The Great Fried Chicken Marinade Debate: Buttermilk or Brine
What is the real key to finger-lickin’ chicken?
So let’s talk fried chicken. I recently chatted with a chef friend and he revealed that he likes to brine his chicken in a seasoned saltwater mixture overnight before tossing in a light coat of flour and frying. I questioned, and came back with a strong rebuttal that buttermilk was the superior choice of marinade pre-frying. He did not agree. That sparked my quest to find out what the best way to prep chicken before frying actually is. The great fried chicken goal is, of course, a crispy, not-so-greasy outer crust with a juicy, well-seasoned interior. With that in mind, I asked home cooks, bloggers, professional chefs, and Time Inc. Food Studios staff about their preferences regarding soaking chicken in either buttermilk vs. a saltwater brine.
To understand both sides, let’s take a look at what buttermilk and salt water actually do to chicken. A basic brine is the combination of salt and water (about 4 tablespoons salt to 4 cups water); and usually, a brine also contains sugar, spices, and herbs for more flavor. The brine penetrates the chicken with flavor, but also makes the chicken too wet to fry. You have to actively pat the chicken dry to a degree before dredging it in the flour. Brining poultry is, from what I understood, more ideal for roasting, as the salty solution can help lock moisture into the flesh of the bird even throughout the high-heat temperatures of the roasting process. According to On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals published by Prentice Hall, (often used in culinary school curriculums), the procedure for pan-fried chicken is to dip your chicken in buttermilk and then dredge the chicken in seasoned flour. Robby Melvin, Time Inc. Food Studios recipe developer, also shares my sentiments about buttermilk. He says, “Soaking chicken in buttermilk acts as a brine.” The buttermilk adheres to the chicken much better and allows for the breading to also have more sticking power. It also has fat and acids that helps break down the outer skin for a crispy crust. Just as you can season a brine, hot sauce and herbs can also be used to impart added flavor to the natural tanginess of the buttermilk. However, Melvin does not completely discount the saltwater brine, “You can absolutely do both. Buttermilk is a classic Southern style… but it’s all about preference.” Melvin likes to soak the chicken overnight in buttermilk, but says that if you are short on time, 2 hours minimum will yield similar results. When you dredge the chicken in flour, one coat is enough. Double breading weighs the chicken down with unnecessary extra coating. You want a “nice thin coating, where you still taste the chicken,” Melvin says.
I also took my question to Facebook and found a more mixed bag of opinions. One commenter noted that she prefers using a saltwater mixture because she (like a few others who responded) is lactose intolerant. Another person commented saying, “Brine is Bible.” One comment even suggested to do both: Brine in salt water overnight, rinse chicken, dry, coat in buttermilk, dredge in flour, fry. I posed the question to Chef “JJ” Joseph Johnson, James Beard nominee, on Twitter and he replied, “I am [a] brine guy.” In my search for a definitive answer, I found that there was a split vote. All the Time Inc. recipe developers went with buttermilk, while more home cooks polled went with the saltwater brine. Personally, I’ve only had one, not-so-good, experience with brine that yielded an overly salty and rubbery textured chicken-fried chicken. But one experience is enough for me. Since then, I’ve vowed to never go back. I am a buttermilk girl.
Another key note to frying chicken worth mentioning is the temperature at which your oil is heated. Melvin says, “Thermometers are key; 325°F is the magic temperature.” Keeping a watchful eye over the temperature during the frying process will make this cooking method a bit less intimidating. You can precisely gauge when to turn up or reduce the heat with every new batch of chicken. Usually, when you add a few pieces of raw chicken to the oil, your oil temp cools slightly and takes a few minutes to get back up to the ideal heat. So grab a kitchen thermometer, and go with the marinating method that speaks to you. It is truly your preference, so go find your chicken-fried bliss.