Deep frying. Look at that golden brown color! Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Perfectly cooked fried chicken! Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

For her high school graduation lunch last week, my daughter asked for my fried chicken. Normally, I break down a chicken into 9 pieces and cook it and serve it. But we’d invited friends, bringing our total number to 20. Fried chicken for 20 is different from fried chicken for four. I had no intention of spending all that time frying while hosting the lunch.

But it wasn’t until we were seated and one of the guests, while biting into a juicy drumstick, asked, “You can do this ahead of time?” did I realize that I must, must post on this subject, to deepen our understanding and encourage more cooking of one of the greatest dishes in the American repertoire.

Yes, this can be done the day ahead. Follow all the steps below, though you don’t need to cook everything all the way through, just get the pieces beautifully browned, let them cool, then refrigerate them, preferably on a rack (space can be an issue so isolate fridge territory before you begin). On the day of the meal, pop them into a 300°F/149°C oven for 30 to 40 minutes (or longer, though be careful not to overcook the breasts—use your common sense on that one, as the breasts need only about 20 minutes total to reheat).

Use convection if you have it. The juices can begin to drip down and make the bottom soggy, so if you think about it, give the pieces a turn midway through cooking.

Fried chicken is a great do-ahead meal.

What follows is a previous post on the basics of fried chicken, a dish more people should do at home. This is for THE BEST fried chicken. (If you’re pressed for time, simply rolling the chicken in heavily peppered flour and slipping the pieces into hot fat is perfectly acceptable. [What a felicitous pairing of words: Hot fat. Hot fat. Never noticed how pleasing those words are when set next to each other.])

How to Fry Chicken

Originally posted: February 9, 2012

Fried chicken, done right, is one of the best things to eat on earth. It’s all about the proportions—crunchiness: juiciness: chewiness: savoriness. And this ratio hits golden proportions with the wing, lots of crunchy peppery surface area and sweet succulent meat.

The study of fried chicken began for me in 2007 during discussions, observations, and eating with chef Dave Cruz at Ad Hoc in Yountville, CA, as we worked on the book Ad Hoc at Home. While Ad Hoc’s method of flour-buttermilk-flour is not unique, their trial and error experimentation with various methods (including sous vide) proved to them and to me that this method is indeed superlative.

That was 2007, and I’ve since fried a lot of chicken. My recipe is in Ruhlman’s Twenty. I think it’s better than the one in Ad Hoc (I do a rosemary-lemon brine and season my flour differently). But talk to another chef, such as Michael Symon, and he’ll say his is better. If you want a great starting point, the exact Ad Hoc recipe is at the Amazon book link for Ad Hoc at Home above; it’s excellent. Here I’ll address the key points of great fried chicken, with a nifty slide show of pix by my wife Donna. (And I should pause briefly to thank her; as you can see, the gorgeous process shots, which fill Ruhlman’s Twenty, are really what make the book both a great teaching tool and a powerful object. Thank you, DT, for your great work!)

A couple of things to make clear at the outset, especially to those wary of deep-frying. Use a big high pot, fill it no more than one-third full, and you shouldn’t have any worries about fire (if you ever do have one, don’t freak out, simply put a lid on it; those around you who are freaking out will marvel at your calm control).

About fat, yes there’s more fat in fried chicken than in baked skinless breast, but not all that much. Deep-frying gets a bad rap. Eat a balanced diet, which, as far as I’m concerned, includes fried chicken once every few months for its spiritual and mental health benefits in addition to being fun to eat.


Key Steps to Otherworldy Fried Chicken

  • Brine it. I use a 5% brine overnight and I’m partial to rosemary as the dominant herb flavor. Brine seasons and flavors the meat and also keeps it juicy.
  • If you have time, let the chicken sit out of the brine to let the skin dehydrate further.
  • Make a flavorful flour mixture. I think an aggressive use of ground black pepper is the critical factor (I use about a tablespoon per cup). I also use a lot of paprika and cayenne.
  • Buttermilk: it’s all about the viscosity, not the buttermilk. If you don’t have buttermilk, thin yogurt or sour cream with milk. I don’t season the buttermilk, it’s a waste of the seasoning. All your seasoning should be in your flour.
  • Flour, buttermilk, flour, and into the oil. The first flour is to give the chicken a dry surface that the wet buttermilk will stick to. Flour in a separate bowl then sticks to the buttermilk.
  • I bring the oil to 375°F/190°C because the heat drops so fast when you put all the chicken in.
  • Remove to drain on a rack; don’t let it sit on a tray in its own oil.
  • For legs, thighs, and wings, I like to finish them in a 250°F/120°C oven to make sure they’re super tender and to further crisp them. This lets me serve it whenever I want, no last-minute frying if guests are invited. I brought the above wings to Mac’s house and reheated to crisp them up during the first quarter of the Super Bowl while we watched lame commercials.
  • Finishing garnish: it’s always nice. I deep-fried some rosemary and zested lemon over the chicken.

If you liked this post on how to fry chicken, check out these other links:

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


46 Wonderful responses to “Graduation Fried Chicken”

  • Durk

    I worked at a chicken wing shack in high school and while our wings weren’t breaded, they were always cooked the morning before service, divided into 4 lb buckets and refrigerated. We dropped them down again to heat and crisp up on order, then tossed in sauce. This method produced an even better wing than the fresh fry.

  • Chris Vachon

    What oil do you use to fry your chicken? I currently use canola oil but I’m wondering if it is contributing to a flavor at the end I’m not happy with. I was thinking about using lard for more flavor but I’m worried about the smoke point. What are your thoughts on using lard?

  • Kevin N

    No. Fried things should be given a moment to cool, then put directly into your mouth. If that’s not possible, serve something else.

    BTW, although I disagree on this topic, I enjoy the blag/blog. Keep up the mostly-good work 🙂

    • Stephen

      The man who writes this blog has worked with some of the best chef’s in the world. He writes for everyone, not just for snooty-foodies, like myself. I assure you that all of his work is more than “mostly-good”.

    • Apo

      That’s not a helpful response. We can’t always eat our tuna right off the boat, or pluck a coffee bean straight out of a civet’s butt and roast, grind, and press it on the rainforest floor. This is an article about how to manage realities and still have good outcomes. To be more helpful, tell us how you serve fried food to a large party while still hosting. Or tell us what your “something else” is and why it’s a good alternative.

  • allen

    French fries can be prepped ahead of time too, just crisp and season, truffle salt and parsley are my fav.
    Your daughter will appreciate your hard work and effort soon enough. She is very fortunate to have such a thoughtful father like you, blue toe and all.

      • Elke

        She will – it takes some of us daughters more time than others… I bet even after being in college a bit she’ll notice the differences between families. I assumed everyone had a dad that cooked while growing up but soon learned it wasn’t as common as I thought!

      • Tana

        This has stuck with me since I read it yesterday. I picked up “House” in the middle of the night—huge insomnia—and notice the continuity of your care and the structure of security you’ve built for your children.

        Ungrateful and self-entitled children make me alternately furious and sad. Sad for you. Hope it gets better.

        “House” is just as satisfying as the first time. I’m loving it: such a calm voice to shoo the bad dreams away. Thumbs up, sir.

  • mamiejane

    I am wondering what a non-lactose substitute might be for the buttermilk? I find the alternate milks (soy, almond rice) to be pretty flavorless and therefore worthless much of the time but maybe one would work for this purpose?

  • Arie

    What do you think of poaching the chicken first, before coating and frying?
    I have seen some cooks do that and they say that it ensures thorough and even cooking without over cooking. The frying is just for the crispiness..

  • Michael Villar

    How do you get 9 pieces out of a chicken? I count two thighs, two drums, 2 breasts (4 if you cut each breast in half), perhaps 2 wings. I only get even numbers. Am I missing something? I’m fully expecting an answer I should have known, but I’m stumped right now.

      • Michael Villar

        ok. I get that, but I’m guessing that’s not fried. I may have misunderstood that all 9 pieces were fried. The back is definitely best for stock 🙂

  • Paul D

    He’s probably talking about the keel, Michael. Not a common part here in TN, but in NH and I imagine other northern areas it is.

  • Marcos Felipe

    you said you break a chicken into 9 pieces… 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 halves of the breast… what’s the 9th piece?

    Do you make stock with the raw backbone or do you roast it first? I liked Melissa Clark’s approach… you may not get the intense flavor that develops from roasting but it’s still a great homemade stock and very practical and easy to make

  • ruhlman

    yes on the stock.

    regarding the 9 pieces, I cut the breast in half widthwise, then cut through the keel bone to separate the two fat halves.

  • Daren

    While sitting on plane last week I thought of an old post of yours where you asked for suggestions on short writing topics. At the time I thought most of the comments had covered the basics of new or interesting territory to cover but then I thought of “restaurant prep”. I am constantly reading and learning new tricks of the trade and it would be wonderful to have tips like these included ina simple little book— things that restaurants do all the time to make dinner service go smoothly— holding poached eggs in cold water and gently reheating, par cooking certain proteins, how to hold a sauce without it breaking, etc. — just a suggestion 🙂

  • MrWest

    Just yesterday I proclaimed my intentions to make fried chicken this weekend. Now this post! If I was a believer is signs, this would be one.

  • Paula

    Mark, can you substitute a gluten-free flour with success in this recipe? Would love to make it….but need it to be GF. Thanks!

  • Paula

    and of course I meant to say Michael…..too many windows open this morning (including one in my head, apparently)!

    • ruhlman

      no worries on name! and I don’t see why an AP gluten-free flour, now widely available, would be just as good. might even be crisper.

  • John

    Just wondering what sauce/gravy everyone likes with fried chicken? I like to use a little of the Lee Brothers mustard BBQ Sauce(from their book) and use it when I make AD-HOC fried chicken. I know this chicken probably doesn’t need it, but can’t help myself.

  • Susan

    There is nothing like cold fried chicken eaten at a picnic! I like it the way my Grandmother fried it. Chicken soaked in milk, drained and rolled in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika. Allowed to dry for a 20 min’s or so then rolled in the flour again and fried in a skillet using peanut oil. She turned it several times while browning it then turned down the heat, put a lid on the pan and steamed it for 10-15 minutes, then lifted the lid and cranked up the heat to crisp up the coating. It was heavenly. And, because it wasn’t deep fried to a hard crust, when it softened in the fridge, the coating still hung onto the meat with all that wonderful seasoning and was perfect as cold picnic chicken. It wasn’t greasy or shriveled or dry. I swear, fried chicken is an art and not everyone has the knack. I make it okay, but still not as good as my Grandmother.

  • Marie

    I made your fried chicken this weekend to test for upcoming casual dinner, it was awesome. I don’t even like fried food, but this was amazing and worked perfectly at 40mins for just thighs and legs. We always love dishes that can be made ahead since it does leave the host/hostess much less harried! Thanks to graduation day!

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