I’ve been craving fried chicken for weeks. The problem is, I know that a proper fried chicken involves buttermilk, and I didn’t know where to get buttermilk in Paris.
Sure, I could have used the usual trick of mixing a spoonful of vinegar into milk, but that’s really just an acidity adjustment. I wanted the actual flavor of cultured buttermilk. I was bemoaning my fried chicken-less state to a friend when she mentioned that some crepe places sell a drink called lait ribot, which tastes a lot like buttermilk.
I had known about lait ribot and seen it on some menus, and I knew that it was cultured, soured milk, but I don’t know why I didn’t connect it to what Americans call buttermilk. Well suffice it to say I immediately went to my fromagerie and asked if they carried lait ribot, to which the nice lady handed me a liter with a “… vous connaissez lait ribot?” I guess it’s an acquired taste here, too.
The problem with fried chicken is that usually, I want it now, but good fried chicken takes a day or so of prep. You let it sit in an herby, oniony brine that saturates the chicken, flavoring it all the way through and ensuring that the cooked meat will be perfectly seasoned and juicy.
Ruhlman’s brine is so simple and so effective — I’ve never had a more tender piece of chicken in my life, and it took so little effort that I’m tempted to use it on every piece of poultry I bring home. The breading here is exactly what you want from fried chicken, with baking powder that reacts with the buttermilk to create that fluffy, crackly lift and paprika and cayenne for a low buzz of spice. And of course, it’s excellent cold as well as hot out of the fryer.
Ruhlman’s Brined Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman via Food52.
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, smashed
3 tablespoons salt
4-5 sprigs rosemary
4 1/2 cups water, divided
8 chicken drumsticks
8 chicken thighs
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 large onion, cut into thick rings
2 cups buttermilk
canola or other high-heat oil for frying
In a medium saucepan, combine the oil, shallots, and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat for about a minute, then add the salt and rosemary. Lower the heat to medium and cook for another 3-4 minutes until the shallots have cooked down and look translucent. Add about half the water and stir until all of the salt has dissolved, then add the rest of the water and place in the refrigerator until cool.
Place the chicken drumsticks and thighs in a large zip-top bag in a large tupperware and pour the brine over. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible, seal it closed, and place it in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours, agitating the bag occasionally to redistribute the brine.
Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse it under cold running water, pat dry, and set it on paper towels.
Mix the flour, pepper, paprika, salt, cayenne, and baking powder in a large bowl. Pour the buttermilk into a separate large bowl.
Heat a little less than 1 inch of oil in a skillet or other heavy pan to 350°F (180°C) over a low flame. If you do not have a deep frying thermometer, a 1 inch cube of bread dropped into the hot oil should bubble and turn medium brown in 60 seconds at the correct temperature.
While the oil is heating, bread the chicken. Lightly dredge a piece of chicken in the flour mixture and shake to remove any loose flour. Dip the same piece of chicken in the buttermilk, then again in the flour, ensuring that every bit of the skin is covered. Place the pieces of breaded chicken on a clean baking sheet until you’re ready to fry. Repeat this same procedure with the onion rings.
To fry, add as many chicken pieces to the oil as you can without crowding the pan. Cook for about 6 minutes, until the underside of the chicken is a crisp golden brown, then flip the chicken using tongs and cook for another 6 minutes. Remove to a clean rack or a paper-towel lined baking sheet and continue with the rest of the chicken and the onion rings.
If desired, you can keep the chicken hot in a 250°F (120°C) oven for up to 30 minutes without them drying out. This is a good plan if you’re cooking for a crowd.
Serve hot with something crisp and fresh like a salad or coleslaw, some kind of sauce like gravy or barbecue sauce, and something cold like an iced tea or a beer.