While the origins of specific dishes are usually at least a little murky, every recipe for sweet tea–brined fried chicken owes a debt to Chef John Fleer, who is said to have created the dish while he was at Blackberry Farm, the famed resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Our recipe, which is inspired by Fleer’s, is no exception. We reached out to Chef Fleer—whom Garden & Gun called “arguably the most influential yet wildly under celebrated Southern chef of his generation”—to learn more about the origins of the recipe, its crucial elements, and why we ought to keep making that most American of foods (fried chicken) at home.
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A few prominent sources, Dean Neff and John T. Edge among them, attribute the dish to you while you were at Blackberry Farm. Can you share the origin story?
The idea was generated from me thinking about different ingredients for brines. Many classic recipes for brine include wine or spirits as an acidic component. Naturally, as a native Southerner, my mind started to play with the idea of a brine using “the wine of the South,” sweet tea.
I have used it in several applications, including pork racks and lamb loins. The application that really stuck was with the fried chicken.
The specific goals of that application were driven by including the chicken in one of our “gourmet picnics” that we did every day at Blackberry Farm. The brine helps it retain moisture. Obviously the sweet tea provides a unique flavor. Also, the crust, made with masa, was designed to help maintain the crispness of the fried chicken over time in a picnic box. We have served it at both Canyon Kitchen (Sapphire, N.C.) and at Rhubarb (Asheville, N.C.), as part of our Sunday supper, since I left Blackberry.
As an aside, about 10 years ago, I had a friend from Nashville text me a picture from Publix of a package of frozen “sweet tea–brined chicken.” That kind of made me pause in putting it on menus. But I’ve now embraced the idea that the concept doesn’t have to belong only to me.
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The idea of using sweet tea as a brine for fried chicken makes perfect sense because you’re combining two iconic Southern foods. But from a culinary perspective, what is it about strong brewed sweet tea (with lemon) that makes an effective brine for fried chicken?
In a brine, it’s the salt that does the important work. I think the lemon (its acid) and the gentle tannins from the tea do help raise the flavor profile, but I don’t think they have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the brine. The salt helps retain moisture and provide internal seasoning.
The recipe in The Blackberry Farm Cookbook: Four Seasons of Great Food and the Good Life (2009) heavily influenced my recipe development. It calls for chicken leg quarters, instead of the more typical cut-up whole chicken. Was it a deliberate choice to use only dark meat?
It’s a deliberate choice. For one thing, it’s my preference when I eat fried chicken. Also, as it was designed to be eaten by hand from a picnic box, I think leg quarters are easier to eat.
In his book, Fried Chicken: An American Story (2004), John T. Edge writes about a sweet tea–brined fried chicken recipe: “John Fleer is a thinking man’s chef . . . One of the best ideas to spring from his mind is this brined chicken, which manages to pay tribute to the traditional South of days past and the multicultural South still on the horizon.” What do you think he meant?
Only John T. knows exactly what he was thinking, but I do believe that in this recipe there is a blend of holding on to fried chicken’s place in our culinary history while at the same time maybe broadening its base by applying a different technique to its preparation. A more dramatic example of that might be the introduction of the Korean-style fried chicken technique that has proliferated in the last couple of decades in the United States. That speaks more directly to the statement about the multicultural South than sweet-tea brine, but both modify and therefore strengthen the idea of “fried chicken” by not simply preserving traditional buttermilk‑dredged fried chicken in amber.
Do you have any tips for success for home cooks making sweet tea–brined fried chicken in their kitchens?
The ingredients are simple. We used standard orange pekoe tea (like Lipton). I think the key thing that people can play with and adapt is how long the chicken spends in the brine . . . the flavor intensity can be adjusted.
Sweet Tea–Brined Fried Chicken ThighsWe interview the creator of the dish to find out why you should be frying this chicken at home.
What about advice for making fried chicken in general? Lots of people think frying at home is either too scary or messy to be worth it.
Embrace the mess and conquer your fear. This is an iconic American food. Every time you fry chicken you are solidifying fried chicken’s place in the American culinary vernacular. That’s an important responsibility.
Finally, what are you working on these days? Is Rhubarb the best spot for people to try your food?