"Southern" Fried Chicken Troubles.
So today for the first time I made deep fried chicken for the first time. While it wasn't a total failure, it certainly did not look like what it did in the picture (link above).
My main problem was the crust. It wasn't as flavorful as I thought it would be and I found the tang of the buttermilk overpowering, and I could not taste any of the other great spices in the recipe. I did leave the chicken to marinate overnight, maybe that was the problem?
Also, my crust was not as flaky. It kinda flattened against the chicken and would either peel off or become really hard to bite into.
Another thing, I do not have a fat/candy thermometer to measure how hot the oil is. Is a thermometer necessary when deep frying chicken?
According to this blog entry, REAL Southern Fried Chicken is made only with spices, flour, chicken, and frying in oil; no buttermilk or anything else involved. Could someone recommend a recipe like that?
First off, you should understand that "real" southern fried chicken may be one of the greatest controversies in culinary history. IMO, anyone who fries a chicken south of the Mason-Dixon line seems to believe their recipe deserves to be credited as "real". I believe that a simple combination of spices, flour, chicken, and frying in oil was about as complicated as the original recipe got.
Here are some common errors made when preparing southern fried chicken.
Chicken is left to soak too long - if you're going to soak the chicken in anything, be it water or buttermilk (I would not use buttermilk) 30 minutes is plenty long enough.
Failure to pat the chicken pieces dry after soaking or washing - flour will not stick like it should if you don't dry the chicken pieces before dredging.
Failure to shake off the excess flour after dredging the chicken pieces.
Using too much or too little oil - the oil should be just deep enough to reach slightly above the half way point on the chicken pieces so that, once it's turned, it browns on the other side without additional turning.
Using a skillet that is too light for the job - a heavy skillet holds the heat longer and more evenly (try cast iron)
Oil temperature too cold or too hot - drop a pinch of flour into pan the hot oil. It should float and sizzle on hot oil. If flour sinks to bottom of pan and disperses, oil is not hot enough. If it burns, the oil is too hot. (That said, I'd still recommend a good candy thermometer)
"I did leave the chicken to marinate overnight, maybe that was the problem?"
Generally speaking, no. Most recipes that use buttermilk also marinate for a while before frying, and overnight marination is not unusual. It will lead to a slightly stronger tangy buttermilk flavor, but if you don't enjoy the buttermilk flavor, you should probably just avoid buttermilk fried chicken recipes.
In my experience there are two main problems people run into when making buttermilk fried chicken. One is frying at too high a temperature. Buttermilk batter can easily burn. Most recipes call for oil around 350 when the chicken goes in. What most recipes don't tell you - the oil temperature will drop down to about or just below 300 when the chicken goes in the pan... and you should NOT immediately turn up the heat. You want buttermilk chicken to spend most of its time frying at a lower temperature so the chicken cooks through; you want the temperature to *slowly* rise back up so the crust gets crispy right as the chicken is finally cooked through. Keeping the oil at 350 or hotter throughout the cooking process will result in either burned crust or undercooked chicken. Also note that the size of the chicken pieces determine how quickly or slowly you want your oil to recover its temperature. The smaller the chicken pieces, the faster you want your oil temp to recover. This can take some experience (or luck).
The other common buttermilk mistake people make is leaving far too much buttermilk on the chicken before dredging. Here, I differ a bit from the blog you linked to. Buttermlik is not ideal for making a thick crust. It can get very hard and be prone to burning. It works best if you thoroughly shake off the excess buttermilk and only then dip in seasoned flour (and shake off excess flour too). You want a very light coat. It's the chicken skin that gets crispy, not really the breading - it won't look like the picture in the blog which used more breading. If you want a thicker crust or an extra crunchy crust, skip the buttermilk and try out maybe a simple egg wash, perhaps even double dredging - this way you can get the crust thick without it being hard or sort of chewy.
"Another thing, I do not have a fat/candy thermometer to measure how hot the oil is. Is a thermometer necessary when deep frying chicken?"
It's not strictly necessary (I prefer a digital instant read thermometer, btw, which also lets you check the doneness of the chicken if you want). But it sure helps enormously when you're getting started and don't have a whole lot of experience deep frying. You can estimate the heat of the cooking oil with a couple tricks, but they're not as accurate. Here is a link.
There are other similar tricks too, like dropping a kind of batter in oil and seeing whether it floats or sinks. But oil temperature is very important, and a thermometer is the most reliable way to know what your temperature actually is.
"According to this blog entry, REAL Southern Fried Chicken is made only with spices, flour, chicken, and frying in oil; no buttermilk or anything else involved."
There are 50 different ways to make REAL southern fried chicken. The Southern US is a big place. Anyone claiming there is only one true way to make Southern fried chicken is talking nonsense.
That said, you certainly can make fried chicken without a wet ingredient. Just dredge the chicken directly into the seasoned flour and shake off any excess, then pan fry. Again, for this kind of recipe you'd go for a very light coating - it wouldn't look like the picture in the blog either. Using a wet ingredient is just the more common method, and also better if you want a thicker crust.
Here are my tips...
Thermometer - Yes, I highly recommend using a thermometer to measure how hot the oil is. I think the correct temps will solve your chicken crust problem. Cowboyardee has great advice on temperature control in his post above.
Marinading overnight in buttermilk is not unusual.
However, what you can do instead is leave out the buttermilk and use the ingredients as a dry rub to season the chicken overnight. Also, a few shakes of hot sauce would help too. Chicken is good at absorbing flavors given enough time.
Baking powder - I go back and forth on whether is ingredient is needed, but I tend to use it to make "self-rising flour". Some "Southern" fried chicken recipes call for self-rising flour instead of plain flour. I achieved good results using baking powder in the flour so I add baking powder.