I really like fried chicken. I really don't like deep frying. How to reconcile the two? A recipe for oven-fried chicken by Amanda Hesser caught my eye a few months ago, and I must have read her recipe 5 or 6 times, trying to figure out how baking chicken could possibly result in the crispy skin and juicy flesh of my Alabama dreams. But that's the thing about trying new recipes -- you never know.
The recipe is simple, but some advance planning is required. Hesser directs you to buy "good" chicken thighs and to soak them in a salt water solution for 8 hours, to season and tighten the flesh. I did have a good chicken on hand, but it was a whole chicken. After cutting up my chicken, I ended up brining 2 whole legs and 2 wings, while the breasts and the back both went straight into the freezer.
After 8 hours in the brine, you pat the chicken dry and dredge it in a flour mixture. Amanda Hesser's recipe calls for flour, salt and pepper, which I supplemented with lemon zest, chopped rosemary and cayenne pepper. After a vigorous shake, you pop the chicken in a buttered roasting pan, skin side down, and set it in the oven. Easy, right? Then I made Mark a Boulevardier, stole a few sips, and put on some music. At this point, I felt glad that I wasn't attempting real fried chicken.
However, after an hour, I inspected my chicken to see that the skin wasn't crispy, or chestnut brown, or anything that she said it was supposed to be. I was getting hungry, so I decided it was shortcut time: the chicken got a nice sprinkling of panko flakes and a drizzling with some of the buttery chicken juices on the bottom of the pan. 20 minutes later, it looked like this:
It wasn't quite fried chicken, the recipe took some significant hacking, and the lemon zest/rosemary/cayenne I added to the flour imparted no perceptible flavor. However -- it was much more low-fuss than real fried chicken and it resulted in deeply flavored flesh and crisp chicken skin. I've made it again and again, without brining, without panko, with other seasonings. It turns out different and good each time, but this is the basic technique for the chicken as pictured.
Oven fried chicken legs
adapted from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
2 chicken legs (drumstick + thigh), or 4 thighs, or 4 legs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or olive oil
1/3 cup all purpose flour
panko flakes, about 1/4 cup
6-8 hours before cooking, combine 1 tablespoon of salt and about 1/2 cup of warm water in a large container. Stir to dissolve the salt and add the chicken to the bowl. Cover with very cold water and chill in the refrigerator until ready to cook.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the chicken from the water and pat dry with paper towels. Add the butter to a roasting pan large enough to fit the chicken in one layer and place the pan in the oven to heat. Add the flour, remaining teaspoon of salt and a generous grinding of black pepper to a bag (freezer bag or paper sack) and give it a good shake. Add the chicken pieces and shake until thoroughly coated. As you lift them out of the bag, shake them well so the coating isn't gummy or clumpy.
Lay the chicken pieces in the roasting pan, skin side up (this is a departure from her recipe, but I don't want the skin to stick), and oven-fry for 40 minutes. The skin should be crisp and glistening, though not entirely brown. Sprinkle panko flakes on the skin and spoon some of the drippings from the bottom of the pan over the entire leg, including the portion covered by panko flakes. Continue baking another 20-40 minutes, until the chicken is done and juices run clear. Just before serving, grind fresh pepper over top and sprinkle lightly with sea salt.