One lesson we can learn from the great writers of haiku is that simplicity can be beautiful. I’d offer the following as a gustatory example of that principle. These biscuits (which my grandmother taught me how to make when I was but a babe) and this chicken (which my mother sort-of explained to me and which I made good through trial and error) really are splendid, and they are very simple. Everyone who tries my mom’s chicken says it’s the best they’ve ever had, and mine isn’t quite as good, but it’s getting there. It’s all in the small details of technique, especially with the biscuits; you must learn to speak the language of the biscuit, which is a perceptive but very light touch. A unifying theme here is buttermilk, without which the South would fall (again?).
I would show you pictures, but the evidence has been destroyed.
Mom’s magnificent fried chicken
- Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (thawed, if purchased frozen)
- Buttermilk (enough to cover the cut-up breasts in a bowl)
- Hot sauce (a few drops; optional)
- Flour mixture (per large breast: 1 cup all-purpose flour; 2 teaspoons seasoned salt; 1/4 ground black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon paprika. This is very loosey-goosey; start with these proportions, taste, and adjust to your preference. You can always add either more seasoning or more flour, so be bold!)
- Your preferred deep frying oil (just use vegetable if you’re unsure) and a good pan that can hold its temperature well (a deep cast-iron skillet is always preferred)
- Time (between 2 and 24 hours)
Cut any obvious cartilage off the chicken. Slice the meat (being careful not to cut with the grain!) into nugget-sized pieces. They can vary somewhat, but we want smallish pieces that will cook quickly and absorb lots of the tenderizing buttermilk.
Put the sliced chicken into a bowl and just cover with buttermilk. Add the hot sauce, if you like. Stir everything together, cover, and refrigerate for between 2 and 24 hours.
Take the chicken out. Pour oil into your skillet to a depth of at least half an inch (oh, don’t complain; after a certain point more oil does not mean more fat in your food) and turn the heat to medium-high. While it’s heating, put your flour mixture ingredients into a large bag (an empty cereal bag or gallon zip-locking back should do) and shake them to combine. Taste and adjust as necessary.
With a fork or tongs, remove several pieces of chicken from the buttermilk, shaking gently to remove excess. Close up the bag and give it a good shaking. You want a nice even coating.
Once the oil is shimmering–that is, there’s some obvious surface motion and perturbation lower down, but it’s still not popping or crackling–test the oil by dropping in a piece of chicken. If it sinks to the bottom and doesn’t sizzle merrily, it’s not hot enough yet. Wait until it rises, then try another. Once you get a moderate sizzle as soon as you drop it in, you can start putting in the rest. If it starts smoking or hissing extremely loud as soon as you put it in, you may need to reduce the temperature. Do NOT fill the whole pan. Just calm down and do it in several batches. This keeps the oil hot and gives you room to maneuver.
Remove the chicken from the oil with a slotted spoon or something of the like and put it on a wire rack or plate with paper towels. If you’re me, you’ll eat it while it’s still crispy and mouth-searingly hot. Quite nice with honey, actually.
Grandma’s Meltingly Delicious Buttermilk Biscuits
(makes 4 fairly large biscuits; easily multiplied by 1.5, 2, or any multiple thereof)
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (if using self-rising, omit the salt and baking powder) [recommendation: White Lily, if you can get it]
- 1/4 tsp salt, 1 barely heaping tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 3 to 4 tbsp shortening, chilled if possible
- Buttermilk (I can never figure out the quantity, sorry–but let’s say at least 1/3 cup)
- A little extra flour in a small bowl
- A little extra shortening to grease the pan (which will, of course, be another cast-iron skillet)
- Butter to adorn the biscuits before they go into the oven
Turn the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want a wetter drop biscuit, which will be thinner and crispier, turn it to 475 instead.
Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. I like to give them an additional quick whisk with a fork to incorporate them. Rub the [extra] shortening around the inside of your pan.
Drop the [3 to 4 tablespoons] shortening by tablespoons into the bowl. Cut it in with a fork until it looks like coarse crumbs and chunks that are about the size of lentils or small pebbles.
Scoop the mixture such that there’s an indentation in the bowl. Let’s say that the bottom of it should almost touch the bottom of the bowl, and it should be about half the volume of the dry ingredients.
Get your jug of buttermilk [if you’re in a pinch: I find that milk mixed with a little sour cream provides different but very pleasant results] and give it a good shake so that the buttermilk is frothy. This will help make your biscuits gloriously light and tender. Pour the buttermilk in until it fills the indentation.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART!!!!
Carefully whisk the buttermilk into the mixture, almost with a folding motion, with just a few strokes. It should look kind of jagged; mixed together but not smooth. I find it takes me between 5 and 10 strokes. It’s MUCH better to under-mix than over-mix. Just make sure there’s not much dry shortening-flour mixture clinging to the bottom of the bowl. Now, take the fork and scoop up a handful of dough. Drop it into the little bowl of flour and as gently as possible, roll the biscuit in the flour with your hands. Try to keep it on the palm of one hand while you round it with the other. Use the texture to tell you how it’s going. The biscuit should feel light for its volume, pleasantly plump, lumpy. Do not mash it, do not knead it. You do not want to over-work the gluten! This is a delicate biscuit, not bread. Just shape it until its surface is uniformly coated. Then drop it into the pan. Repeat until the dough is gone, making sure the biscuits are smooshed together on the pan (this will force them to rise higher). You can also gently press them to a uniform height. I do it, though I’m not sure why.
Now drop a tiny (~1/4 tsp) pat of butter on top of each biscuit. Pop the pan in the oven and cook between 15 and 20 minutes, or until they’re decidedly golden brown.
A note about serving these two things together:
I’d suggest, if you’re planning to cook these two things for the same meal, to turn on the oil for the chicken as soon as you put the biscuits in the oven. You should be mostly finished with at least one breast by the time the biscuits are done. Then you can have baller chicken biscuits of your very own!