We always wondered where that phrase came from - and if ever there was a good time to use it, this post is it as Chef Cheryl puts three brands of cookware to the test with a classic dish - er pan - of fried chicken.
By Cheryl Shaffer, Chef Instructor
Assignment: Choose any product to highlight and become an “expert” in its use, best qualities and areas where another product might be a better choice for a specific function. We’ve used cast iron in my family for as long as I can remember - for everyday cooking as well as camping and at our cabin - so I already knew that my most beloved cookware line is Lodge Cast Iron, especially the frying pans and griddles. One of our heirloom frying pans has been in the family for six generations now. I love the Lodge line, not only because of familiarity, but because it reminds me of the spirit of Alaska and the cast iron cookware that both nourished the founders of our cities, towns and villages, and became a metaphor to their fortitude and grit.
I come from a family steeped in the traditions of Southern cooking, with an emphasis on the best-fried chicken to ever hit a plate. Well, that’s what I’ve been told by family and customers. My pan of choice has always been a cast iron frying pan, because of the weight of the pan, the dispersal of heat and its ability to keep the oil at an even temperature, and returning it quickly after the addition of new food. We all know that keeping the oil at a steady heat, not dropping by more than a few degrees, is crucial to even frying and slowing the absorption of oil into the food product. My hypothesis was that the Lodge skillet would hold the heat better than a non-stick pan or even a higher end, multi-layered stainless steel pan, and give a quicker, crisper crust and quick cleanup. I based my hypothesis not only on traditional use of the cast iron frying pans for family use, but also from my experience as a caterer and working in professional kitchens.
The time for the show down between three of our top selling frying pans had come. Would my tried and true friend, the Lodge Cast Iron 14-SK, blow the competition out of the oil, or would I be surprised with a dark horse in our midst? I chose for the competition a Swiss Diamond Classic 5.8 qt. Sauté Pan to represent the non-stick category and the Al-Clad 6 qt. Stainless Fry Pan, to champion the stainless steel pans. The gauntlet had been thrown, let the testing begin...
Grandma Stella’s Southern Fried Chicken
1 family sized package chicken drumsticks (with skin and not boneless)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal (I used yellow)
1 Tbs. garlic powder
1 Tbs. Mrs. Dash
1 Tbs. coarse grind black pepper
1 Tbs. cayenne pepper (for the dredge mix)
1 Tbs. cayenne pepper (for seasoning the chicken before dredging)
1 cup cornstarch
1 Tbs. dried parsley
Wesson Cooking Oil – or any comparable oil is fine
½ cup milk
salt and pepper
3 cups milk, or enough to cover chicken in a bowl for soaking chicken 3 hours or overnight
Clean and check over your chicken pieces to ensure they don’t have any little feathers hiding. If you have time, soak the chicken in a bowl with just enough milk to cover the chicken. Discard the milk when ready to prepare the chicken for frying. Rinse the chicken and dry with a paper towel.
Lay the chicken in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Salt, pepper and sprinkle with cayenne pepper on both sides.
Place all three of the frying pans onto your stove, and add oil to a 1-1/2” depth in each pan. Adjust the heat under the pans to about medium/high, and allow the oil to heat while you coat your chicken pieces.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs and milk. Set aside. In a second bowl or paper bag, add the cornstarch. Set aside. In a third bowl, or paper bag, add the remaining dry ingredients, and shake or mix well.
Drop a few pieces of chicken into the bag / bowl with cornstarch and coat it. Shake off the excess. Next, dip the chicken into the egg / milk mixture, then drop it into the bag or bowl of flour coating and shake / toss well to coat. Place the coated pieces back onto the cookie sheet to rest for a few minutes, while you repeat the process until all of the chicken is coated.
Test your oil temperature, bringing it to 375 degrees F. Your ideal temperature for frying is 350 degrees F, but the oil is going to drop when you first add the chicken, so bring it a little higher than you need to start, and adjust it after you add the chicken. Carefully place the chicken into the pans, ensuring that the pieces do not touch, or they will steam and you won’t develop the desired crunch on the coating. I used a splatter screen on each pan to help reduce the oil popping.
Watching each pan carefully, I noted that the Lodge pan came up to initial temperature with heating the oil the quickest, followed by the All-Clad. It also caramelized the coating the fastest and most evenly, and brought the chicken to the desired 165 degrees F “done” temperature several minutes before the other two pans, and dropped the oil temperature the least with the addition of new pieces of chicken.
When the chicken appeared to be finished cooking, I removed it to a wire cooling rack set over a cookie sheet, and checked the internal temperature to ensure it had achieved 165 degrees F close to the bone. As the chicken finished frying, I also separated it into three sections, so that it could be tested for meeting the hypothesis by my panel of seasoned judges, co-workers and customers.
The judgment time arrived, and the following results were noted:
Time to heat oil to temperature: (in order of performance)
Time to cook chicken, over-all:
Crispiness of coating on chicken:
Lodge TIED WITH All-Clad
Evenness of overall cooking – aka: did the chicken look uniformly cooked
All-Clad tied with Lodge
Ease of cleanup
Final thoughts: I was not surprised at all by the performance of the Lodge pan. I was happily impressed with the showing by the All-Clad pan: it exceeded my expectations in all areas, except cleanup. The Swiss Diamond did well, and did give us a good final product, but it took much longer to cook the chicken, which equated to my time and the expense of greater energy use, but it didn’t produce a crunch equal to the Lodge or All-Clad pans, and the browning of the coating was not as even as with the other two pans. Overall, I’d happily encourage customers to purchase any of the cookware, but now I can say with complete authority, which would be their better choice for chicken frying, and be able to back up my word with test kitchen results. Happy Frying!