The perfect fried chicken should be a riotous assembly of flavor and texture. The exterior is both crispy and crunchy. The breading is spiked with salt and spices and holds just the right amount of fat. The interior should be well-seasoned and moist. How does something as simple as a pan of hot oil create all of that?
The key to flawless fried chicken is preparation. Before you heat a drop of oil, you should have a plan of action. Know where the tongs are. Have your chicken prepped. Set up a station to place the pieces on as soon as they come out of the oil. If you’re feeling particularly cautious, call up a professor with a Ph.D. in food science and nutrition and ask him how to effectively harness the power of frying to create the best possible dinner.
Dr. Eric Decker is a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. His work focuses on lipid oxidation and lipid bioavailability. He’s an overqualified fried chicken advisor, to say the least. Luckily, he’s also an avid home cook who was empathetic towards my mission to create a platter of golden drumsticks.
Over the phone, Dr. Decker explained that frying is “probably the most efficient heat transfer type of cooking.” Water can only be heated to its boiling point of 212°F before it becomes unstable and flies off into the air as steam. Oil can be heated far above this temperature. Of course, ovens can also achieve high heat, but in an oven, the heat source doesn’t have the same close contact with the food.
This high temperature is what gives fried food its satisfying texture. Because the oil is so much hotter than the boiling point of water, the water trapped in the cells of the chicken will instantaneously boil as soon as it’s introduced to the pan. This reaction, which Dr. Decker refers to as “flash evaporation,” creates steam. As the steam is formed, water molecules expand, generating pressure. This pressure sends the water molecules flying out of the chicken into the oil and the air, creating a crunchy, dry exterior with a satisfying bite.
“I was rewarded with a veritable symphony of bubbles: physical proof of flash evaporation.”
The end result is appealing, but working with hot oil at home can be nerve-wracking. Unlike water, which will simply boil away to nothing, overheated oil can hit a smoke point. Dr. Decker describes the smoke point as the temperature at which oils will begin to thermally degrade. At this point, the oil will begin visibly smoking, take on an acrid taste, and impart some truly unpleasant flavors into food. If things progress a step further, oil can reach its flash point and burst into flames.
It’s unlikely a pot of oil will reach its flash point in a home kitchen. According to Dr. Decker, the large volume of oil required for deep frying makes it difficult to achieve that extreme heat. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. Dr. Decker recommends keeping a lid nearby and quickly placing it on top of the pot in the event of a fire. With a tight seal, the fire will burn though all the oxygen in the pot and quickly extinguish itself. Dumping flour onto the flames is another way to safely extinguish them. Attempting to put the fire out with water would be the worst choice by far. Throwing water onto an oil fire would create the same flash evaporation reaction, but this time the steam and pressure will send oil and fire flying out of the pot and into the kitchen. Dinner will be ruined, property could be damaged, and at the very least, it will be a huge pain to clean up.