Anatomy of a Classic: Fried Chicken
An unconventional secret to perfectly crispy fried chicken
You have to hand it to Todd Ginsberg, a Jewish guy from New Jersey who moved south and decided he could reinvent fried chicken. He only makes it Friday nights at the General Muir in Atlanta, a smart mashup of a New York deli and a farm-to-table neighborhood spot that opened earlier this year. Get there much after 7:30 p.m. and the chicken, served with a hot-sweet pot of honey sauce, is gone.
The General Muir is Ginsberg’s latest Southern baby. He came to the Atlanta area in 2000 to be closer to his parents and has since made his name at a number of restaurants, the last being Bocado in the restaurant-heavy Westside.
Ginsberg sees a lot of similarities between Jewish and Southern food. Both are based on whole animal cooking. There is pickling and brining, smoking and preserving. But there’s no direct counterpart to fried chicken, so when he took it on, he stumbled through a process that resulted in a revelation that kisses a Southern favorite with a touch of Israel and Asia.
“I had Korean fried chicken legs in New York once,” he says of the extra-crispy version that inspired his quest. “But I didn’t know the technique until we started playing with it.” His experimentation delivered tender meat perfumed with lemon and thyme and a glossy, shattering crust—and a novel method.
The recipe is prep heavy but not hard. You brine. You chill. You coat the chicken in an improbable mix of mostly cornstarch and just a bit of flour (or matzo meal). You chill again. Then you steam—yes, steam!—chill once more, and, finally, you fry.
The idea to steam the chicken came from a cook who was making a staff meal at the General Muir. He was in a hurry, so he co-opted the steamer Ginsberg uses to heat his homemade pastrami to cook some chicken. The shortcut inspired a crucial step in Ginsberg’s fried chicken recipe. With steaming, the chicken is never underdone, since it’s nearly cooked through before it ever hits the pan. And the frying time is reduced to minutes—just long enough to transform the cornstarch crust into a golden-brown shell. “It’s great,” Ginsberg says. “You’re not sure where the skin ends and the coating begins.”
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup salt
Zest of 1½ lemons
1 bunch thyme sprigs
¾ cup buttermilk
1 whole chicken (3½ lbs or less)
3½ tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cups cornstarch
Napa cabbage or other lettuce
Canola or peanut oil, for frying
Salt and pepper, to taste
To make the brine, bring 1 quart water to a boil in a heavy stockpot; add sugar and salt and dissolve. Add lemon zest and thyme. Chill, then add buttermilk. Cut chicken into two breasts, two legs, and two thighs; clip wings from breasts. Place parts in a large pot, pour in brine, and refrigerate 4 hours.
Combine flour and cornstarch in a shallow pan, and mix well. Remove chicken from brine, press skin flat, and place in flour mixture. Coat each piece of chicken well and let sit in dredge in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours or, preferably, overnight.
Steam chicken gently in a covered bamboo or metal basket steamer lined with Napa cabbage or lettuce (to prevent sticking) until chicken reaches 158 degrees, about 15 to 20 minutes. Place steamer in the refrigerator and chill until a Band-Aid–like shell forms on the skin, about an hour. Once the shell is cool to the touch, remove chicken to room temperature until ready to fry, no longer than 2 hours.
In a heavy skillet, heat 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees; then fry chicken until dark golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer pieces to a paper towel–lined plate, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Simple Calabrian Chile Honey Sauce
1 jar of Calabrian chile peppers, packed in oil
In a small bowl or ramekin, mix a few chopped Calabrian chiles with local honey until you reach your desired spicy-sweet balance. For an even deeper flavor, add a small amount of chile oil to the mixture. Serve alongside chicken for dipping.
Meet the Chef: Todd Ginsberg
Hometown: Vernon, New Jersey
Restaurant: The General Muir, Atlanta, Georgia
Favorite things he ever stole from a kitchen: Five spoons he took from Alain Ducasse in New York when the restaurant was closing. On kitchen politics:“It’s never ever my way or the highway. I want to work with people and not have them work for me.”
What drives him nuts when he eats out: Cooks who don’t care about the food they cook. “It’s so easy to make good food. It’s as easy as it is to make bad food.”