Okay, to start with, the title of this post is somewhat misleading. There is no one way to make Southern fried chicken. There are nearly as many variations as there are Southern cooks. But this is the way fried chicken has been cooked in my household (first my parents’ house, and now mine) my entire life. I love the taste, of course, but I also love the simplicity. No breading, battering, deep-frying, or double-frying required!
How To Make Southern Fried Chicken
A large, deep, cast-iron skillet
Yes, you can substitute a different kind of skillet, but cast iron works best. Why? You got me. It just does. I have one that’s 12 inches wide and about 2 inches deep, and that works just fine. You don’t need a big pot; we aren’t deep-frying, remember?
A lid for the skillet
You can get by without this if necessary, but if you have a lid big enough to cover the skillet, even if it doesn’t fit exactly, things work better.
Long-handled tongs and a long-handled meat fork
You don’t want to get any closer to the hot oil than you have to.
A cooking thermometer
This is to monitor the heat of the oil. I don’t use one, but beginners might want it.
A baking pan or other similar flat dish with sides
I recommend buying a cheap, disposable, foil pan, for easier cleanup. You’ll be filling this with flour and dipping the chicken in, so more space is better than less.
A splatter screen
Truly optional, but highly recommended. It’ll keep the oil splatters on your stove to a minimum (and lower the risk that any will end up on YOU).
A large plate or another baking pan, brown craft paper, and foil
A baking pan is recommended if you’re cooking for a crowd. Crumple up the paper and put a layer in the bottom of the pan. You can lay the finished pieces on top of the paper and it’ll soak up excess oil without taking off the batter. Paper towels or a cooling rack over a layer of paper towels work too. You can turn the oven to low/warm and keep the pan of cooked chicken there until you’re ready to serve. Cover with foil.
A can of Crisco vegetable shortening
If you’re making a small batch, the smaller (1-pound) can is fine, but if you’re cooking for a crowd, go for the large one. Other shortening works, but Crisco is the standard. Do not substitute liquid oil unless you cannot find shortening at all. It just doesn’t work the same way. (If you must, peanut oil is best.)
Plain (all-purpose) flour, salt, and pepper
No breading, batter, eggs, buttermilk, etc. Just this.
Whole, skin-on chicken pieces
You can fry any part of a chicken, right down to the gizzards and liver, but for beginners, I recommend starting with legs and thighs unless you just cannot stand to eat dark meat. These pieces cook more evenly and come out more juicy than the rest. No matter what you choose, do not take off the skin! You don’t have to eat the skin if you don’t want to, but if you take it off before cooking, the meat will be too dry.
Put several cups of flour in the disposable baking pan. Season with about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper per cup of flour and mix with a fork or your fingers.
Rinse the chicken pieces to remove any excess fat or packing solutions and pat dry lightly with paper towels. (I usually just leave the pieces in the sink, but you can put them in a pan if you like.)
Put the skillet on the largest burner on your stove. Add about 2 cups of shortening (eyeball it) and turn heat to medium. When shortening is melted (stir occasionally to help it along), check to see how deep it is. It should be about an inch to an inch and a half. If it isn’t, add more until it is. Then turn heat to medium-high. If you’re using a thermometer, the oil should be around 350 degrees F. I judge the heat by the amount of sizzle (toss in a little flour to test it before adding the first piece; it should sizzle and start to brown almost immediately, but not pop or smoke). You may need to adjust the burner many times as you work to keep the oil near the same temperature, since adding cold chicken will lower the heat each time.
One piece at a time, dip the chicken pieces into the flour mixture, turning several times to coat completely. Place each piece into the hot oil, meatier side down (I usually use tongs for this). Continue until pan is full, leaving about a half-inch of space between pieces (as much as possible; doesn’t need to be exact). Keep an eye on the heat of the oil. If the chicken isn’t sizzling or the temperature has dropped, turn the heat up a little; if oil is popping or smoking, turn it down.
When the pan is full, cover with the splatter screen and let cook for about 10 minutes or until the edges of the chicken are browning. Flip the pieces (using tongs) and cook for another 10 minutes. Flip again, 10 minutes, and then check doneness by poking the largest piece with the serving fork (or remove piece to a plate and cut into it with a knife). The juices should run clear, and the chicken should be a medium brown shade all over.
Remove the finished pieces to a plate lined with paper towels, baking pan with craft paper, etc. Cover with foil until ready to serve (see notes above about keeping baking pan in oven). If cooking multiple batches, repeat steps above until all chicken is done.
Assuming you have leftovers (HA), wrap tightly in foil and refrigerate. The chicken will keep for a couple of days and is just as good cold. Picnic time!!
Our usual sides with fried chicken are rice with pan gravy*, some combination of fresh creamed corn, green beans, and/or collard greens, sliced tomatoes, buttermilk biscuits with real butter (my grandmother makes these!), and lots and lot of sweet tea. Dessert? More chicken! 🙂
*Pan gravy: After chicken is done, drain as much oil as possible out of the pan and turn heat to medium-high. Add about a cup of water and scrape pan to deglaze. Mix about a cup of water and several tablespoons of flour to make a slurry; slowly whisk into mixture in pan. Cook until thickened and add additional salt and pepper to taste.