We were on our spring break trip through Texas and Louisiana, to find some of the best everyman food in the South, and decided to end it off in the Big Easy. My non-food memories of New Orleans nights: spring break beads, neon lights, being able to carry alcohol openly in the French Quarter, live music every 50 metres, pina colada dispensed from industrial slushie machines. New Orleans in March is what I can only describe as the Spring Break pilgrimage capital of America.
The French Quarter was hardly disturbed (thankfully) during Hurricane Katrina, but it is still possible to see the damage 8 years on – exploded train yards, damaged houses. The city remains one of the most vibrant in America, attracting tourists, spring breakers, street performers, musicians.
But to the food. New Orleans has a reputation for fried chicken (witness the global franchising of the not-very-good Popeye’s chicken chain): and Fiorella’s is noted within New Orleans for serving very good fried chicken. For what it was worth, this had an a crispy savory outer layer, an armour of salty crust, and juicy dark red meat within.
The secret to such great fried chicken seems to be a set of hydrolysis reactions, that render broken-in oil better than freshly-used oil.
Food cooked in fresh oil browns less quickly and evenly. But why should that be, given that fresh oil gets just as hot as oil that has been broken in?
The answer comes down to the simple fact that oil and water don’t mix – at least not at first. Steam bubbles streaming from deep-frying food push away the surrounding oil, so the food actually isn’t in constant contact with it. In fact, food frying in fresh oil spends as little as one-tenth of the cooking time in contact with hot oil. […]
After repeated use, frying oil goes through another set of chemical reactions, called hydrolysis, that split and rearrange some of the fat molecules. Among the new reaction products are surfactants – also known as emulsifiers – that allow oil and water to mix.
Food cooked in oil that’s been “broken in” this way will spend upwards of half of the total frying time in contact with the oil. With heat being delivered more rapidly, the food cooks faster to higher temperatures, an even golden-brown color, and a more robust flavor.
Unfortunately, oil cannot be kept in its peak condition forever. Eventually the oil and water mix too well, and the oil spends too much time in contact with the food, causing scorching. – Modernist Cuisine volume 2, Nathan Myhrvold.
Since almost every table at Fiorella’s ordered the fried chicken, I think they had some fairly good oil management techniques.
Other possible sources of fried-chicken deliciousness:
- Often in Southern recipes, chicken is soaked in salted milk before deep-frying. The moisture from the milk could form a skin that resists the absorption of oil. The “skin” effect is enhanced by salt.
- It is important to strain out broken-off food particles from the oil before they burn, creating toxic compounds.
- Colonel Sanders of KFC also used a breakthrough pressure-based deep-fryer to tenderise the meat of older birds (today chickens are slaughtered 10 weeks sooner than they used to). So this is a good technique for heirloom chickens, but probably not those at Fiorella.