Why people get so worked up about cooking good fried chicken is a real mystery to Southerners, and quite frankly I’m getting a little tired of all the helpless moaning and groaning. Nothing on earth is simpler than frying great chicken, so long, that is, as you observe a few basic cardinal rules: (1) Learn to cut up your own whole chickens, which allows not only more uniform pieces than those hacked to death in supermarkets but also the freedom to cut out the pully bone (wishbone) from the breast, if you wish; (2) use only a black, cast-iron skillet or heavy steel electric fry pan for even heat distribution, as well as high-quality vegetable shortening such as Crisco; (3) Never crowd the skillet with too many pieces of chicken or turn the pieces more than once; (4) maintain the heat of the fat exactly no matter what temperature is indicated, except when, due to the nature of the batter or a heating malfunction, the chicken is obviously burning; (5) never, ever cover fried chicken once it has drained unless you want soggy skin. For truly luscious, beautifully flavored and textured fried chicken, I first soak the raw pieces in buttermilk, add a little bacon grease to the fat, and fry the dark-meat pieces a few minutes longer than the white. And if you’re wondering if great Southern fried chicken should involve only organic birds, or can be skinless, or really needs salt, or might be undercooked at the bone, you shouldn’t be frying chicken in the first place.
Cut the chicken carefully and evenly into serving pieces, taking care to keep the skin of each piece intact, and rinse under cold running water. Place the pieces in a bowl, add enough buttermilk to just cover, and let soak about 30 minutes.
In a heavy brown paper bag, combine the flour, salt, and pepper and shake till well blended. Add the chicken pieces to the bag, shake vigorously to coat evenly, tap excess flour off each piece back into the bag, and stack the pieces on a large plate.
Place a large cast-iron skillet over moderate heat or set an electric fry pan at 375°F, fill half full of melted shortening, and add the bacon grease. When a drop of water flicked into the fat sputters, arrange the dark-meat pieces of chicken in the fat, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Fry the chicken till golden brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes, turn with tongs, and fry till golden brown, about 15 minutes longer. (Turn the chicken only once.) Drain on another brown paper bag and repeat the procedure with the white-meat pieces.
Transfer the chicken to a large serving platter. Do not cover to keep warm. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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