Here in the Great Smoky Mountains, we appreciate the legacy of the simplest and most powerful southern recipe – fried chicken. In our Old Mill Restaurant we fry up more than 100 pounds of chicken each day, and it, by far, is the most requested menu item.
Why? Our chicken is crisp on the outside, and it’s moist inside. Which for the home cooks can be a bit of a struggle. One of the earliest recipes for fried chicken was in the 1828 cookbook called the Virginia House-Wife, written by Mary Randolph. Her instructions were clear – find fresh chicken, cut it up, soak in salted water, toss with flour and seasonings, and pan-fry.
“Chicken has to be crispy, but it can’t be overcooked,” according to Randy, who has been cooking all his life in the East Tennessee area. “I like chicken that’s really moist and tender. So we just use fresh chicken, bread it with the Mill breader, add some garlic and seasoning of our own, and fry it.”
But without a pressure cooker/fryer at home, Randy realizes the home cook cannot duplicate exactly the famous Old Mill chicken. You just have to come here to enjoy it, he says. The closest you can get to it is to pan-fry it to golden and then finish cooking it in the oven. When he is at home in his kitchen, Randy fries boneless chicken pieces, and after browning them in hot oil, he covers them lightly with foil and places in a 300-degree oven for about 30 minutes to cook through.
“Cooking is a lot of fun,” he says. “I learn something new every day.”
Sounds simple enough. Fried chicken has simple ingredients – just chicken, seasoning, flour, and oil for frying. But therein lies the dilemma – how to do it best. Because the simplest recipes are often the most difficult.
First, the chicken. The best is whole and you cut it up yourself. Buy as small a chicken as possible, under three pounds if you can find it at your supermarket. And to cut up the chicken, it goes something like this: With a sharp boning knife and a pair of poultry or kitchen shears, remove the legs, thighs, and wings. To separate the breasts, press down on the chicken, and cut through the cartilage that connects the two chicken breasts. You will have eight pieces of chicken for frying. Or, you can purchase chicken pieces – thighs, legs, wings, breasts – separately and fry what you like.
Some people soak chicken first in buttermilk, but purists like Mary Randolph recommended just salted cold water. Then toss in seasoned flour. The easiest way to do this is to place 2 cups of flour in a brown paper sack, add 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then shake and fry. Or, use the Old Mill’s Chicken Breading, which makes frying even easier!