This Labour Day Weekend at the cottage we hosted a party for friends and family that featured a mostly deep-fried menu. Pickles started the show and warmed up the crowd for the deep-fried whole chickens.
Deep-frying large pieces of meat, like whole chickens, really does require a close eye to safety. Twelve litres of oil set over an open flame could really cause serious problems (like a twenty foot high fireball, I suppose) if the rig were tipped over or if the oil overheats. Before being given a turkey deep fryer I had been openly critical of the process and frequently quoted that Allstate commercial about how many Americans burn their house down every Thanksgiving using them. After using this one twice I’m still very cautious but much less critical.
The moment of truth is when the food meets the oil. Recipes for smaller items like onion rings or deep-fried pickles always caution how important it is to gently and carefully introduce the food to the oil. Care is important in these cases but really the worst case scenario is a bit of splattered oil. With two chickens, totaling about eight pounds, the oil boils with extreme vigour and the worst case scenario is more along the lines of very hot oil boiling over onto an open flame. Bottom line: Please don’t use your turkey deep fryer without first carefully reading the instructions and referring to other sources (here’s the Farm Bureau safety tips) more expert than me on the matter. For instance, Alton Brown (in this Good Eats episode) gives instructions for building a derrick based on a step ladder to safely lower a turkey into the fryer. To me this seems like overkill and also just increases the footprint and height of the apparatus that could be knocked over but, again, I’m not an expert.
I covered my hand with a long oven mitt and used the included tool that resembles a very stout coat hanger to slowly lower the birds into the oil. Even filled to the “max fill” line the oil didn’t quite cover the top bird. This raised two concerns: 1. Would the bit of meat above the oil cook as quickly as the rest? and 2. Moisture bubbling up through the chicken cavities was causing a small amount of oil to regularly spit out of the pot. I addressed the first concern by using a ladle to carefully pour hot oil over the exposed chicken–memories of Wok with Yan. I’m not really sure that this was necessary because I imagine there was probably enough steam and spitting oil to cook the meat anyway. The latter concern was obviously more about safety and we dealt with that by making sure that everyone stayed well away from the rig (including the neighbours’ not-very-bright Golden Retriever).
Cooking time was one of my main questions leading up to this frying adventure. Recipes on the internet are fairly unanimous that whole chickens should be fried for between three and five minutes per pound. Originally, I had planned to cook all three of the (four pound) chickens at once. Once I got the chickens and the pot from the fryer in the same room I saw that there just wasn’t enough space to (safely) cook all three at once. It would have to be two in the first round and the third on its own. But, still with two birds should they go in for 12 to 20 minutes (3-5 mins X 4 lbs each) or for 24 to 40 mins (3-5 X 8 lbs total weight)? Luckily, I had just heard about a great, free site called Aardvark that allows users to pose a question to their “extended social network” via one of the instant messaging services (gchat, msn, etc.). The answers come more quickly than Google or Yahoo answers and unless you have a huge group of followers the pool of expertise is much deeper than on Twitter. Anyway, the varkers agreed with my first hunch that the best plan was to err on the high side of the range for the individual weight of one chicken–between 18 and 20 minutes.
Amongst the three chickens I varied the recipe slightly. I added about three tablespoons of hot sauce (the relatively mild Frank’s so the amount is not actually that remarkable) to the buttermilk that one of the chickens marinated in. The extra spice wasn’t really that noticeable so either add more or marinate for longer. As well I coated one of the chickens in cornmeal leftover from the the deep-fried pickles. This gave the skin more crunch and a bit more visual interest (it’s the bottom chicken in the picture at the top of the post) but don’t expect a crust equal to what you would get from traditional fried chicken pieces. It’s an extra, fairly messy step and I would say I’m fifty-fifty on whether I would repeat it. All three birds were coated in a spice rub that did add flavour and colour.
It seemed like our guests were thoroughly impressed with the chckens’ deep-brown and fried appearance. After tasting it I was blown away. Between the buttermilk marinade (not much of the tangy flavour stayed with the chicken but apparently the acid works to tenderise) and the short cooking time this method produced the juiciest chicken I have ever tasted. Deep-frying whole birds takes a lot of work–and I was happy to have a lot of help–and some careful considerations for safety but it is definitely worthwhile for the occassional large gathering.