There are few comfort foods Americans love more than fried chicken. This popular dish—born centuries ago from a combination of Scottish and African cooking styles—is not only staying relevant in the health-food era, but it’s also getting elevated, thanks to creative chefs and recipes.
Today, fried chicken is local, regional, and international in its culinary approaches. The most popular is still Southern, in which chicken parts are breaded or battered and then fried in a deep fryer, pan, or pressure cooker. Offshoots—fried chicken sandwiches, tenders, and nuggets that all use breast meat—can be found on the menu at numerous limited-service restaurants, from category leader Chick-fil-A to most burger-centric eateries.
The leader in traditional Southern fried chicken is KFC, which hand-breads fresh chicken parts and then pressure fries them. In recent years, the company has made an additional mark on the industry by coming up with new varieties, notably its Nashville Hot Chicken. Company officials seeking a spicy chicken dish to appeal to adventurous younger diners were aware of the eponymous Nashville style just down Interstate 65 from their Louisville, Kentucky, home office.
“Some Nashville hot chicken can be very spicy,” says Bob Das, KFC’s head chef. “We wanted to bring it down to a little spicy but with sweet notes to balance it out. We wanted to make sure we could bring it to everybody and not just appeal to a niche group.”
Backed by a strong marketing effort, Nashville hot chicken was a strong success and brought that flavor profile to the attention of most Americans.
KFC’s marketing efforts also help the overall fried chicken business, says Bonnie Riggs, foodservice industry analyst for The NPD Group, a market research firm.
“When you put a whole lot of dollars behind something, it reminds consumers they should try a product,” she says. “Chicken is an extremely popular item with all age groups, and new tastes reinforce that.”
Riggs adds that KFC’s decision to develop new fried chicken flavors reflects the numerous creative versions served by relative newcomers in the fast-casual space that developed their own twists.
Chicken is seeing extraordinary growth in U.S. quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. According to market research firm Euromonitor International, chicken sales at these units jumped 42.1 percent between 2011 and 2016. A significant portion is fried, a category that’s “flourishing,” Riggs says. The top seven chicken chains in this year’s QSR 50 predominantly serve fried chicken items.
Part of chicken’s boom is tied to price. As beef costs rose, operators looked at less-expensive poultry to develop new products. At the same time, chicken has been seen as a healthier protein—even when fried.
One fried chicken product where the price is rising is wings, the result of increased demand for a part that was once ignored. Buffalo-style wings, unlike Southern fried, are not coated with flour, batter, or breading before going into the fryer.
“We traditionally fry it until the skin is crunchy,” says Matt Friedman, chief executive and cofounder of Atlanta-based Wing Zone. The wings are then tossed in one of 14 sauces ranging from mild to very spicy and served with blue cheese or ranch dressing. “Everything is cooked to order, so guests are told it will be 15–18 minutes [before they’re served].”
Recognizing that many operators are adding wings to the menu, Wing Zone added other items, including tenders and boneless wings using breast meat. These are marinated for 24 hours, coated in cayenne-infused breading, and deep-fried. They can be tossed in any of the sauces, although the tenders typically have sauce on the side.
The chain is also testing breaded fried wings and could add char-grilled wings as well. “We believe people love wings and sometimes want them in a different format, whether for health reasons or for something unique,” Friedman says.
Unlike wings, the chicken’s tenderloin has long been considered the premier piece of the bird. And fried tenders are the building blocks at Slim Chickens.
“We formed this company on the highest-quality product and highest-quality service,” says Tom Gordon, cofounder and chief executive of the Fayetteville, Arkansas–based chain that has more than 65 units and also features wings.
The tenders arrive fresh and are buttermilk marinated. They are breaded when ordered and served with one of 10 dipping sauces in under five minutes. “We’ve gotten pretty good at that,” Gordon says.
Although the tenders—by themselves or in salads—can be grilled, the “majority choose fried,” he says. Slim Chickens also has chicken sandwiches and several years ago rolled out chicken and waffles to add a sweet-and-savory item. “It was considered a niche item, but the result’s been wonderful.”
At Super Chix, chicken sandwiches are served in a variety of builds, from the simple version with kosher pickle to a more complex Crispy Avocado stuffed with melted gouda cheese and topped with garlic aioli, lettuce, and tomato.
“Our philosophy is everyday elevated,” says Nick Ouimet, founder and chief executive. The chicken is marinated daily and once ordered is hand-breaded and cooked in refined peanut oil for four minutes. The breading is different for its Nashville Hot Chicken.
While the Dallas-based chain also offers chicken tenders, the sandwiches are the stars that merit the premium fast-casual label. Typical is the Cheesy BBQ, which has a chicken fillet tossed in a sweet barbecue sauce and is topped with cheddar and chopped onions.
“I am not trying to be uber cheffy,” Ouimet says. “I want to do really good versions of what people like.”
Chicken sandwiches have boosted the menu at many burger spots, including MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes. The Plano, Texas, company decided to add a grilled chicken sandwich, but that quickly expanded to include a fried version.
“We had chicken fingers on our kids’ menu, and it was a good product, but came pre-breaded,” says Michael Mabry, president and chief operating officer. “So we thought, since we are bringing in chicken to grill, why should we continue using a pre-breaded product? Instead we do our own breading.”
The chicken breast is breaded to order. This created extra effort in the restaurants, but the result has been worth it, Mabry says. “There is a crunch and an explosion of flavor along with the very moist white meat,” he says.
For those operators upping the bar on chicken, what sets them apart is the quality of the birds they use, taking extra steps like brining and marinating, using unique breading and marinade recipes, and creating interesting options.
When San Francisco’s Proposition Chicken opened, cofounder and chief executive Ari Feingold chose “the best you can find” poultry, selecting Mary’s Free Range organic, pasture-raised chickens that are air-cooled after slaughter to prevent the spread of bacteria. Chickens are cut into pieces and brined overnight in saltwater with rosemary, lemon, and roasted onions. Pieces are then washed, drained, dried, dredged in seasoned flour, and cooled. They are fried once and then again at a higher temperature “to get really crispy,” Feingold says.
The final product is served as a bone-in entrée with a buttermilk biscuit and slaw, a fillet sandwich with chips and slaw, or a salad. Besides fried chicken, guests can choose chicken that’s flipped (rotisserie) or fake (barbecued tofu). The carcasses are used for soup or bone broth.
“We had this concept about four years ago, and we’ve been slowly perfecting it and readying it to grow,” Feingold says, noting a second unit will open this fall. “If you have the chutzpah to feature one thing on the menu, it has to be perfect.”
The idea of double-frying chicken is a hallmark of Korean fried chicken, and that’s the style served at the five-unit Federal Donuts in Philadelphia.
The company has a two-day process for making the chicken, says chef Matt Fein. Fresh, vegetable-fed chicken is cut into pieces, cured with dry seasonings, and placed in the refrigerator for 18–24 hours. “The pieces get ingrained with those flavors, and this also tenderizes the meat, especially the breast pieces, which can dry out,” Fein says.
Chicken is battered with cornstarch, flour, and water, then fried at a relatively low temperature to set the crust and cook the chicken about three-quarters done, the chef says. After resting for 10–20 minutes, it is fried at a higher temperature for about 5–10 minutes.
The chicken is served as a three-piece meal—breast, leg, and thigh—and can have a dry seasoning like za’atar or a wet glaze such as chili garlic. Wings are served separately. Unused chicken parts and scraps go into soup for Federal Donuts’ sister luncheonette, Rooster Soup Co., which donates its profits to a charity that distributes thousands of meals every year.
Honey has been part of some fried chicken recipes, but the idea for Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken was serendipitous, say the owners and chefs, Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp.
“We got the idea through our other business, Sunday Dinner Club,” Cikowski says, noting the couple’s underground dinner series. At one of their annual fried chicken dinners, honey butter that was served with cornbread “melted on the chicken by mistake. We tasted it and decided it was delicious.”
Since opening four years ago, the restaurant’s standards have remained constant: The chickens are whole, antibiotic- and cage-free birds that are cut into pieces, brined, dipped in a mixture of buttermilk and seasoned flour, and then fried before being finished with smoked paprika and other spices.
Honey butter is served with the chicken, “and we encourage guests to spread it on like toast,” Cikowski adds. “The chicken is zesty and zippy, and the butter evens it out.”
Wings are prepared differently before being tossed with one of seven sauces. The menu also has fried chicken sandwiches—including one with kimchi—as well as fried strips and “a monthly special sandwich and special wing,” Kulp says.
Of course, fried chicken is not just a European and American technique. It’s also key in many Asian cuisines, and restaurant entities like Pei Wei Asian Diner use several variations—all employing high-heat woks—to achieve this.
“It’s a different type of frying,” says J. Sullivan, director of culinary innovation for the Scottsdale, Arizona, business. Using a wok is also healthier, since no more than a tablespoon of soybean oil is used per dish, and coating chicken with potato starch or rice flour in some dishes means less oil absorption, “so there’s not as greasy a finish,” he says.
The surface of woks at Pei Wei reach over 650 degrees, almost twice that for deep or pan frying, so the chicken sears quickly to create a smoky, crispy exterior while locking in moisture. With larger chicken pieces, there’s a two-step process, in which meat is partially cooked in a wok with oil or vegetable stock before the dish is finished in another.
Using such high heat allows the woks to burn off any ingredients or flavors of dishes prepared in them previously. “We want the natural flavor of the chicken to come through as it takes on the aromatics and flavors of the sauce,” the chef says.