Szechuan-Spiced Fried Chicken
1 hour, plus time for brining
This bird (soaked in buttermilk and dredged in flour) starts out like “classic” southern fried chicken, but takes a turn at the end with a dusting of chile and Szechuan peppercorns. Combined, the heat of the chiles and tingling of the peppercorns makes this chicken kind of hard to put down.
3 cups buttermilk
1 whole cut-up chicken, or about 3 pounds chicken parts
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons Korean chili powder (Gochugaru) if you can find it, or any other ground chili powder
2 teaspoons sugar
Peanut or vegetable oil as needed
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole small dried red chiles, like Tien Tsin or chiles de arbol (optional)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced (optional)
1. Put the buttermilk in a large mixing bowl (or covered container) with a small handful of salt. Add the chicken pieces and make sure that they’re fully submerged. Cover with plastic (or the lid) and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but no more than 10.
2. Put the Szechuan peppercorns and cumin seeds in a small skillet over medium heat. Toast the spices, shaking the skillet occasionally, until they’re fragrant, 2 or 3 minutes. Transfer the spices to a grinder and pulverize them to a fine powder; transfer the mixture to a small bowl. (If there are shards of the peppercorns that won’t break down, sift the spices into the bowl through a fine mesh strainer.) Add the chili powder, sugar, and a good pinch of salt. (This is what will season the chicken after it’s fried, so make sure there is enough salt.)
3. Remove the chicken from the fridge. Put about 2 inches of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or skillet over medium-high heat. You’ll start frying at 325 F, so keep an eye on the temperature; I like to use a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pot. Heat the oven to 200 and fit a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack.
4. While the oil heats, put the flour in a large mixing bowl; add a big pinch of salt and stir to combine. Add about ¼ cup of the buttermilk brine to the flour, and stir it around so that little, pea-sized clumps of flour form. These clumps, when packed onto the chicken, are what will make the crust crunchy and craggy. One piece at a time, transfer the chicken to the flour mixture; press and pack the flour all over so that the chicken is thoroughly coated. Shake off any excess flour and transfer the chicken to a sheet pan.
5. When the oil reaches 325, it’s time to fry. Cook the chicken in two batches; thighs and legs in one batch, and breasts and wings in the other. As soon as you add the chicken, the oil temperature will drop, and that’s fine; it will climb back to 325 as the chicken cooks. For both batches, cook, checking and turning the pieces occasionally, until they’re crisp and golden all over and no longer pink at the bone. Thighs and legs will take around 15 minutes; breasts and wings will take around 12 minutes. Transfer the cooked chicken to the prepared pan and immediately sprinkle it with a generous amount of the spice mixture. Keep the chicken warm in the oven while you cook the remaining pieces. Turn off the heat under the oil.
6. Once all the chicken is cooked, put it on a platter, or whatever you want to serve it on. This next part is optional, but kind of fun: Put the sliced garlic and whole dried red chiles in a fine mesh strainer and lower it down into the oil that you used to fry the chicken (it should still be hot). Cook, shaking the strainer occasionally, until the garlic is lightly browned and the chiles are fragrant, no more than a minute. Let all the excess oil drip off, then scatter the garlic and chiles over the chicken and serve. The whole chiles are usually meant for flavor, not for eating, but feel free to nibble on them if you like an extra jolt of spice.