.
And he uses a lot of it! The chicken is just floating in there. The only difference between that chicken and deep-fried is the basket.
But that makes all the difference, according to him.
OK. But that’s not the way I like to make it! (Laughs.) You know, I’ve been cooking fried chicken a long time. I used to make it all the time at Café Boulud. It was a major attraction to a lot of our customers. I would do it as take out: fried chicken, biscuits, corn pudding and a house-made coleslaw. There were some very wealthy customers who couldn’t get enough of it. I did a lot of experimenting to get it the way I wanted, and I found the best method to be slowly poaching the chicken, so that it was completely cooked long before it came time to fry it. The fry would be just to get it completely, totally crunchy. And of course, I also brined it.
Now that brings up another point of contention. Most chefs like to brine chicken in salt water, to make it juicier. But the old way was just to marinate it in buttermilk.
I’m not saying that method is bad at all. But I’ve found in taste tests, where I tried that chicken and a brined chicken back to back, that it helps to pre-brine. It just does. It makes for a much juicier, more flavorful chicken, whether it’s fried or roasted or whatever. I always brine my chicken, whether in a restaurant or even at home.
What about an air-dried chicken, like a Bell & Evans?
That’s good too. It helps to have your chicken very dry when you dredge it in the flour. That makes a big difference.
Ah, now here’s another question. What kind of breading do you believe in?
You know what? I use salt and flour, and a little seasoning. No cornflakes, no ground up Cheetos, no half-panko, half flour. Just straight flour. Period.
What about the chicken itself? Here in New York, we’ve seen a major flowering of specialty chickens. You have your Bo Bo chickens, your Belle Rouge, your Chinese black chickens . . .
I wouldn’t do a fancy chicken. You don’t need it. A milk-fed poularde wouldn’t do anything more for your fried chicken than a good Bell & Evans. That said, you can’t use crap either. Some of the birds used in fast food are really bad.
Everything you are saying seems to contradict your elaborate, postmodern plan to poach and then flash fry chicken. As you may well know, the first published recipe for fried chicken is in Mary Randolph’s 1824 “The Virginia House-Wife, or the Methodical Cook,” and is exactly the same recipe that everybody in the South has used from day one. I’m going to read it to you.
“Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown; fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley nicely picked, to be served in the dish with the chickens; take half a pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter, with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley; stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens, and then garnish with the fried parsley.”
Maybe you should get with the program.
Listen. I’m a traditionalist. I like fried chicken served with hot biscuits with maple butter, creamed corn, collards. But it’s like pizza. What’s a great pizza? Everyone has a different take. And if you do anything the slightest bit differently, the pizza police jumps on you: Did you use a starter vs. natural fermentation? Are you making the true Neapolitan style? Fried chicken is the same way. If you like it, I guess it’s good. If you don’t like it, I guess it’s bad.
OK, so what constitutes bad fried chicken?
That I think you can say. It’s overly greasy; there’s no crispiness whatsoever; dirty oil gives it a nasty, metallic taste; or maybe the breading is so thick that you can barely taste anything else. There should be a balance: some crunch, some meatiness, then juiciness. I think we can say that much. Everybody seems to agree on that.
You’ve travelled about as much as any chef I know. Do they have fried chicken in Europe?
Not in France. They just don’t get it. In Italy, you do see it, but seldom with chicken. They do it with squab or pigeon. I’ve struck out a lot with fried chicken. But in America it’s a huge staple. When we would do fried chicken off the menu at Café Boulud, I would charge $30 for a chicken dinner. And someone once told me, “Wow. That’s so cheap!” [Laughs.]
You know what? I agree: $30 isn’t too much to pay for something so great, at its best. I’m with that guy.
Josh Ozersky, the senior editor, restaurants, with Citysearch, is the author, as “Mr. Cutlets,” of “Meat Me in Manhattan: A Carnivore’s Guide to New York” (Ig Publishing, 2003) and the author of “The Hamburger: A History” (Yale University Press, 2008). Visit him online at www.mistercutlets.com.