Fried chicken is a delicious dish that has been popular in the Southern United States for generations. The crunchy, golden exterior wraps around moist, savory chicken that practically melts in your mouth. But have you ever wondered what exactly fried chicken is fried in to achieve that signature taste and texture?
The History of Fried Chicken
Fried chicken has a long and storied history in the American South. While its exact origins are unclear, historians believe fried chicken emerged in the mid-1800s when Scottish and West African cooking techniques merged. African slaves brought over traditional methods of frying chicken in palm oil, while Scots introduced seasonings and new cooking fats like lard or butter.
These cooking styles combined to create crispy, flavorful fried chicken. The dish quickly spread throughout the southern states and became a staple at picnics, church gatherings, and family dinners. Different regions put their own spin on fried chicken with local seasonings and custom cooking methods. But the basic technique of deep frying chicken in oil remained at the heart of these recipes.
Traditional Frying Fats
So what oil was originally used to fry chicken in the American South? Historic recipes called for frying chicken in lard or butter. Here is a breakdown of each:
Lard is rendered pork fat. Cooks would save the fat drippings from cooking bacon or other pork products and render out the liquid fat to use for frying. Lard was economical and commonly available on farms in the rural South. When heated, lard also remains stable at the high temperatures needed for deep frying. Traditional lard produces crunchy, golden fried chicken with rich pork flavor.
Butter is made from churned cream. Southern cooks also used butter for frying chicken, which adds a distinctive buttery taste. Butter has a lower smoke point than lard, so it can burn at high fry temperatures. But chicken fried in butter develops a delicious browned exterior.
Frying Oil Alternatives
While lard and butter remain traditional frying fats for Southern fried chicken, chefs later explored healthier oil options:
Refined vegetable oils like canola, peanut, or safflower oil are go-to fats for frying today. They have high smoke points and neutral flavors that don’t compete with chicken’s taste. Vegetable oil produces lighter, less greasy fried chicken.
Rendered chicken fat mimics flavors of poultry. It has a high smoke point and makes exceptionally crunchy fried chicken.
Hydrogenated shortening is pure fat derived from vegetable oil. It keeps fried foods tender and develops a crispy crust.
How to Choose Frying Oil
Home cooks today have an array of vegetable oils and rendered animal fats to choose from when frying chicken. Here are some considerations when selecting your frying medium:
|Lard||High smoke point, adds rich pork flavor|
|Butter||Lower smoke point, imparts buttery taste|
|Vegetable oil||Neutral flavor, healthier than animal fats|
|Chicken fat||Adds chicken flavor, makes ultra-crispy chicken|
|Shortening||Pure fat for tender, crispy fried foods|
The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil starts burning and smoking. For deep frying chicken, you need an oil with a smoke point around 350-375°F. Oils like lard, peanut oil, and shortening can withstand these high temps.
The flavor of your frying oil comes through in the fried chicken. Lard and butter add robust flavor. Cleaner oils like canola or vegetable oil let the chicken flavor shine.
Animal-based fats like lard and butter contain more saturated fat than vegetable oils. Oils high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats like peanut or olive oil are considered healthier.
How to Fry Chicken
Once you’ve chosen your frying oil, here are some tips for cooking up the perfect batch of fried chicken:
1. Use a Deep Pot or Dutch Oven
Fill your heavy, high-sided pot with around 3-4 inches of oil. This allows chicken to submerge and fry evenly. Use a thermometer to bring oil to 350°F before adding chicken.
2. Season Chicken and Coat with Dry Ingredients
Soak chicken pieces in buttermilk or eggs, then dredge in a flour mixture. Season flour with salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and other spices.
3. Fry Chicken in Batches
Fry chicken in small batches to prevent overcrowding. Overcrowded oil will lower the temperature and make chicken greasy. Fry for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.
4. Drain Fried Chicken on a Wire Rack
Let fried chicken drain on a wire rack over a baking sheet. This removes excess oil for crisper chicken.
5. Maintain Oil Temperature
Check oil temp between batches and reheat as needed. Consistent oil temp ensures evenly cooked chicken.
Here are a few final tips for achieving the perfect fried chicken:
- Use pure, fresh oil – Old, dirty oil will make chicken greasy.
- Choose boneless chicken – Bone-in chicken takes longer to cook and risks underdone meat.
- Dry chicken thoroughly – Moisture causes splattering when chicken enters hot oil.
- Fry in small batches – Do not overcrowd the pan.
- Allow oil to reheat between batches – This maintains optimal frying temperature.
While fried chicken is simple to make, the choice of frying oil impacts flavor and texture. Traditional Southern-style chicken calls for lard or butter for full, rich taste. For a lighter option, vegetable or peanut oils produce excellent crunch and allow chicken flavor to take the forefront. With a well-heated pot of oil and properly breaded chicken, you can craft mouthwatering fried chicken to rival the Southern classics.