There’s a rule of thumb that says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of any skill. If you’re above the age of thirty, there’s a good chance that your grandma has made at least one meal a day, nearly every day, for over fifty years. That easily qualifies her as a virtuoso cook, and if you ask nicely, she can teach you secrets that you will never, ever learn from a cookbook or television show. If you’re lucky enough to have a grandma who cooked, and who’s still around, call her up and ask for a lesson in the thing she made best, whether it’s chicken, pie, kugel, or hot dish. You’ll walk away with a wealth of culinary knowledge and a deepened understanding of your heritage.

As a child, I spent many days at Grandma’s. She and Grandpa occupied three acres on Perch Creek in Mobile , Alabama, where they grew vegetables: butter beans, green beans, tomatoes, okra, muscadines, sand pears, corn, and pecans (don’t worry, readers — we will cover each and every one of those in time.) Late summer afternoons would find eleven-year-old me camped under the muscadine vines, eating myself silly as Grandma got started on dinner.

The centerpiece of meals at Grandma’s was often fried chicken, which, as a young boy, I watched her make on countless occasions. Having the attention span of a child meant that I didn’t quiiite catch every step. Needless to say, the first time I tried to make the dish myself it was an unmitigated disaster. (Did you know that a quarter cup of baking soda is not an ingredient in properly prepared fried chicken? I didn’t)

Later, as an adult, I called Grandma and asked her to take some time and show me how it’s done. She was only too happy to oblige. Here are her secrets:

  1. Buy whole chickens, and cut them into pieces yourself. There’s an economic advantage to buying an entire bird and hacking it up yourself (Grandma was nothing if not frugal), but the main reason to cut up your own chicken is that individually-sold chicken parts are huge, and extra-large pieces of poultry are tough and stringy, instead of tender and succulent. Cutting a chicken into pieces takes some technique and practice. I recommend using Alton Brown’s technique (which is, for some reason, unavailable on the Food Network website) for two reasons: it’s easy to learn, and it produces boneless chicken breasts, which have the advantage of cooking in the same time as thighs and legs.
  2. Soak your chicken in salt water overnight. “It gets the staleness out,” said Grandma. I can’t speak for staleness in chicken, but brining adds moisture to the meat, and keeps it juicy even after a pretty harsh process that could easily dry out something that hadn’t been brined. The accepted ratio is 3/4 cup salt to 1 gallon of water, but there’s an even simpler strategy: add salt until it tastes like seawater. Let me note here that if you’re using the “tastes like seawater” method, get your brine correct before you add chicken. Once you’ve got raw chicken in the mix your tasting opportunity is gone.

That’s it. Two secrets.

The rest is technique, and one small bit of faith: You must believe in your heart that fried chicken is delicious. Why? If you don’t believe, you’re going to want to add things to this recipe to make it “flavorful:” cayenne pepper, garlic powder, paprika, buttermilk, honey, lemon zest, thyme, sage, eleven secret herbs and spices. Believe in your chicken, and save the rococo flourishes for things that need them.

While I’m at it, I’ve seen a number of recipes that call for adding salt and pepper “to taste” or “generously.” By the time you taste fried chicken, it’s too late to adjust the seasoning. The same holds true with things like meatloaf. If it didn’t work out so well for you the first time, you can season to taste the second time you make a dish.

Fried Chicken

1 gallon water
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp salt
1 3-4 lb whole chicken, cut into eight pieces
2 cups self-rising flour
1 tbsp black pepper
Oil for frying.

Dissolve 3/4 cup salt in 1 gallon of water. Place chicken pieces in salted water and soak overnight in refrigerator.

Mix flour, remaining salt and pepper. Drain chicken, and dredge in flour mixture. Allow coating to set up for a few minutes before frying.

Heat 1/2" of oil in a skillet (with a lid) over medium-high heat until a bit of flour dropped into the oil begins to sizzle immediately. Working in batches, place chicken in skillet, cover, and cook for 12 minutes. Turn chicken pieces over, and cook, uncovered, for another 12 minutes. Chicken will be golden brown and crusty — subsequent batches will be darker than the first batch. Oil degrades and produces more browning with repeated use. Drain on a rack over a sheet pan.

When you’re done, drain off almost all the oil, and use some of the remaining flour (along with the brown bits that are left in the pan) to make gravy.