So you’ve got your chicken (fresh or frozen) cut up in pieces, with the skin removed. Standard pieces are breast, thigh, leg, wing (some people include the back and neck, I’ve been told, and others leave the leg attached to the thigh).
Pour some milk (maybe 1 1/2 – 2 cups; can be regular, skim, goat, buttermilk–whatever) into a shallow dish. Dip each piece of chicken into the milk, then into flour. My mother always puts flour in an old bread wrapper, then drops the chicken into the flour and “floofs” it around to coat the chicken. She uses self-rising flour, which has a little bit of salt added, for extra flavor. (This flour-coating is akin to dredging, but the confines of the bag make it go a little faster.)
Once you’ve got several pieces of chicken to this stage, put them in a hot skillet (about 1/2″ of cooking oil or shortening, heated until it almost smokes) and let them begin to brown. (Yes, fried chicken is, indeed, fried–in hot fat.) While these pieces brown, get more chicken pieces into the milk and flour. (You can do them all ahead of time, but the flour sinks in and some pieces might need to be re-dipped.) If you’re worried about handling raw chicken, all I can tell you is be careful and wash your hands and table afterward.*
Turn the chicken in the pan, allowing it to brown on both sides. You’re not trying to cook it all the way through–just get the flour browned and the flavor sealed in. After each piece comes out of the skillet, put it in a regular baking pan–it will finish cooking in the oven. This is a trick my Great Aunt Mae taught her sister (my grandmother), because otherwise, you’ll be cooking chicken all day to get enough to feed a family.
Pour the used cooking oil into a sturdy dish (not plastic!) and allow the “brownings” to settle to the bottom. Wipe out the skillet, add more oil, bring it up to temperature (hot-but-not-smoking) and start the process over. By the time you’ve cooked most of your chicken, you can use the leftover oil for the last pan and save the “brownings” (would be drippings if it were from a roast) for gravy (if you’re a cream-gravy-with-fried-chicken afficianado).
Bake chicken at about 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, but start checking it before the time is up. Dark meat takes a little longer than white to cook, so be sure to poke around for done-ness.
Fried chicken is traditionally cooked on top of the stove, but if you’re cooking for more than a couple of people, it takes forever to cook skillet after skillet of chicken. The stovetop method also uses more grease and allows the chicken and its breading to absorb more.
It sounds like a lot of steps, but this recipe is pretty simple (milk, chicken, flour, oil) and amazingly good. It doesn’t have a lot of seasoning, but it doesn’t need it–you can salt and pepper to taste at the table. It’s not greasy, either; the baking dries the breading and makes it tender-crispy rather than hard-fried or soggy.
There are lots of good fried chicken joints in the world, and I’ll gladly chow down on Bojangle’s or KFC or any of the other million places you can go…but there’s just no fried chicken like my mama’s, made with her own hands, and with her daddy looking over her shoulder from that big old diner in the sky. (Can’t wait to try THAT menu someday!)
*For those worried about safe handling (i.e. inviting “Sam & Ella” to your chicken fry!**), plan on washing your hands and utensils thoroughly after you finish frying the last batch and before you put it in the oven. My mother keeps a little jug of water-and-bleach by the kitchen counter–just like her father did–and uses it for cleaning up after working with fresh meat (especially chicken). Don’t forget to wash the faucet handles of the kitchen sink–chances are, you touched ’em with your chicken-hands at some point!
** Sam & Ella = salmonella