It all started when my cousin here made a fairly innocuous request: to cook a meal that represents North Carolina.
Well, as we’ve previously established, I’m just a wannabe Southerner. I also have never attempted to make barbecue in either the eastern (vinegar-based) or western (tomato-based) North Carolinian fashion, which is the first meal option that sprung to mind. In the interest of leaving North Carolina barbecue to the professionals and maintaining my own sanity, I decided to broaden the scope of her request with a “Southern” meal. I also wanted to avoid the inevitable arguments that arise when you get too specific in identifying the origins of different foods. “Southern” seems like a safer distinction than “North Carolinian.”
When I found myself standing in a kitchen on Duke’s campus a few months ago, watching my food writing professor navigating her tongs over spattering oil and flour-drenched drumsticks, I established a genuine appreciation for an art form I originally associated with heat lamps and mushy biscuits. (Thanks, Bojangle’s.) Cooking fried chicken isn’t difficult, but there’s definitely a method to it.
For most of my childhood, I firmly believed that the crispy exterior of fried chicken was caused by something akin to corn flakes constituting the breading. We can attribute that belief to my mom’s attempts to make healthier fried chicken, which did, in fact, involve corn flakes and eschewed the stove in favor of the oven. The only fried food our kitchen ever saw was funnel cake. Once. We left it to the NC State Fair professionals after that.
One perfectly normal middle school day, I broke bread (er, fried chicken) with my friend Megan, and everything changed. Straight from her lunch box, the chicken was still miraculously crispy and required no accompaniment–it didn’t even need to be heated up. I think the foundation of our friendship was formed on that chicken. The first time I went to Megan’s house, her mom made me that chicken. I consumed my weight in that chicken. And then we stopped being friends (apparently even the best fried chicken cannot save a friendship, although it can extend one long past its expected expiration date), so my homemade fried chicken experiences waned once again.
When I finally learned how to make fried chicken from my professor, I watched very carefully for any sign of cornflakes (just in case) or other magical methods of crispiness-making. Instead, I saw a paste of buttermilk and flour transformed into a golden coat from which only joy and happiness can be derived. Oh, and chicken.
Based on the silent chewing that following the meal’s presentation, I can assume that the South was once again well-received by my German family.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken:
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds chicken (drumsticks and wings work best)
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon paprika
salt & pepper, to taste
6 cups vegetable or rapeseed oil
1) Fill a large skillet with high sides (preferably cast iron) half full with vegetable oil. Set stove to high heat, but lower if the oil begins to smoke.
2) Fill one shallow bowl with buttermilk and the other with flour, paprika, salt and pepper. Dip chicken pieces in buttermilk, then cover with flour thoroughly (the flour will act like a blanket that seals in moisture). Set aside onto a cookie sheet.
3) Place chicken pieces in skillet until the skillet is full. Brown chicken on both sides, then reduce heat. Cover the skillet and cook chicken on low heat for about 30 minutes. Then, increase heat again and fry until crispy.
4) Place chicken pieces on a plate covered in a paper towel. Keep chicken warm in the oven while frying the rest of the chicken.