New classic: fried chicken, oven baked

In this take on classic fried chicken, buttermilk-soaked chicken thighs are heavily seasoned, fried briefly and finished in the oven.

Blue Kitchen
Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, this recipe for buttermilk fried chicken is started on the stove top and finished in the oven.

The term “classic” can be freighted with wildly varying baggage, especially when attached to something as iconic as fried chicken. Largely seen as a Southern dish, it arrived there by way of Scotland. Many Scottish immigrants settled in the South, bringing the deep fried dish with them (fellow Europeans preferred to bake, roast or boil chicken).

According to The Urban Daily, “When African slaves who worked as cooks were brought to the country, they put their own spin on the dish using seasonings and spices not found in most Scottish dishes.” As with many classic dishes, generations of home cooks, chefs and fast food chains have put their own spin on fried chicken, making defining a single classic version impossible. 

What’s impossible to miss is how fried chicken has been on a major upswing the past several years. Chicken shacks have been opening practically around the clock north of the Mason-Dixon Line, it seems, with many well-pedigreed chefs at the helm. And they’ve been thriving. Our own efforts to explore the phenomenon here in Chicago have been thwarted by long lines and places running out of chicken every night.

We have sampled a couple of fried chicken sandwiches recently, a stellar one at Analogue and a so-so one on a stellar biscuit at … another place. But both left us hungry for the real thing, bone-in pieces of chicken that you pick up and bite into, gnawing away until you’re left with nothing but the bone.

So when I came across a couple of recipes for chicken that was fried for a bit, then baked, I was intrigued. See, another problem I have is that I have never deep fried anything. It’s quite likely I never will. I sauté stuff like it’s going out of style. I bread stuff on occasion before sautéing it. But deep frying just calls for so much hot fat – and for getting over a psychological hurdle that, for me, seems insurmountable.

I did make one leap of faith for this recipe. I bought vegetable shortening for the first time ever in my adult life. My mother cooked with it almost daily, and I occasionally did the grocery shopping for her, so I of course bought numerous cans of Crisco or some store brand in my youth. Finally seeking it out on purpose, I bought the smallest can possible, based on the fact that more than one source said it creates crispier chicken.

Not so sure my chicken delivered on the crispiness front, but it was delicious. The seven herbs and spices (well, one herb – thyme – and six spices) melded together into flavorful, savory goodness, without any one taking over. And perhaps because of the baking, perhaps because of the inherent juiciness of chicken thighs, it was wonderfully moist and tender. Just typing this, I’m ready for more right now. To me, that counts as a semi-classic.

Fried and Baked Chicken Thighs
Serves 4

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 1/2-pound each
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, divided
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, divided
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, divided
1 teaspoon sweet paprika, divided
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable shortening

1. Trim chicken thighs of excess fat and skin. In a large measuring cup, combine buttermilk and one half of the thyme, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, mustard, salt and pepper. Mix well. Place the chicken thighs in a large, zippered plastic bag. Pour the buttermilk mixture over the chicken and seal the bag, making sure the chicken is evenly coated. Refrigerate and marinate for at least 2 hours, up to overnight, turning the bag a time or two.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper and place a flat baking rack on it. In a large, straight-sided skillet, melt the vegetable shortening (creepy, I know) over medium-high heat. Combine the remaining spices (and the herb, thyme) in a ramekin. Remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking off excess. Season chicken generously on both sides with spice mixture.

3. Combine flour, baking powder and any of the spice mixture you couldn’t bring yourself to put on the chicken in a shallow bowl. When the shortening is quite hot (it should be shimmering), dredge chicken pieces in flour, being careful to coat completely, and place in the skillet skin side down. Cook chicken, turning occasionally, until deep golden, 7 to 8 minutes.

4. Transfer to rack on baking sheet and bake until a quick-read thermometer registers 165 degrees F., when inserted in the thickest part of the thigh, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest on rack for about 5 minutes before serving. Chicken may also be served room temperature.

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