Southern fried chicken is the center of more controversies than perhaps any other item of food. Some people will tell you to remove the skin before battering, some swear by a double-dip in batter. There is chicken fried in oil, in butter, in shortening, in lard, and in bacon grease. Some poor birds are saturated with all sorts of foreign elements, from Worcestershire to soy sauce. Now, what makes southern fried chicken a classic is its perfect combination of raw material and technique. You want chicken that tastes like chicken, with a crust that snaps and breaks with fragility—a contrast to the tender, moist meat. No detail can be overlooked without spoiling the integrity of your bird, so be patient and careful. Scrutinize every aspect of the job, and a perfectly fried chicken will unfold itself. No new tricks or magic seasonings can improve its beautiful simplicity.
First, the bird: only a whole, fresh chicken will do. (Frozen chicken tastes bloody and turns dark at the bone when fried. If you find yourself in the possession of one, stew it or bury it.) Wash it well under running cold water and let it dry. Then, and always, cut the bird into nine pieces, that is, with a wishbone—southerners call it the “pulley-bone.” Fried chicken without a wishbone is like a life without a childhood, so resign yourself to a little butcher work.
To find this amuletic morsel, press firmly with your fingertips the meat at the neck end of the breasts. The wishbone connects these two muscles, rising from a base on each side near the wing joint to a small but protruding knob. Cut behind the knob with a sharp pointed boning knife down to the base on either side, with plenty of meat attached. (Take care to preserve the magic and avoid cracking the bones.) Disjoint the remaining carcass so you have two wings, two thighs, and two legs. In all these separations, find the actual joints and work the knife between them. Do not cut, hack, or splinter any bones or you might as well buy packaged parts. Detach the whole breast from the backbone by running through the fragile ribs and snapping it at the neck end. Then split the breasts as cleanly as possible through the septum.
Second, the pan: A heavy cast-iron skillet is the only authentic implement (an enameled cast-iron skillet is an acceptable substitute). Go to a good, old-fashioned hardware store and buy one if you don’t already have it. Gourmet and cooking stores do not generally carry them. To fry a whole chicken in one batch, buy one 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter with a lid to match. Take it home and wash it, for this one time only, in hot water, no soap. Dry it immediately and place it on a burner. Pour in ½ inch (1 cm) of vegetable oil and turn the burner to a low heat. Season the pan for 40 minutes, periodically oiling the inside walls with a natural bristle pastry brush. Discard the oil and cool the pan, wiping it well with paper towels. Never wash this pan again—over the years it will blacken with use, and, if necessary, can be scoured with a small amount of salt. Soaps, detergents, and metal pads will destroy the patina you want to nurture. Now that you have a pan and the knowhow to butcher your bird, get ready to cook.