Tea brined, buttermilk soaked, rolled in a seasoned flour-corn dredge, this Virginia Fried Chicken is Pure Poultry Perfection, inspired by the champion of Lowcountry Southern cooking, Sean Brock.
UPDATE: First written in 2015 after the release of Sean Brock’s first book, Heritage, which became a New York Times Best Seller. Sean has since published another ode to his roots; South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, which was released in 2019 and quickly became a best seller. This recipe for Virginia Fried Chicken is still a much-loved take on one of my favorite foods, many years later.
Southern Fried Revelation
Inspired by a book added to our household collection this Christmas, Sean Brock’s Heritage, to which I owe a debt of gratitude because it’s changed the way I do fried chicken, forever. An intensely personal read, Heritage is one of those cookbooks that draws you into the world of the author without any pretense or melodrama. A collection of tales and recipes that reveal as much about the man, his heritage, and upbringing as any tattle-tale Hollywood autobiography, it’s a good read for those food-inspired.
With recipes that vary from simple Lowcountry fare (How To Cook Grits Like a Southerner) to complicated, multi-stepped dishes with elements of molecular cuisine (Stone Crab with Cucumber Juice, Fennel Jelly and Raw Apple), this book offers something for a variety of skill levels. If you’re a home cook Sean Brock will push you, if you’re a professional chef he will offer you new combinations of flavours, and if you’re a food freak, he will school you on Southern cuisine like a ruler-tottin’ school marm’. Punctuated by the stunning photography of Peter Frank Edwards, it’s a book that’s hard to put down.
Touted as “one of the most important chefs in America” by Anthony Bourdain, in Heritage, Brock draws you into his mindset, his beliefs, and his kitchen. It’s a story well told, interspersed with sugary confections, garden-fresh fare, a soliloquy to pork, a smattering of seafood and a selection of Bourbon-driven cocktails that make one swoon. Next time you’re in Charleston or Nashville check out his acclaimed restaurant Husk, or McCrady’s (also in Charleston).
The Gospel of Brock
Brock’s recipe for Fried Chicken and Gravy (page 101) caught my eye on my first browse. First, because it looked amazing, perfectly crusted, and crispy, second because his technique varied from mine. A down-home Virginia boy, I thought he might know a thing or two worth knowing about fried chicken. Turns out, I was right.
Humble Ingredients and a Layer of Flavour
In his original recipe, Brock blends four fats, lard, chicken fat, canola oil, bacon fat, and butter (yo, r-e-s-p-e-c-t), for a deep-rooted country flavour that’s unique. His flour dredge is milder, and we differ in the quantities of tea for his signature brine. So I did what we all do in the kitchen; borrowed elements from Brock’s recipe and married them with some of my own. The resulting (killer) recipe is what I call Virginia Fried Chicken, in honor of Brock’s humble inspiration.
This isn’t my first fried chicken. Generally, I’m a buttermilk kinda’ gal, soaking for 12 to 24 hours for a smooth, creamy texture to the meat. Then I drain, toss with flour dredge and fry. Simple, tasty, homespun, and extraordinarily popular.
What Brock brought to my kitchen was a new layer of flavour and aroma, with a black tea brine. The brine seasons the chicken over the course of 12 hours and tints the skin a deep shade of amber. Brock also soaks in buttermilk, but only an hour, at room temperature. What bettered my technique, was how he handles the flour dredge, holding the chicken at two stages, both in the dredge and on a rack to air dry, to allow that perfect crust to form. (Hallelujah!)
Testing & Tasting
I’ve tried this recipe both in the commercial kitchen and my home kitchen until I got it just where I wanted it. Customers love the added elements that make this a comfort food favorite. In this recipe, I’ve used a combination of rendered bacon fat and corn oil, for a high-smoke point oil that leaves a deep, southern-style flavour. Of course, you can use any combination of fat/fats you like, just be sure it’s a high-temperature frying oil and NEVER leave it hot and unattended on the stove. (Safety first folks.) Instead of finishing on the stovetop in my home kitchen, I crisp the chicken to a deep brown and finish it in the oven, on a wire rack. Less mess, same crisp result.
I only wish the light had held for a better-finished photo. Blast these short days of winter! Oh well, better blogging next time.
If you love a good fried chicken, this will leave you greasy-lipped and gobsmacked.
Tea brined, buttermilk soaked, and rolled in a seasoned flour-corn dredge, this Virginia Fried Chicken recipe has long been a favorite in my kitchen. Inspired by the champion of Lowcountry Southern cooking, Sean Brock, it’s pure poultry PERFECTION!
10 cups water
16 tea bags
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup salt
1 chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into 8 pieces (or 3 pounds of chicken, skin on)
4 cups (1 liter) buttermilk
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon hot sauce (Tobasco, Franks, Sirachia, insert your hot sauce here)
3 cups flour
1/2 cup fine cornmeal, or polenta cornflour
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon pepper (fresh, ground preferred)
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 cup corn oil
1 cup lard or rendered bacon grease
plus flaked sea salt to finish
1) For the brine: bring water to a boil in a large pot, add tea bags and brew about 15 minutes, until dark and rich. While still hot, remove tea bags and dissolve salt and sugar in the dark tea. Allow to cool to room temperature. Then immerse chicken pieces in brine and refrigerate overnight, for 12 hours.
2) Remove chicken from brine and immerse in a cold water bath for 5 minutes to remove impurities, then dry well with a paper towel. Prepare the buttermilk: in a large bowl, or ziplock bag, combine buttermilk, thyme, salt, and hot sauce. Immerse chicken in seasoned buttermilk and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
3) Mix flour, cornmeal (or cornflour), cornstarch, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and salt in a large bowl. Remove chicken from buttermilk and roll each piece in flour mixture until well coated, then let stand in seasoned flour, well covered, for 15 minutes. Remove chicken from dredge, shake off excess flour and let stand on a wire rack for another 15 minutes.
4) Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Now you’re ready to fry. In a large, deep skillet heat oil and rendered fat (or lard) to 300°F (145°C). When oil is hot, place chicken skin side down and fry for five minutes, maintaining a medium-high heat, until golden brown. Turn and fry the other side for 5 minutes, then sear any edges that are pale or soft, so that the entire surface is well crisped. Repeat as needed until all pieces are crisp on all sides. Remove from skillet and place on a wire rack, well coated with non-stick spray. Place in 350°F (175°C) oven for 15 to 25 minutes (depending on the size of your chicken) until internal temperature reads 165°F (74°C). Remove from oven and allow to rest five to eight minutes, then serve immediately, finished with flaked sea salt.
White meat pieces finish faster than dark meat. Temp your chicken and, if needed transfer it out of the oven so that it doesn’t dry. I often start with the dark meat first, and put it in the oven right away, adding the white meat as it’s ready. I find this timing works best, ensuring a perfect result. Or, I pick up just one cut, like the photo above, and start with the larger pieces, this also works well and it means less moving things in and out of ovens.
A well-seasoned cast-iron pan is your best-fried-chicken friend. I went copper for this batch, bigger surface, good conductivity. Go forth and fry.
Cooking in her home kitchen just outside Ottawa, Canada; Cori Horton is a food photographer and recipe blogger. A Cordon Bleu-trained Chef, Cori spent five years as the owner of Nova Scotia's Dragonfly Inn and has been sharing all things delicious - right here - since 2010.