Fried chicken is an institution in many parts of the country -- and in many households -- and, when done right, it yields a flavor and texture unmatched by any other preparation. Before you try to improve on such gastronomical perfection by frying your chicken in butter instead of oil, know the limitations of butter as a frying medium and consider changing your technique to achieve delicious results.
Traditionally, fried chicken is cooked with a deep-fry method. Butter is not suitable for this technique because it has a low smoke point, at about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that it will begin to smoke and burn as it gets hot enough to deep-fry the chicken pieces. Light-colored oils such as peanut oil or canola oil are more suitable for deep-frying, because they have a higher smoke point of more than 400 F. The amount of oil needed depends on the dimensions of the cooking vessel; fill a pot or deep-sided pan no more than halfway with oil and fry only a few pieces at a time, working in batches to avoid overcrowding.
Pan-frying requires much less oil than deep-frying, and may be a suitable application for butter. For best results, use boneless, skinless chicken pieces that have been pounded thin; this preparation will allow the chicken to cook quickly, before the butter has a chance to burn. Use the same amount of butter as you would oil; a large skillet requires about one cup, or two sticks, of butter to fry four chicken breasts. If it appears that the chicken needs more time to cook but the butter has already begun to burn, transfer the chicken to a baking sheet fitted with a wire rack, and finish cooking the chicken in the oven.
An alternative method of preparing fried chicken is to use the oven, eliminating the need for butter or oil. For the most flavorful oven-fried chicken, marinate the chicken pieces first; buttermilk is a great marinade, because it adds flavor and tenderizes the meat, but make sure that the coating is well seasoned. You would preheat the oven to a high temperature to ensure a crunchy, brown exterior, and then bake the chicken on a wire rack to prevent the bottom from getting soggy.
By removing the milk solids and moisture, you will get clarified butter, which will raise the butter's smoke point to about 400 F. However, deep frying chicken in clarified butter is impractical for most, because it requires a lot of time and a large amount of butter -- you must start with about 25 percent more butter than you want to end up with. Try using clarified butter for pan-frying, but keep in mind that it won't have the same rich, signature flavor as regular butter.
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