My relationship with KFC runs hot, passionate, and grease slicked.
That Time We Re-Created KFC's Fried Chicken
It was our once-a-month treat dinner growing up, particularly after a tough exam or strenuous swim practice. I’d request Original Recipe thighs and wings, my ideal combination of dark-meat chicken and crispy skin.
My palate for fried chicken has matured over the years—I’ve had chef-y interpretations brined with buttermilk and fried with cornmeal in leaf lard—but that very specific flavor of KFC is forever planted in my subconscious. It’s a peppery, savory batter, with indiscernible herbs and a good hit of salt. There’s no audible crunch when you bite in, but a distinct crispy-squishiness. I can eat $30 artisanal fried chicken once a week forever and it won’t compare to the nostalgic joys of KFC.
For years, attempts to decode Colonel Harland Sanders’s 11 secret herbs and spices have become sport. KFC has used this to its marketing advantage, including sending an armored truck to the vault where the handwritten recipe was purportedly kept (with TV cameras conveniently present).
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But in 2016, the Chicago Tribune traveled to Corbin, Kentucky (home of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken) and interviewed a retired teacher named Joe Ledington. He says his uncle was Harland Sanders himself. The Tribune story made waves internationally because Ledington showed the reporter a slip of paper with 11 ingredients handwritten on it. Could it be?
“That is the original 11 herbs and spices that were supposed to be so secretive,” Ledington told the Tribune. KFC would neither confirm nor deny the veracity of the recipe, only to say in a written statement that “no one’s ever been right.”
Those 11 herbs and spices on the handwritten note was reason enough for Cook’s Country to try replicating Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2018.
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With former Cook’s Country test cook Cecelia Jenkins leading the recipe development, the team ordered buckets upon buckets of KFC for research. Executive Food Editor Bryan Roof recalls it was the combination of white pepper and ginger in the breading that made him think, “Oh, this is a different fried chicken here.” While the white pepper is a prominent flavor, Bryan told me “ginger has more weight in the recipe than anything, without you knowing it’s there.” It takes a batter that may otherwise be purely savory and salty and rounds it out with a deep spiced warmth.
The recipe was published as One-Batch Fried Chicken in the June/July 2018 issue of Cook’s Country. Bryan says he considers this one of the magazine’s top five fried chicken recipes. Its greatest trait is its ease.
“It’s a good entry-level fried chicken. The brine is straightforward, and it’s not in and out of the pot a ton of times,” Bryan told me. “Once you get over the hurdle of finding a few extra ingredients, it’s very accessible. The payoff-to-effort ratio is quite high.”
Here's Bryan demonstrating the recipe from the latest season of Cook's Country:
Of all the dishes on my cooking wish list, this was the recipe I was most excited to try.
The goal wasn’t just to fry up a delicious batch of crispy chicken. My success would be measured in how closely the finished product resembled that KFC flavor I remembered.
I decided there would be no cutting of corners.
This would not involve cheap flour or bargain-basement chicken. I was getting the pricey organic stuff, because good fried chicken was worth it.
The recipe suggested brining the chicken pieces in seasoned buttermilk for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours. I opted to brine it overnight. The instructions called for chilling the battered pieces in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours. I let it sit for 2 hours to help the flour absorb. I bought peanut oil, rather than using the cheaper vegetable oil. I did everything as instructed, to a T.
One-Batch Fried ChickenWith an iconic American entrepreneur as inspiration, we created a playbook for first-time fryers and old pros alike.
This recipe has several unique traits:
- Rather than having you individually source dried thyme, basil, and oregano, the recipe calls for Italian seasoning. It’s more convenient and less expensive in the end.
- You add 6 tablespoons of buttermilk to the dry flour and then mix with your fingers to create craggy bits. You want crunchy nubs in your fried chicken? This is how you achieve it.
- You fry all the chicken pieces in one batch with the lid covered, which re-creates KFC’s method of pressure frying. This doesn’t change the flavor or texture of the end product, but the trapped steam and heat speed up the frying time.
- Deep frying with the lid covered?! Isn’t that a house fire waiting to happen? Fear not, because the recipe calls for half the oil of similar recipes: 6 cups of peanut oil instead of 12. The chicken isn't fully submerged in the oil—you have to flip the chicken halfway—but this makes the covered frying process less of a hazard. Plus, it makes cleanup easier.
The million-dollar question: How’d it turn out? See for yourself:
It was supremely delicious and supereasy to cook. The hardest part was controlling the oil temperature, but that’s just adjusting the heat as you go.
It’s unreasonable to say anything we make at home can be a dead ringer for the original KFC. The Cook’s Country batch came out far crunchier than the original, the herbaceous flavors more intense. But those hallmarks of KFC flavors were present: the pungent white pepper, the licorice-like hit of celery salt. The meat was juicy and tender from the overnight buttermilk brine.
What I was most impressed with in this recipe was how well the chicken held the next day. Even stored in the fridge overnight, the exterior coating retained that intense crunch. This would be the ideal picnic fried chicken. (Pro tip: Don't eat it straight from the fridge! For maximum juiciness and flavor, let it come to room temperature.)
But I’m saving my most controversial opinion for last. If there’s one thing missing in the recipe, it’s monosodium glutamate (MSG). It’s used in KFC’s fried chicken, and I think it’s a required component to achieve that deep savoriness at home. I’m not even going to argue with the MSG deniers, only to say that if you think MSG is bad for you, you shouldn’t be eating mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and tomatoes either. For the rest of us, a sprinkle of salt and MSG right as the chicken comes out of the hot oil should do the trick.
As I’m writing this, the world is not quite ready to have dinner parties just yet. But that day is coming, and I’m beginning to daydream about dishes to serve to friends. Along with some chopped coleslaw; warm, buttery biscuits; and mashed potatoes, this homage to KFC sounds like a winner winner.