Fried chicken is a beloved American classic, whether served cold at a picnic, comfort food-style alongside a pile of creamy mashed potatoes or as a decadent indulgence balanced by a fresh, green salad. As an alternative to the traditional deep-frying cooking method, a pan-frying technique cuts down on the oil requirement and hassle. Stick with dark meat -- bone-in, skin-on drumsticks, thighs, leg quarters or whole legs -- to keep the flavor quotient at its highest.
- No matter the type of chicken leg portions you cook, the pan-frying technique is the same; you only need to adjust the cooking time.
- Chicken leg quarters include the thigh, drumstick and a portion of the back; whole chicken legs are just the drumstick and thigh. Each is a generous serving for one person.
If you are using frozen chicken legs, thaw them thoroughly before cooking, preferably in the refrigerator, which might take a day or two. Never cook chicken from a frozen state. If you have time, bring the chicken out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you begin cooking. Very cold chicken will lower the temperature of the pan when you start to cook it, which reduces the chances of achieving a deliciously crispy crust.
For the juiciest, most tender chicken, take the time to brine it or soak it in buttermilk before cooking it. You can brine or soak the chicken in the refrigerator for a few hours, or up to two days. This step, which does require some advanced planning, is entirely optional. Drain and discard the brine or buttermilk before proceeding.
Pan-fried chicken legs without breading should have the skins on and liberal amounts of seasoning. Prepare with or without prior soaking in brine or buttermilk. Simply pat the chicken legs dry with paper towels, and season both sides of the chicken legs. Use just salt and pepper, or use paprika and garlic powder, a seasoned salt or any spice blend you like.
Classic fried chicken has a crispy breading that's actually little more than seasoned flour. Don't skip the breading if you want your chicken legs to have a delicious, savory, crunchy crust. Prepare two shallow bowls, one with flour and one with beaten egg. Season the flour with salt and pepper, seasoned salt or your choice of spices. Press all sides of the chicken legs into the flour, covering them as thoroughly as possible. Dip the floured chicken legs in the beaten egg, covering all sides. Coat the chicken legs again with flour. Cover all the egg, aiming for a thick coating with no gaps.
- Instead of using a bowl, shake the chicken with the seasoned flour in a plastic or paper bag.
- Try using cornstarch or potato starch instead of flour or combined with the flour to give the crust a lighter texture.
- For a very crispy, craggy coating, rub a tablespoon or two of buttermilk into a second bowl of flour. Use this flour for the second dredging.
Pan Frying Technique
A cast iron skillet is a great choice for pan-frying chicken legs because of its excellent heat retention, but you can use any skillet that's large enough to hold the chicken without crowding. Have a pair of tongs handy for turning the chicken. A splatter guard is useful but not essential.
Crowding the pan will cause your chicken legs to steam or braise rather than fry, resulting in a soggy crust. If necessary, use two pans or cook your chicken legs in batches. For the same reason, do not cover the pan with a lid while frying chicken.
Use a cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as canola, peanut, corn or vegetable oil. Heat a regular skillet over a medium-high heat for a few minutes; a cast iron skillet only needs a medium heat. Pour approximately 1/4 inch of oil in the skillet for unbreaded chicken legs, or 1/2 to 1 inch for breaded chicken legs. Give the oil at least 5 minutes to heat up before adding the chicken. If you have a candy thermometer, aim for an oil temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fry the Chicken Legs
Place the chicken legs carefully in the skillet using tongs. If you didn't bread the chicken, place it skin-side down.
Let the chicken fry for at least 10 minutes without turning it. Drumsticks need about 10 minutes; larger cuts about 15 to 20 minutes. If the skin or crust sticks to the pan when you try to turn the chicken, let it cook for another 5 minutes, or until it releases easily.
Cook the chicken legs on the second sides for another 10 minutes for drumsticks, or another 15 to 20 minutes for larger pieces. Keep the heat at a medium to medium-high temperature throughout the cooking time.
Test the thickest part of the largest piece of chicken with an instant-read thermometer. Don't let the point of the thermometer touch the bone. The chicken is done when it reaches 165 degrees F.
If you are cooking different-sized chicken pieces, test their temperatures individually. If necessary, remove the smaller pieces first and keep them warm while the larger pieces continue to cook.
Place the cooked chicken pieces on a rack set over paper towels rather than directly on paper towels. This prevents the crust from getting soft.
Deep-frying is the traditional technique used for fried chicken. The method is similar to pan-frying, but uses significantly more oil. If you choose to deep-fry chicken legs, heed the following advice:
- When deep-frying, the pan should be a maximum of half-full with oil. Use a vessel large enough to contain your chicken legs without exceeding this amount of oil.
- Heat the oil to a temperature of 350 to 375 degrees F before adding the chicken; maintain an oil temperature of 300 to 325 F degrees as the chicken cooks.
- Cook the chicken legs in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan. Keep cooked pieces warm in a 200-degree oven while you fry the rest.
- Make sure the chicken legs have reached room temperature before you deep-fry them. Cold chicken will cause the oil temperature to drop when you add it to the pan.