In the small Southern town where I grew up, chicken shacks dot every other street corner, gas station, and strip mall. My first summer job was at one of those famous fry joints; I was 16 and had so much to learn. My best friend and I drank bottomless cherry cokes and ate too many French fries — it was three short months of greasy teenage bliss. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have that high school metabolism back!
As a veteran and self-proclaimed chicken joint “pro,” let me give you non-Southerners a couple of tips should you make it down this way. Chicken joints do one thing — fried chicken — and they do it well. Don’t even think about asking for grilled. You can get a plate, a box, or a bucket; all served with crinkle fries, slaw, and Texas toast. There are three options for a reason, so don’t try to over-complicate your order. (Simple works, folks, especially when high schoolers are running the register). And let’s not forget about that oh-so-special “special sauce.” Every spot has its own secret recipe, but they all taste pretty similar, and delicious, to me. Go ahead and order a couple of extras; you’re gonna need them.
In case you aren’t headed South anytime soon, here’s a recipe to give you a little taste of what you’re missing.
This is my interpretation of the chicken of my youth, and I think you’ll be quite pleased. First the chicken gets a long bath in pickle juice (my homage to a certain closed-on-Sunday classic) before getting a light and fluffy tempura batter that adds a modern twist. I’m also sharing my super-secret recipe for special sauce — it’s so dead-on you’ll never need to pay for those extras again.
Southern-style Chicken Nuggets and Special Sauce
Serves: 4 to 6
Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours and 45 minutes (including marinating time)
For the chicken:
1 1/2 pounds chicken breasts, cut into 3/4 to 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup dill pickle juice
1/4 cup hot sauce, such as Frank’s (optional)
Peanut or canola oil, for frying
For the special sauce:
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup ketchup
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
For the tempura batter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup dill pickle juice
Marinate chicken in pickle juice and hot sauce for at least 4 hours (or overnight if possible).
To make the special sauce, combine the mayonnaise, ketchup, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic powder. Adjust any seasonings, if desired. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
To make the chicken, fill a Dutch oven or cast iron pot with 3 to 4 inches of peanut oil. Heat the oil to 375 degrees F, keeping a close watch on the thermometer, making sure not to exceed this temperature.
While the oil is heating, prepare the batter. Combine the flour, cornstarch, salt, paprika, baking soda, and cayenne in a large bowl. Add the egg whites, canola oil, and pickle juice and whisk until the mixture is thick and sticky (almost like glue). Stir the marinated chicken into the fry batter until every piece is completely coated.
Working in batches, fry the chicken until crisp and golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per batch. (The coated chicken pieces will want to clump together in the oil, so I like to put in each piece one by one.) The oil temperature will drop to approximately 350 degrees, which is the temperature you should maintain while frying. Return the oil to 375 degrees in between batches.
Using a spider, remove the cooked chicken to drain on a sheet pan lined with paper towels or a large brown paper bag. When all the chicken is fried, return oil to 375 degrees. (Taste chicken. If desired, drizzle additional pickle juice over chicken when it comes out of the fryer for a more predominant “pickle” flavor before continuing with second fry.)
Add ALL of the fried chicken back into the hot oil for 30 seconds to 1 minute. The second fry will not only re-heat the chicken but make it extra crispy. Remove the chicken back to the sheet pan lined with fresh paper towels or a large brown paper bag. Season generously with kosher salt.
Serve warm chicken immediately with the special sauce. If serving as an appetizer, you can put a toothpick through each piece. Reheat the chicken in the oven, if necessary.
Nealey moved from Alabama to the West Coast to follow her dreams, only to realize once there how much she missed good ol’ country cooking. So she took to the kitchen and began re-creating the dishes of her past, but this time without any help from a can. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession, so she quit her day job to pursue cooking, and eating, fulltime. Dixie Caviar is where you can follow her pursuits of all things Southern.