Fried chicken has been an inescapable part of the American culinary scene for well over a century now. The practice of frying chicken may have first been brought to the New World by Scottish immigrants, but it was African cooks, brought to the American South as part of the slave trade, that perfected the flavor profile of the dish. At once juicy, crunchy, spicy and steaming hot, fried chicken is as close to it gets to a perfect food. So why are so many chefs and restaurants suddenly adding a new element to their recipes? Why is everyone pickling – yes, pickling – their fried chicken all of a sudden?
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We’re living during a period that has already brought us a pickle juice slushie from Sonic and a dill pickle flavored vodka in just the last 18 months. Big Pickle has never been bigger, and pickle-pushing companies are finding a receptive consumer audience for their wildest experimentations. So it’s really no wonder that all of that pickling is making its way into the global cuisine, be it haute or just down-home country cooking. Call it pickle down economics, if you will.
Bon Appétit has been pushing its pickle-brined fried chicken recipe back out into the ethers, Food & Wine has been promoting its own respective iteration of the dish, and even KFC launched Pickle Fried Chicken earlier this summer. Companies are giving us what they think we want, sure, but in this case, the pickle food trend may have inadvertently blown the doors open on a far superior way of preparing fried chicken altogether. Let me explain.
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You see, pickling chicken in brine prior to breading and frying up the meat results in a chemically similar process to what raw fish undergoes when exposed to acidic citrus juice. While brining chicken doesn’t make it safe to eat in the same way adding acid to fish to make ceviche might, much of what happens to the protein on a microscopic level looks awfully familiar.
Sodium chloride-rich pickle brine unravels the alpha helix of the chicken protein in a process called denaturing. What was once a tight, box spring-like coil is relaxed into something better resembling a fistful of al dente pasta. But vinegar isn’t content to let salt have all the fun. While the salt is busy uncurling the helix, the vinegar in brining liquid attacks the foundational hydrogen bonds of the chicken protein. A chicken breast or thigh taking a dip in pickle juice for less than two hours might not be exposed to a long enough denaturing process to do all that much. Chicken left to soak for longer than a night may break down too fully, retaining the texture of wet, uncooked chicken even after it hits the grill or oven.
But the breakdown effect of denaturing isn’t the only complex chemical shuffling happening. As those protein helix strands loosen and unfurl from their previously tight coil, salt is drawn into the meat via the process of osmosis. As salt is sucked into the expanding proteins, these molecules make themselves at home, neatly filling out all of the new spaces. When chicken protein that has been invaded by salt water molecules in this way finally does hit the frying pan, perfectly flaky, fall-off-the-bone fried chicken is created. Voila.
From a taste perspective – which is kind of the entire point here, and the reason we’re making fried chicken instead of tearing open a sleeve of crackers – the pickling portion of this recipe adds something that fried chicken never even knew it was missing.
In a traditional fried chicken recipe, most of the flavor is imparted upon the meat via either a buttermilk bath or from the spices added to the flour that is liberally coated across each piece before its dunk in the oil. Pickling your chicken beforehand adds hours of chemical osmosis, in which thirsty proteins literally draw the pickle juice into the meat, followed by the same buttermilk and spice opportunities.
Or to put it another way, think about how good those salty, vinegary slices of pickles taste on a fast food chicken sandwich? Pickling your chicken prior to frying it recreates this classic taste combo, dialed up to 100.