Like most traditionally popular dishes, there is no one right way to make, cook, and serve them. But I'm sure we've all experienced that there are also often too many ways to get a dish wrong. Which, in my opinion, is most egregious when it comes to comfort foods, which these days can suffer from being overthought by cooks and chefs far more interested in showing how cleverly creative they are, instead of truly honoring the ingredients of food they're trying to cook.
That overthinking has addled many, myself included. So every once in a while, I like to get myself back to being rooted into cooking simple dishes with the care and respect they deserve.
Fried chicken is one of those dishes that can go wrong even when you try to keep it simple. All chicken parts need to cook through, but some parts can over cook and dry out. Different pieces have different white-to-dark meat rations, and varying fat contents. And wings to breast and all parts in between varying in size, timing and temperature are key to frying the wings, drumsticks, thighs, and breast evenly.
And although I don't mind a flour-dredged or double-dredged fried bird—when executed expertly—often that crispy "skin" that is the cherry on top of the cake of fried chicken, is not the skin at all, but fried flour. Often as well that flour, by its default nature very bland, is heavily spiced and takes on the flavor of the oil it's fried in. The common result is an exterior so "bready" and overly seasoned that one can't taste at all the actual chicken (or skin) itself.
Which is why I like to switch it up with what I call "naked" fried chicken—simply brined (I so wish I could give you that recipe, wink!), patted dry, not dredged in flour at all, and just conservatively seasoned before going skin-side down first into a cast iron skillet with one less than inch of hot oil. Patiently, I let the food gods work their magic as I get both sides of each chicken thigh—thighs are the best part of the chicken—a sizzling golden brown. They rest on paper towels once out and await the plating of my side dish before joining it.
The chicken skin, in this version crispy as "cracklin'", crumbles from the light pressure of my fingers then teeth, giving way to juicy chicken meat, layered with the flavors from the light and dark sections of the thigh, as well as enhanced by the rendered fat from the near the bone as well as the chicken skin itself.
On this particular occasion I saved my "clever creativity" for a salad of grilled corn, watermelon, and jalapeños, tossed in little oil and vinegar with salt, cracked pepper, lemon juice, and a pinch of sugar. It encompasses my universal "5S" flavor principle — salty, savory, sweet, spicy, smoky — in a mouthful that's light and summer-y, and a pleasant palate cleaner for the next bite of chicken.
I'm sure I'll have a flour-fried chicken in the near future that will satisfy me greatly. I might have to suffer through some chicken that tastes like fried flour, but all always have this tasty "naked" version to go back to if necessary. Or even not.