Hotter Hot Chicken

September 24, 2013 · 2 comments

in atlanta, cooking at Home

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Hot chicken and I have been like ranch dressing and rednecks since it was introduced to me by a friend – inseparable. Actually, I first had it in the “Southern Sichuan” version Rowdy has been known to do, a riff on the Nashville hot chicken with the inclusion of cumin and Sichuan peppercorn.  Later, I had the real deal at Prince’s in Nashville and I’ve been hooked on trying to replicate it ever since. Who doesn’t like fried chicken? It’s cheap and amazing. Add hot stuff to it and I’m in love.

Nashville style hot chicken is trending big-time right now. There have probably been half a dozen hot chickens to be had around town – Holeman & Finch, One Eared Stag, Steinbeck’s, The Porter had it on special, and I’m sure others have offered it or a variation thereof, and it’s a trend I expect to continue. Josh Ozersky just wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal. Sean Brock scarfed some down at Prince’s in the great PBS show The Mind of the Chef (which you can watch online).

I think it’s an easy call to say this dish will continue to proliferate, hitting critical mass where any semi-savvy diner will have an immediate understanding of “hot chicken”.

Recipes are closely guarded, but it’s clear that the heat comes from cayenne. In fact, 90% of the spice used is inarguably cayenne. Beyond that, if you read online you will see mention of onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, salt, sugar, MSG, celery salt, and other spices in various quantities. Personally, beyond a shit load of cayenne, I think it’s a very small amount of onion and garlic powder, a touch of sugar (less than most people assume), and likely MSG. The flavors are just so rounded at Prince’s I think it’s the savory glutamates (synthetic umami) that sets it off.

But consider not just the spice, but how and when the spice is applied. It’s common knowledge that the spice mixture is a fat based (oil or lard or whatever) paste applied to the chicken post-fry. Some hot chicken establishments then sprinkle the chicken with dry spice for added heat and texture.

What about before the chicken is fried? I’ve read numerous articles which mention adding spices to the flour mixture used as the fry batter. I think this is wrong. The spices inevitably burn and become bitter. Frying spices at 350F does not make them hotter (as apposed to toasting).

For my most recent experiment I tried a few new steps to successfully apply more heat before frying. First, I combined the buttermilk and brine phases. In the past I would brine overnight, then buttermilk soak another evening. Why not make this one step? The liquid was half buttermilk, half water, 5% salt, 2% sugar, a healthy couple tablespoons of cayenne and some cilantro for the hell of it.

I think this was very effective. The buttermilk/water mixture separated after a while, but I mixed it up a few times the next day. The chicken was definitely brined well. Pleasantly salty throughout, with great tender texture, especially helpful for the breasts (see below). Did the cayenne go along for the brine’s osmosis ride? I like to think so, but it’s tough to tell the spice impact of this step after discussing the next.

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From there I removed the chicken and drained it, vacuum sealing them with another generous sprinkling of cayenne and a bit of cumin (for the aromatics). The chicken was then sous vide at 160F for ninety minutes.

Why sous vide? For starters I just read a Tyler Florence recipe for fried chicken which he cooks sous vide (in a bag, in a bath of water) then fries. I wondered how it would work. How long does it take to fry? Wouldn’t the chicken get overcooked?

It was also an issue of convenience. My new kid was out of the house during this phase and our kitchen is right by his nursery. My hope was that this sous vide cook now would save me time later,  lessening the chance I would wake the little guy during one of his frequent snoozes.

But most important, cooking sous vide has the tendency to amplify the flavors of spices and herbs locked in the bag. Just a little garlic can become quite pungent and gross. I wondered if the cayenne would become more pronounced, if the pressure and cook method would force the spice through the entirety of the chicken, not just the surface.

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The chicken was then cooled and rested in the bags in my fridge overnight. Again, every step was designed to allow the cayenne to interact with the chicken.

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I rinsed off the chicken (no burning spices) and proceeded to single dip in flour with 5% Crisp Coat UC, a modified tapioca starch intended to keep chicken crispier longer. In retrospect I would have liked to single dip, rest, then do another dip right before frying. I like the added heft to the batter.

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I ended up having to fry the chicken about three minutes each side, maybe four depending on the piece. I dropped the chicken in at 390F, which would immediately come down to 350 or so once the cold chicken dropped in there. Having pre-cooked the chicken did save a few minutes, but not enough to call it a big time-saver. The chicken was cooked perfectly though. I guess it wasn’t enough time to cook the cool chicken much more. The breasts were soft and tender. You can tell just from looking at the texture that the brine was effective.

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The chicken rested for just a moment on paper towels to absorb excess grease, then went onto a wire rack in a warm oven (set to 170F then turned off) as I cooked the remaining pieces. Once all done, I mixed the hot canola oil (which had also been used to fry wings the previous day) with the spice mixture to create the paste and applied. The results are pictured at the top of the post.

Verdict? Very pleased. I had two pieces before applying the paste and the chicken was extremely seasoned, tender, and had just enough heat to make it interesting. It would have been easy to devour it just like that. The spice mixture, simple as it was, really set it off though. Maybe it was the combination of the heat on the outside and inside, but I was sitting at my table sweating, wiping my nose between pieces. I could have used a higher quality cayenne too. I used a fresh jar of Publix brand.

I would do it exactly the same way again, but I do want to try a few things to isolate results. I definitely like the buttermilk/brine combo. It just makes sense and simplifies the whole process. Next I want to try vacuum sealing the uncooked chicken with the cayenne overnight vs sous vide and compare the chicken to see if it is the sealing/rest or the sous vide which is applying the most heat. My guess is it’s the latter, but the sous vide is actually more work. I have to set that all up, and I have to fry later anyways so I may as well cook it the whole way in the fryer, unless I find the results are drastically different. Though, it is very nice ensuring the attainment of perfectly cooked white meat.

I’m sure chicken will be happening again soon, so we shall find out. Oh, and I got this Springer Mountain 3# chicken at Publix for something like $6.50. You usually can’t find them this small, but I definitely buy them when I see them four pounds or less. The size makes for better fried chicken as they cook through quicker and it’s a better ratio of exterior fried awesomeness to flesh.

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  • bradkaplanatl

    Well done! Love it.

  • Shashi Charles

    What an interesting way to make fried chicken! I need to watch – and read Tyler Florence more often!
    So glad to have stumbled on your blog when I did a search on Atlanta Food Bloggers!

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