Welcome back to Cookbook Showdown, where one brave Book Riot contributor tests multiple recipes for the same dish from various popular cookbooks to find out which one comes out on top! I genuinely love performing these culinary experiments because it’s not only a great way to improve my cooking and baking skills; it’s also a fascinating approach to exploring various cookbooks and getting a feel for their style. Today, we’re talking about one of my favorite foods: fried chicken. Almost every great chef has their own take on fried chicken. I tested recipes from chefs Alton Brown, Carla Hall, and Zoe Adjonyoh, and Eric Kim. Which fried chicken had the perfect mix of crispiness, juiciness, and flavor? Stay tuned to find out!
I usually start these things with a brief exploration of the history of the food, but let’s be real: Every culture has their own version of fried chicken, and there’s no use arguing over who did it first. Scotland apparently makes some claims, but ah dinnae kin if I buy that argument. It’s just as likely that the dish was found earlier in Africa, Asia, or South America.
So instead of spending too much time on history, let’s look at what separates all the different kinds of fried chicken. There’s no universally agreed upon method for making fried chicken, beyond the fact that it involves chicken that’s fried. Here are some of the techniques and ingredients that vary from recipe to recipe:
- Parts of the chicken: We can generally agree that it’s best to fry the chicken in pieces rather than the whole bird, but which pieces? Thighs? Breast meat? Wings? Drumsticks? All of them?
- Breading: Ingredients for a crispy coating can include flour, breadcrumbs, cornstarch, potato starch, and more. Some recipes also call for dredging the chicken in egg and/or milk to help dry ingredients stick to the surface. And when it comes to seasonings in the breading, the sky is the limit.
- Frying liquid: Many kinds of fats can be used to fry, including vegetable oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and palm oil (although I didn’t test that because I love orangutans).
When choosing the best fried chicken recipes for this Cookbook Showdown, I shot for variety in all of the above categories, as well as general flavor profiles. To be honest, I could have spent a year testing dozens of recipes and still not gotten tired of fried chicken. I especially enjoyed making sides and sauces suggested as accompaniments to some of the chicken recipes from the same cookbooks. I’ll share what those were as we go through, but they won’t count toward the fried chicken’s scores.
Speaking of scores, I’ll be judging the recipes on flavor, crispiness and effectiveness of the breading, and how well the leftovers held up, as I find that to be an essential quality in good fried chicken. Those will be considered as a group for the overall score. I should also warn you that fried chicken isn’t the most photogenic of foods, and I’m not the most talented food photographer, so you’ll have to take my word on the taste and not give the photos too much weight here. Alright, let’s get to frying!
Cookbook Showdown: Fried Chicken
EveryDayCook by Alton Brown
Alton Brown is one of the most iconic TV chefs and food personalities, known especially for his show Good Eats and hosting Iron Chef America. His unique blend of science and humor make for educational and entertaining content. In this 2016 cookbook, Brown focuses on the personal recipes that most often make appearances in his home or are meaningful for his family. And interestingly, all the photos in the cookbook were taken on Brown’s iPhone!
EveryDayCook breaks down its recipes into time of day (morning, noon, afternoon, late, etc.), and his “The General’s Fried Chicken” recipe falls into the anytime section. This spoke directly to my soul, as someone who could eat fried chicken at any meal. Based on one of Brown’s more frequent Good Eats characters and the bourbon in the batter, I believe this recipe is meant to imitate a certain fried chicken chain. But was the result finger-licking good?
Alton Brown’s “The General’s Fried Chicken”
Brown’s recipe calls for eight pieces of chicken, preferably legs and thighs. The chicken is seasoned and left in the fridge for at least four hours and up to overnight. It’s dredged in a buttermilk, egg, and bourbon mixture, then coated in flour, cornstarch, and spices before being fried in peanut oil.
In my test, Brown’s chicken went pretty much according to plan. The batter flaked off in places and didn’t fully adhere to the chicken skin. But overall, the process worked as described, and I was more than happy to eat the finished product.
Alton Brown’s Fried Chicken Scores
- Flavor: 2.5/5 — The blend of sumac, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper in the dry rub and breading wasn’t the most thrilling, but it was nice. I wish some of the bourbon flavor had stuck around.
- Breading: 3/5 — The coating was crispy but a little dry in the end and broke off in places. Brown promises that keeping the oil at the perfect temperature should cook the chicken to a safe temperature at the exact moment the breading is golden brown, but I think the breading got a little too dark in my case.
- Leftover-ability: 4.5/5 — I actually thought this chicken tasted better leftover than the first time around. The breading crisped up nicely in the toaster oven.
- Overall: 3.5/5 — I definitely wasn’t mad at it, but more complex flavor would have been nice, and the breading was a little too flaky.
Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration by Carla Hall with Genevieve Ko
Carla Hall is also a beloved TV chef, known as a fan favorite from seasons 5 and 8 of Top Chef and as a cohost of The Chew. With roots in Nashville and Washington, DC, Hall is known for fresh, vegetable-forward takes on classic Southern comfort food. I first checked this cookbook out of the library for my Macaroni and Cheese Cookbook Showdown, and after trying a few recipes from it, I all but ran to my nearest independent bookstore to buy my own copy.
Ahead of Hall’s recipe for “Pineapple-Habanero Honey Fried Chicken” is a short essay on the role fried chicken has played throughout her life and a historical note on how fried chicken was once (and should still be) considered a special occasion food, an indulgence between more earth-friendly vegetable dishes. While Hall says the seasoning in her fried chicken can stand alone, she also suggests making her hot sauce recipe and drizzling the chicken with that and honey. As a spicy lover, I had to give it a try.
Carla Hall’s “Pineapple-Habanero Honey Fried Chicken”
I started with the hot sauce, using a combination of peppers from the farmers market that weren’t exactly what the recipe called for but had some of the types she suggested. And holy cow, was it spicy! The cooking process made all the air in my apartment spicy too. I had to make it in a KN95 mask and was still coughing and crying! The sauce turned out potent but delicious.
The chicken recipe involved breaking down a whole bird into drumsticks, thighs, wings, and breasts. This, it turns out, is my favorite method of making fried chicken. It takes a little more work and practice to break down a chicken, but I love using the carcass to make chicken stock. The chicken pieces are coated in seasoning and a pickle juice brine, then coated in flour and fried in vegetable oil. This chicken turned out just as expected and was completely delicious, especially with the hot sauce and honey. I barely managed to hold onto enough extra to try it as leftovers!
Carla Hall’s Fried Chicken Scores
- Flavor: 5/5 — Sweet and spicy is extremely my jam, so I absolutely loved the pineapple-habanero hot sauce and honey. For seasoning, the chicken included onion and garlic powder, sweet paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and dill pickle juice. This all led to a wonderfully complex flavor.
- Breading: 4/5 — The breading worked really well, with the pickle juice helping the flour mixture stick. Some small bits fell off and it got a little overcooked on the dark meat pieces, but it had a great texture.
- Leftover-ability: 5/5 — This reheated well in the toaster oven, and I think it also would have been tasty cold.
- Overall: 4.5/5 — This was near-perfect fried chicken. I would happily eat it again and again.
Zoe Adjonyoh has spent years working to introduce the culinary world to beloved Ghanian flavors and dishes. From her beautiful cookbook full of personal stories to her pop-up brand Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen in London and New York, her food is full of big flavors and big heart. I’d been wanting to try recipes from this cookbook for a while and was excited to break it in with a full meal.
Adjonyoh’s “Jollof Fried Chicken” recipe is inspired by one of the most popular street-food and restaurant dishes throughout Ghana. I made a few other simple recipes from the book to accompany it, including “Waakye Rice”, “Simple Fried Plantain”, and “Nkatse Cake” for dessert, a nut brittle served over ice cream. I was really pleased with all the other dishes.
Zoe Adjonyoh’s “Jollof Fried Chicken”
This fried chicken recipe calls for chicken breast strips coated in seasoning and left to marinate overnight. They’re then breaded with cornflour and seasonings and fried in vegetable oil. Full disclosure: Cornflour is a more popular ingredient in recipes from the UK, in my experience, and can be tricky to find in the states. I couldn’t find it at my grocery, so I substituted cornstarch with a bit of cornmeal as suggested online.
I had a lot of trouble with this breading falling off of the chicken. Hopefully it works better with proper cornflour. In my case, it fell off almost as soon as it hit the oil. I also wish more of the seasoning was added to the breading instead of just in the marinade so more of those flavors would have come through. But it still worked well with the other sides from Adjonyoh’s cookbook.
Zoe Adjonyoh’s Fried Chicken Scores
- Flavor: 3/5 — For how much jollof seasoning, nutmeg, salt, and pepper went into the marinade, I was surprised at how bland the final product was. It was tasty, but I think I would add jollof seasoning to the breading if I were to do it over.
- Breading: 1.5/5 — I had lots of trouble keeping the breading on the chicken while it was cooking and once it came out of the oil. It was nice and crispy but hard to wrangle, and lacked seasoning in the breading itself.
- Leftover-ability: 3/5 — Losing so much of the coating while cooking meant the reheated chicken was a little naked in spots, but some of the flavors were more apparent the second time around.
- Overall: 2.5/5 — I would love to try this recipe again with proper cornflour to see if my results vary, but the breading was a letdown. The other dishes I made from the cookbook for this meal all turned out better than the centerpiece.
Korean American: Food that Tastes like Home by Eric Kim
Eric Kim has a big fan-following for his recipes and food writing at the New York Times. His debut cookbook digs into his roots as a first generation Korean American, with recipes that marry Korean flavors and ingredients with traditional American comfort foods. It’s got gorgeous pictures and moving stories from Kim’s time visiting his mother in Georgia while creating and testing recipes.
Kim’s “Aunt Georgia’s Soy Sauce Fried Chicken with Jalapeños” is not only the most talked about recipe from the cookbook; it’s also the cover dish. Looking at the photos alone, you can tell it’s crispy yet juicy and coated with a glistening sauce. Kim insists the chicken be served with his pickled “Chicken Radishes.” I also made his “Charred Cauliflower with Magic Gochugaru Dust” as well as his “No-Churn Ice Cream with Dalgona Butterscotch Sauce” for dessert.
Eric Kim’s “Aunt Georgia’s Soy Sauce Fried Chicken with Jalapeños”
The recipe calls for a whole chicken cut into parts (more chicken stock for me!), then coated with salt, pepper, and potato starch. Then it’s coated again with potato starch, giving each piece a thorough breading. The chicken is par-fried in vegetable oil, pulled out to rest, then fried a second time until cooked through. This creates beautifully crispy chicken with a stable coating. It’s then tossed in a skillet of simmering sauce made from garlic, jalapeños, brown sugar, and soy sauce.
The method of double-coating and double-frying worked wonders for this chicken, and the sauce was absolutely incredible. All the other dishes I made alongside the chicken were also spectacular. After this meal, I would die for Eric Kim. No questions asked.
Eric Kim’s Fried Chicken Scores
- Flavor: 5/5 — Can I give it a 6/5? The spice of the jalapeños with the brown sugar, the sticky sauce on the crispy chicken, the perfect cook from twice frying…I’m literally drooling thinking about it now.
- Breading: 5/5 — I’m fully converted to potato starch as the superior fried chicken coating. It stuck to the chicken skin perfectly, and although it doesn’t turn the same golden color as wheat or corn flour, the texture is incredible. The way you can cover it in sauce and it still stays crispy blows my mind.
- Leftover-ability: 5/5 — I honestly can’t tell you how this reheated because I ate it cold straight out of the fridge, and it was still remarkably delicious.
- Overall: 5/5 — This is dream fried chicken, in my opinion. Crispy yet saucy, spicy and sweet, tender perfection. I will absolutely be making it again.
Fried Chicken Cookbook Showdown Final Results
I usually take a moment at this point to reflect on what I’ve learned about the dish I’ve tested. In this case, I’ve learned that there are many ways to fry a chicken, and plenty of them will turn out to be delicious. In fact, I would happily undergo this experiment again with four different fried chicken recipes. My best advice for you, I suppose, is to not be afraid of making fried chicken at home. It’s not as intimidating as it seems, as long as you’re careful not to splash yourself with hot oil!
So without further ado, I present to you…
The Winner: Eric Kim’s “Aunt Georgia’s Soy Sauce Fried Chicken with Jalapeños” from Korean American
I love this chicken. I would eat this chicken for every meal. I’m going to tattoo a picture of this chicken on my body. (Not really, but wouldn’t that be cool?) It defies the laws of physics with its juicy center, crispy coating, and sticky sweet sauce. How can all those things exist at once? And not only fresh out of the oil, but later at room temperature, and even days later refrigerated? It’s magic. That’s the only answer. Based on how much I loved this and every other dish I’ve tried from Eric Kim’s cookbook, I say: Run, don’t walk, to your nearest independent bookstore and buy Korean American. You won’t regret it.
Runner Up: Carla Hall’s “Pineapple-Habanero Honey Fried Chicken”
I couldn’t let this article rest without also mentioning how much I adore Carla Hall’s fried chicken recipe. It’s approachable and fairly simple to make, and the results are spectacular. It also inspired me to make more hot sauce at home. This is another recipe I’ll absolutely return to, and Carla Hall’s Soul Food is a cookbook with many recipes I can’t wait to try.
We hope you enjoyed this test of the best fried chicken recipes! Check out these other Cookbook Showdowns: