We are posting this on a Friday, because this is definitely a weekend recipe. There’s a lot of love and care that goes into this chicken that can’t get done in the one-hour dinner-making time frame. So do yourself a favor, get all the ingredients by Saturday, and serve this as a Sunday afternoon feast.
What’s the big deal with this chicken? Well, it’s adapted from an America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which means it is the ultimate best there is. No question. If you’ve never tried one of their dishes, you are in for a treat. The whole premise is that really good food needs a little extra love and attention, and that means a few extra steps.
For chicken, that starts with brining. A brine is simply a mix of water and salt, but it also benefits from a little sugar and some spices. The point is, if you want really juicy, moist chicken, you must MUST try brining. Actually, I’m surprised we haven’t gotten to this before, because a brine will make all of these recipes better — just give the chicken bits a good soak — anywhere from half an hour ’til overnight.
For ultimate fried chicken, we don’t use water. We use buttermilk. And lots and lots of garlic.
To start, dump 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of table salt into a big, zipper-lock plastic bag (if you’re using kosher salt, you’ll need about 1 and 1/4 cups). Next toss in 1/2 cup of white sugar and 2 tablespoons of paprika. I don’t think these measurements are of crazy importance, so in the future, feel free to eyeball it.
Next, you’re going to want to pull apart 3 heads of garlic. Yes, heads. (We’ve really been upping the garlic ante lately) Smack the individual cloves (there will be many) with the broad side of a knife or use some other heavy object to split their papery skins. Once the skins are removed from the cloves, add them (mostly whole) to the bag.
Now, for the fun part. With a meat mallet or whatever heavy object you were using up above, smack the holy crap out of the garlic cloves, essentially mashing them into the salt and other spices.
If you don’t feel like going to all this trouble for a bit of garlic flavor, a few shakes of garlic powder ought to do the trick.
Take the mess you’ve just created out of the plastic bag and dump it into a large glass or plastic dish. You can use metal, but make sure it’s nonreactive. We ended up using two glass baking dishes, because to all this gunk, you’re going to add 7 cups of buttermilk (low fat, if you can find it). Use a whisk to stir the buttermilk and spices until all the salt is dissolved.
Now then … to the chicken.
You’ll want about an equal number of drumsticks and thighs (four of each serves four). If you can find them together, they are super easy to separate, and often very, very cheap (way less than a dollar a pound). We ended up buying them separately, however. You want bone in, but do your best to get all the skin off. We used kitchen shears to cut the skin off close to the meat.
Once all (or at least most) of the skin is off, drop the chicken into the buttermilk mixture and spoon some extra liquid over the top of the chicken pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours. I know. It’s a long time. We actually only let it sit in the brine for one hour, and that seemed to work OK.
Unfortunately, even once you pull the chicken from it’s buttermilk bath, you’re still not ready to rock and roll.
First, shake off all the extra buttermilk, then place the chicken in a single layer on a large wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Put the chicken back in the refrigerator for another 2 hours. After that, you can cover the chicken in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 6 more hours. OR you can let it sit for an hour and then move right on to the breading. Or should I say … coating.
See, what the folks at America’s Test Kitchen do is test ever recipe they can get their hands on for one dish and then decide what they do and don’t like about the results. For oven-fried chicken, they found that the recipes kind of fell apart in the coating stage. Cereal coating provided good crunch, but bad taste. Crackers turned to mush. Stuffing provided no flavor. Bread crumbs taste good, but had no texture. Siiiigh.
So they decided the ultimate ingredient for coating oven fried chicken was … Melba toast. I know — who saw that one coming? We had a tricky time locating it at the store, but eventually came across some sea salt Melba snacks that we thought would sufficed.
We put almost the entire 5-ounce box into a big, sealable plastic bag and whacked them with a meat mallet until they resembled coarse sand. Then we transferred them to a shallow dish.
Before you can dunk the chicken in the crumbs, you have to give the coating something to stick to. So, in yet another shallow dish, we combined 2 eggs, 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon thyme, a few shakes of salt, a bit of ground black pepper, oregano, garlic powder and cayenne pepper. It smelled exactly like my kitchen growing up when my mom made her chicken nuggets. Anyway, mix it up with a fork.
Now, once your chicken is sufficiently dried out, add 1/4 cup of vegetable oil to the Melba toast crumbs and toss well to combine. We eventually realized that we were quickly running out of breaded goodness, so we finished up with bread crumbs. Be ye not so unwise and get two boxes of toast, why don’t ya? You might have to add a bit more oil, but not the entire 1/4 cup. See how it goes, then add a little more.
Working one piece at a time, dunk the chicken first in the egg mixture, covering well on both sides. Then set the chicken in the crumbs. Sprinkle the chicken with the crumbs and press to coat. Turn the chicken over and repeat on the other side. Gently shake off any excess and place the chicken back on the rack.
Position the oven rack in the upper-middle position. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until chicken is a deep, nutty brown and juices run clear. The rack eliminates the need to flip the pieces, so you’re welcome for that!
To complete this unfried meal, we added some American potatoes, which are basically just potatoes sliced thin and fried in butter (not oil!) over medium heat for about 20 minutes, or until crisp and brown.
Oops! A frickin’ vegetable might do you some good, too.