“Take a chicken and you kill it/And you put it in a skillet/And you fry it ’til it’s golden-brown./That’s southern cooking and it tastes mighty nice.”
— “Kentucky Means Paradise” by Merle Travis
Kentucky is known for many things, but none is as universally associated with our state as fried chicken.
And, while some Franklin County cooks are happy to share their fried chicken recipes along with their food, others make sure their recipes are a family secret, kept close to the vest.
Fried chicken, it turns out, is in our Kentucky blood. Historically, fried chicken originated in Scotland, where many of the original Kentuckians immigrated from. There chicken was seasoned and then placed in hot fat to cook, unlike the English who baked or boiled their chicken.
In the “Buckeye Cookery” (with hints on Practical Housekeeping) published in 1880, fried chicken evolved into putting chicken pieces in hot oil and then sprinkling the tops with flour, salt and pepper before turning them over and seasoning them again to develop a crispy crust.
It wouldn’t be until much later when the recipe changed to being dipped in seasoned flour and then fried.
Since then, frying chicken has evolved into something much more. While Col. Sanders may have the recognition for his 11 herbs and spices, some say making good fried chicken is a simple secret.
At Bryant’s Pic Pac in Frankfort, fried chicken was a staple for those looking for a good hot lunch in downtown Frankfort. While the store is closed now, when it was open, on any given weekday, workers in the deli would start before 10 in the morning making fried chicken and fixin’s for the lunch crowd. They estimated they would cook up to 250 pieces a day. Some of their popular deli sides were their salads, spreads, fluffs and beer cheese.
The fried chicken developed a loyal following with customers, and the recipe to make it isn’t something owner Danny Bryant is quick to give up. It’s a recipe that even garnered a bit of national attention.
“One guy came up to me and asked if I’d ever heard of a magazine called Garden and Gun,” says Danny Bryant, Bryant’s Pic-Pac owner. “He says he had read about our place in there and that Garden and Gun says we had the best fried chicken in Kentucky and he just had to come down from Ohio and try it.”
Bryant says the secret to his chicken is to make it in a pressure cooker. When asked what seasonings he uses, Bryant says he could give away the recipe, but then he’d have to kill you.
“We just use flour and our secret seasoning,” he said. “We don’t soak it or anything; we just wash it and dust it with our flour and seasoning. Nothing else.”
For 43 years, he said, they’ve been cooking it and developing the recipe. And now, even though the store is closed, Bryant says it’s a secret he’s not willing to give up yet.
“I didn’t close the store because I was ready to retire,” he said.
In the next few months, he hopes to open another location or another business. But first, he’s “gotta clean up one mess before I can start making another,” he said.
Still, he said, he’s not counting out the possibility that he’ll use his recipe to cook for friends and family in the future.
“Everything is possible,” he said. “It just depends on whether or not I can find a new location. I’ll definitely be cooking for family and stuff … but, after 43 years, everybody’s family.”
Those who want to say their goodbyes to Bryant’s Pic-Pac are invited to the Pic-Pac Farewell Day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, at Dolly Graham Park. While Bryant won’t be cooking that day, members of the Kiwanis Club will be cooking up hot dog plates for sale. And, Bryant will be on hand for area residents to share their remembrances of fried chicken, and other goodies with.
Reid’s family favorite fried chicken
Plenty of home cooks have their own special recipes for fried chicken. From soaking it in buttermilk prior to coating it with seasoned flour and cornmeal, to double dredging it flour and egg, to coating it with seasoned bread crumbs, there are as many ways to make fried chicken as there are people who cook it.
“I think people’s recipes have to do with people’s culture and where they live,” said Jacque Reid, of Frankfort. “Each fried chicken recipe is specific to people’s roots. And chicken is something we eat that is always accessible and can be found at a good price. It’s a part of your life as a child, so I think that there’s comfort in it that reminds people of home.”
Reid and her husband Don have in the past cooked for Kingdom Hall builds for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. During a build, volunteers will come together to build a hall. The Reids will feed those volunteers with fried, grilled and smoked meats, as well as a number of side dishes. In some cases, Reid says, she made some of her special honey-drizzled chicken for as many as 500 people.
With many different recipes for fried chicken, the honey drizzled is perhaps her husband’s favorite, she said — and so does he.
“There’s something about the way she fries it then drizzles the honey while the chicken is fresh fried that makes it crispy and an art piece,” Don said. “This fried chicken is a process, but man, what a reward!”
The secret, she said, is five-fold.
First, Reid said, she brines the chicken overnight in a mixture of water, salt, sugar and garlic powder. This keeps the meat moist and flavorful during the cooking process.
The second step is to coat the chicken with cornstarch seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic powder.
“The cornstarch gives it a really light, crisp crust,” she said. “I’m a home cook. I cook by eye, not by measurement. There’s a lot of science to cooking, but there’s also an art to it. You just learn how to do it and to do it well.”
Once the chicken is coated, for the third step, she creates a slurry out of cornstarch, water and spices, and rolls the chicken in it before dropping the chicken in 350 degree oil.
For the fourth step — cooking — it’s important to cook it not once, but twice.
“Once you put it in the oil, you’re going to cook it for no more than seven minutes each side,” she instructs. “Once it has cooked on both sides, you take it out of the hot oil and let it rest for five minutes. When it’s good and rested, you refry it. That’s the real secret. Refry it for seven minutes again and it will come out extra crispy and delicious.”
For the last step, she said, drizzle the chicken while it’s hot with a mixture of farm-fresh honey (she uses some from her husband’s beehives) and hot pepper sauce.
“Once you put on that glaze, it makes it really good and really pretty,” she said. “It’s a lot of time and work, but it’s worth it. It’s really good, but it’s definitely a labor of love.”
For home cooks who want to try their hand at creating their own recipe, Reid says to keep at it. Her mother, she says, came from a Spanish family and didn’t cook southern. It was only during a time when Reid and her husband lived in West Liberty, Kentucky, that she learned how to cook southern fried chicken. Her honey glazed chicken is a recipe she developed after years of working with others to come up with something special.
“I think cooking is like anything else — if you want it a certain way and you want it to be good, you have to spend time with it,” she said. “Do your research. Try new things. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes and to change things around.”
Food, like fried chicken, doesn’t have to be about exotic ingredients and foreign cooking methods.
“Always buy the freshest and the best ingredients that you can afford,” she said. “If you cook clean, that is if you cook simply with good ingredients, you’ll find that you don’t have to doctor it up with a bunch of 15 other seasonings and spices. Sometimes, it’s simple, clean cooking that is the best.”
Frying Chicken Tips
- Let the chicken almost come to room temperature before cooking. This ensures that the cooking oil doesn’t cool down too much when you put the chicken in.
- Use tongs to move chicken around. This prevents the skin being pierced and letting the juices from the chicken seep out.
- Once you’ve prepared your chicken – whether that is with a cornstarch dusting, an egg and flour batter, or a corn cereal crust – let the chicken set for a while so the coating can air dry. This makes for a crispier coating.
- Don’t put too many pieces in to cook at once. Overcrowding the pan can cause the oil temperature to drop and make cook times longer. Cook a few pieces at a time, then place the cooked pieces on a paper towel-covered plate in a warm oven while you cook other pieces.
- Use a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid, if possible. Cast iron is a wonderful heat conductor and will cook the chicken evenly.
Source: Duff Goldman, chef and owner of Charm City Cakes
Bryant Pic-Pac’s Olive Nut Spread
1 jar of chopped olives
24-ounces Philadelphia cream cheese
16-ounces chopped pecans
Mix together the ingredients in a large bowl. Chill before serving. The spread is best served with crackers, such as Club or Ritz crackers. It can also be served as a sandwich on thin white bread.