Fried chicken may have roots reaching deep within the culture of the American South, but the dish’s versatility has made it an integral part of the entire nation’s restaurant landscape over the years.
Traditional, homestyle fried chicken—bone-in pieces that are marinated, battered, and fried—remains very popular, but the food has morphed over the years into premium menu items that range from breast fillets to non-battered, fiery wings.
“Fried chicken is really a great base to work with,” says Elizabeth Friend, senior analyst with Euromonitor International, a market research firm. “It’s salty, crunchy, indulgent, but still a protein that, while not exactly healthful, people feel is a better way to go than beef.”
The bird is relatively inexpensive compared with beef, and “the whole comfort food trend has kind of dominated everything in limited service,” she adds. Additionally, chicken’s flavor is relatively mild, so seasoning gives operators an opportunity to be creative with a single product.
A consumer study for the National Chicken Council discovered more Americans ate chicken at a foodservice location—and more often—during a two-week period in 2014 than in 2012. And fried chicken can be found in one form or another on the menus of about 40 percent of America’s quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, according to statistics from market research firm Datassential. The most typical uses are as stand-alone items or in sandwiches and salads.
Like barbecue and pizza, the best fried chicken is very much a personal matter.
“Fried chicken is one of those things you grow up with,” says Brannon Soileau, a chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus. “When you think of comfort food, you go back to what grandma did and try to find that again.”
The spices, herbs, and other ingredients in the breading and in the dry rub or wet marinade are key to great fried chicken, he says. So is the length of marinating, the amount of batter, type of oil, and frying method.
“The vehicle—the chicken—is the same, but it’s all about the richness and the flavor enhancement,” Soileau says. “It’s a delicate balance. If you overdo the flavor, you steal from the chicken. If you underdo it, you have people reaching for the salt and pepper.”
Dry rubs and marinades such as buttermilk or oil-based sauces break down the protein over time, making the meat tender. The chicken is then dredged in flour mixed with herbs, spices, and other ingredients to create a coating that becomes a crust when fried.
“The coating actually protects the chicken,” Soileau says. “It helps cushion it. When you’re dipping it in 350-degree fat, it’s nice to have something to protect the inside.”
While the South is birthplace to most fried chicken varieties, there’s one exception: hot wings, created at Buffalo, New York’s Anchor Bar. The original non-breaded wings were deep fried, covered in cayenne pepper sauce, and served with a Blue cheese dip and celery. A later offshoot, the boneless wing, is made from breaded chunks of breast meat.
Probably the best-known bone-in fried chicken is the one from KFC, which has used the same recipe of 11 herbs and spices for 75 years, when the Louisville, Kentucky–based company was founded as Kentucky Fried Chicken. The unique flavor is not just from the herbs and spices but in the way they are blended. The meat is fried in a pressure cooker, not a deep fryer.
The chicken arrives fresh at each store already cut into its white meat (breasts and wings) and dark meat (thighs and legs) parts. After being dipped into water and then having the liquid shaken off, the pieces go into a tub filled with the coating of flour, milk powder, eggs, and the secret herbs and spices, and then are manipulated by hand through the mixture seven times before frying.
The company’s chicken tenders—also known as strips, fingers, or fillets made from the breast tenderloins—receive two coatings. Not only does that make the coating crispier, but also, since the tenders don’t have bones that provide moisture, they may dry out without the extra coating.
Just as KFC dropped chicken from its name, so did Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, which was formerly Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. But Popeyes’ bone-in, Bonafide-brand bird is still the word—and the flagship item—at the Atlanta-based chain.
“At Popeyes, it’s all about how we think about chicken,” says Amy Alarcon, vice president of culinary innovation. A dry rub with Louisiana-inspired seasoning is applied to the fresh chicken, which marinates for 12–72 hours and is then hand-breaded.
Increasingly, however, the company has looked to boneless chicken, particularly strips, as a platform for premium innovation, using various flavors and shapes in limited-time offers. Alarcon says the idea came to her as she was touring a chicken processing plant a few years ago.
“I thought, if you can cut the chicken into nuggets, why not other shapes?” she says. It has led to fried LTOs such as Wicked Chicken, which has a curly, twisty shape, and Rip’n Chick’n, which has a chicken breast cut partway into strips. Both came with a dipping sauce.
Different flavors are also important, like the Chicken Waffle Tenders, Popeyes’ version of Southern favorite chicken and waffles, which uses tenders that are battered in a waffle coating and deep fried. While “Louisiana” needs to be part of every Popeyes flavor or cooking technique, the company can go in various creative directions because chicken allows a wide palette, Alarcon says.
The growth of better-burger restaurants in the limited-service restaurant universe is being mirrored by better-chicken eateries, which often feature premium strips and wings. Zaxby’s has been a fast-casual chicken restaurant since the early 1990s, before the term fast casual was even adopted. At the time, quick-service chicken was mostly the bone-in variety, and chicken wings and skinless chicken fingers were largely bar foods.
“We started with chicken fingers and wings and grew into others,” including sandwiches, salads, and boneless wings, says Robert Baxley, chief operating officer of the Athens, Georgia–based company. “All of that was very deliberate to create a new dining experience.”
Most of Zaxby’s fried items are marinated using a proprietary recipe for at least 24 hours before being placed immediately into seasoned flour. “We only have one pass through the breading, so it is extremely light,” he says.
The bone-in wings originally used the same marinade, but that was abandoned because adding moisture without coating creates issues while frying. However, the company is now testing a new way to marinate wings that involves much less dampness.
Zaxby’s chicken tenders are served with one of nine sauces, including the original Buffalo flavor and ranging from mild Wimpy to the very hot Insane. The wings and boneless wings are covered in the sauces, and the wings come with celery and ranch dressing.
Slim Chickens gives a Mississippi Delta twist to its menu, which consists largely of items using chicken tenders or wings. The Fayetteville, Arkansas–based fast-casual chain employs a proprietary blend to lightly batter its fresh chicken, which is always cooked to order. Diners can choose to have their tenders shaken in one of the 15 dipping sauces.
“That makes it unique, and guests love it,” says Sam Rothschild, chief operating officer. “And we’ll still give you a dipping sauce on the side.”
Dishes typically take about six minutes to prepare, but most customers—even those in the drive-thru lanes—understand it takes longer to make hot, fresh food, he says. Exterior signs reinforce that message.
One unique dish at the playfully named Slim Chickens is its Chicken & Waffles, which has three tenders atop a waffle with butter and syrup. “We worked on that several months and learned how to execute it on a high level,” Rothschild says. “The response has exceeded our expectations.” Some customers have even ordered their tenders shaken in hot sauce for the Chicken & Waffles, with the syrup on top, he adds, combining sweet and savory with heat.
Wings are the star attraction at restaurants like Buffalo Wings & Rings.
“A lot of people do wings different ways,” says executive chef Elliot Jablonsky, “but we do it in the classic tradition.” The wing is fried without breading, allowing the skin to keep in the juices while creating a crispy exterior.
The wings at the Cincinnati, Ohio–based company’s units are typically par-cooked and later finished. “Instead of six or seven minutes, you can serve them in two or three minutes,” the chef says. “It’s not only faster, but it yields a crispier skin when you fry it again.”
The chain offers 13 wings sauces, five heat levels, and either Blue cheese or ranch dips with celery to cool the tongue. The most popular sauces are the classic Buffalo and the Roasted Garlic, while others include Lemon Pepper and a couple of barbecue options.
“Our sauces are proprietary, and creating them is a painstaking process,” Jablonsky says. “How you have heat at the beginning and at the end, the relationship between butter and hot sauce, the cooking method—[it] all makes a difference.”
Few chicken-centric restaurants feature burgers on the menu, but plenty of burger places have premium chicken items on the menu. Wendy’s lightly breaded chicken, made with whole-muscle chicken breast, has been important to the company as a springboard for menu developments.
“I would say it’s been one of our most fun platforms,” says Shelly Thobe, director of culinary product innovation at the Dublin, Ohio–based company. “It’s just a great palette to work with.” Wendy’s menus regular homestyle or spicy breaded chicken, as well as grilled chicken.
Among the chicken LTO creations have been the Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta with roasted tomato aioli and sliced Asiago cheese, and the Pretzel Club Chicken sandwich, featuring Muenster cheese, Cheddar cheese sauce, and honey mustard on a pretzel roll. Since chicken has “kind of a blank flavor, you have to make it inherently cravable,” Thobe says. That’s why Wendy’s marinates its chicken before breading it with additional herbs and spices. “We make sure we infuse flavor everywhere.” In addition to sandwiches and wraps, the chicken breast is also part of or an add-on to salads.
Another burger chain, Checkers Drive-In, is testing a premium chicken sandwich to add to its menu, which already includes regular and spicy chicken sandwiches. The test began as a premium chicken strip using a new marinade and high-quality battering system. While it was a great strip, says Ryan Joy, senior director of research and development, it was not significantly different from those offered elsewhere.
“Everybody has them, everybody loves them, but unless they’re really different, they’re not worth doing,” he says. Instead, the Tampa, Florida–based company, which also owns Rally’s, has decided to put the tenders on a sandwich, and that seems to be having a more positive outlook.
Joy expects to come up with 30–40 ideas for the tenders sandwich, which will then go through consumer testing. The chicken tenders will be similar to those initially introduced, and “most of the flavor with these comes from the marinade,” he says.
The fact that Checkers and Rally’s customers are looking for new, creative items from the company makes it easier to develop these kind of products. “They trust us to do that, and that makes my job a little easier,” he adds.