How to Make the Best Southern Fried Chicken
Here’s the traditional Southern fried chicken recipe of your dreams, extra crispy outside, juicy inside, and seasoned just right. Our experts share their top tips for creating this favorite soul food, from the buttermilk marinade to the crispiest coating.
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Above: The Best Southern Fried Chicken. Article, recipe, and photographs by Marrekus and Krysten Wilkes of Cooks with Soul
Buttermilk Southern fried chicken is a traditional soul food dish that our entire family enjoys. It’s crispy and golden on the outside, juicy on the inside, and seasoned to perfection. When I was a kid my grandmother would make fried chicken, usually for Sunday dinner, and it quickly became my favorite meal. Over the years I began to experiment with different ways to make fried chicken and finally came up with a recipe that I could put my spin on. Needless to say the family loved it, and it is now a staple meal that we make a few times each month.
There are different ways around the world to make delicious fried chicken, from Korean fried chicken to classic Southern. Our version skips the saltwater brine that some Southern recipes call for. Instead, we marinate the chicken in buttermilk and hot sauce. For the dredge, we use a mixture of flour and cornstarch (one of the secrets to a crispy coating) along with a variety of seasonings. Using our combination of ingredients and tips, you are on the fast track to having incredibly juicy and crispy chicken. Let us show you how we conjure up the best fried chicken!
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Pick the right chicken
We have a large family, and everyone prefers different pieces of meat. Marrekus, for example, prefers chicken thighs and chicken wings, Krysten prefers chicken breast, and our kids love the drumstick pieces. For that reason, we always buy a whole chicken and cut it up ourselves. This is also usually more cost-effective than buying pre-cut chicken from the store.
While our recipe uses a whole cut-up chicken, you can also pick your favorite parts such as the thigh or breast only. I prefer bone-in chicken because it stays juicier than boneless chicken, but it's really a personal preference. Whatever you go with, just make sure to pay attention to the cook time because dark meat takes a little bit longer to cook than white meat.
Ingredients for Southern fried chicken
Pair the chicken with a few key ingredients and you will have a fried chicken recipe that’s packed with flavor and has the perfect juicy texture.
Buttermilk. Buttermilk is the key ingredient in this recipe, because it adds a nice tangy flavor that complements the dry spices, and it also tenderizes the meat. Full-fat (whole-milk) buttermilk can be found throughout the South and is preferred, but when I’ve been unable to find it, I've found that low-fat cultured still works for this recipe.
Hot sauce. I like to use Crystal hot sauce, which is not a super spicy sauce. It adds a tang to the chicken along with the buttermilk.
All-purpose flour and cornstarch. The flour and cornstarch are the base for your dredge, and cornstarch is the secret ingredient for creating crispy Southern fried chicken.
Kosher salt, onion powder, and garlic powder. These are essential seasonings in our kitchen not only for fried chicken but for lots of our favorite recipes.
Sazón seasoning. Sazón is a blend that you might know from Puerto Rican cooking, but it works great here, too. I like to use the Goya brand sazón with saffron. If you can't find that blend, any of the sazón blends will work. If there is no sazón in your area, you can substitute extra salt or even a little chicken bouillon.
Chili powder. I use regular chili powder (a blend of spices), the kind you would use to make a pot of chili.
Marinate chicken in buttermilk and hot sauce
Whenever we make fried chicken, we always marinate the chicken first in buttermilk and hot sauce, using a large bowl. This process is similar to a brine in that it tenderizes the meat. It’s best to let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours. This is the key to having juicy, moist chicken. Also, when it comes time to dredge the chicken pieces, the buttermilk allows the flour mixture to stick on much better. If you skip the marinating step, your fried chicken may come out dry or tough. We always like to start our chicken marinating the night before we cook.
Prepare your fryer
Once the chicken has marinated in the buttermilk mixture for at least 3 hours, it’s time to set up your deep fryer. Fill a Dutch oven with canola oil about 2 inches deep. (Some people use a cast-iron skillet, but it would need to be a really deep one.) You can also use another vegetable oil or peanut oil if you prefer. Heat the oil to 340°F, using a deep-frying thermometer to verify the temperature. While some fried chicken recipes recommend an oil temperature of 350°F, I like to fry my chicken at a lower temp so that the outside doesn't burn before the right internal temp is reached.
Dredge chicken in flour and cornstarch
While the oil is heating up, you can set up the dredging station for your chicken. First set a wire rack on top of a baking pan. Then grab a large brown paper bag (that's what my grandmother used to do); pour in flour, cornstarch, salt, granulated garlic, granulated onion, chili powder, and sazón; and toss it around to combine. If you don’t have a brown paper bag you can always use a medium sized mixing bowl — just make sure to whisk the flour mixture so that it’s well blended.
Transfer chicken pieces, one at a time, from the bowl of buttermilk to the seasoned flour mixture. Be sure to let any excess buttermilk drip off before placing the chicken in the flour. Toss the chicken around in the mixture, coating each piece completely. You can also press the chicken into the flour, which helps to develop a nice crunchy crust. Shake off any excess and set the coated chicken pieces on the wire rack.
Repeat these steps with the remaining chicken and then let the chicken rest on the rack for a few minutes, until the flour coating starts to become pasty. This helps the breading stick to the chicken and keeps the dredge from falling off in the oil and causing the oil to burn. Letting the coating get pasty also makes the skin crispier.
Deep fry your chicken
Now that your oil is heated up and all your chicken pieces are thoroughly coated in the flour mixture, it’s time to start frying. Carefully place 2 or 3 pieces of chicken in the hot oil. One safe way to do this is by using tongs, placing only one piece at a time, and laying it in away from you to keep the oil from splashing. Fry chicken in batches and avoid overcrowding. Every few minutes, turn the chicken pieces over so that they will cook evenly. It will take 8 to 10 minutes cooking time for the white meat, and 12 to 14 minutes for the dark meat.
Once the chicken is golden brown, insert an instant-read thermometer and check the temperature. When the chicken reaches an internal temperature of at least 165°F in the thickest part of the meat, use tongs or a large, slotted spoon to remove the chicken pieces, and transfer them to a clean wire rack set over a baking sheet. Repeat these steps until all the chicken pieces are fried. As you are frying chicken, you can set your cooked pieces in an oven heated to your lowest temperature setting so that it will stay warm until serving.
How do you make crispy Southern fried chicken?
When people talk about fried chicken, the crispy skin is the first thing that comes up. Our recipe gives you the keys to creating the perfect golden brown and crispy skin that everyone loves. Here are our tips.
1. Use cornstarch in the dredging mixture to create a nice crispy crust.
2. When you coat the chicken in the flour mixture after marinating it in buttermilk, instead of shaking the chicken, turn it in the mixture and pack it on, because that helps develop your crust.
3. Let the coating stand before frying until it gets pasty to make the skin crispier.
4. When you take the chicken out of the oil after frying, drain it on a rack set in a baking sheet rather than on a paper towel so the chicken stays crispy.
Get the recipe
Our Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken is the epitome of soul food. It’s a dish we love to indulge in on occasion and serve with delicious sides like macaroni and cheese and collard greens. Let’s be honest, homemade fried chicken is always superior to what you’ll get at a national food chain. Especially because it’s served fresh! Be sure to add this recipe to your repertoire and enjoy it at your next Sunday dinner.
And while we're talking fried chicken...
For starters you're going to need some side dishes to go with your fried chicken. Keep exploring all the ways you can enjoy fried chicken, as well as what to do with your leftover buttermilk.