Generally, chickens are not fried whole; instead, the chicken is divided into its four main constituent pieces: the two white meat sections are the breast and the wing from the front of the chicken, while the dark meat sections are the thigh and leg or "drumstick", are from the rear of the chicken. To prepare the chicken pieces for frying, they are dredged in flour or a similar dry substance (possibly following marination or dipping in milk or buttermilk) to coat the meat and to develop a crust. Seasonings such as salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, or ranch dressing mix can be mixed in with the flour. As the pieces of chicken cook, some of the moisture that exudes from the chicken is absorbed by the coating of flour and browns along with the flour, creating a flavorful crust. Traditionally, lard is used to fry the chicken, but corn oil, peanut oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil are also frequently used. The flavor of olive oil is generally considered too strong to be used for traditional fried chicken, and its low smoke point makes it unsuitable for use.
There are three main techniques for frying chickens: pan frying, deep frying and broasting. Pan frying (or shallow frying) requires a frying pan of sturdy construction and a source of fat that does not fully immerse the chicken. The chicken pieces are prepared as above, then fried. Generally the fat is heated to a temperature hot enough to seal (without browning, at this point) the outside of the chicken pieces. Once the pieces have been added to the hot fat and sealed, the temperature is reduced. There is debate as to how often to turn the chicken pieces, with one camp arguing for often turning and even browning, and the other camp pushing for letting the pieces render skin side down and only turning when absolutely necessary. Once the chicken pieces are close to being done the temperature is raised and the pieces are browned to the desired color (some cooks add small amounts of butter at this point to enhance browning). The moisture from the chicken that sticks and browns on the bottom of the pan become the fonds required to make gravy. Chicken Maryland is made when the pan of chicken pieces, and fat, is placed in the oven to cook, for a majority of the overall cooking time, basically "fried in the oven".
Deep frying requires a deep fryer or other device in which the chicken pieces can be completely submerged in hot fat. The pieces are floured as above or battered using a batter of flour and liquid (and seasonings) mixed together. The batter can/may contain ingredients like eggs, milk, and leavening. The fat is heated in the deep fryer to the desired temperature. The pieces are added to the fat and a constant temperature is maintained throughout the cooking process.
Broasting uses a pressure cooker to accelerate the process. The moisture inside the chicken becomes steam and increases the pressure in the cooker, lowering the cooking temperature needed. The steam also cooks the chicken through, but still allows the pieces to be moist and tender while maintaining a crisp coating. Fat is heated in a pressure cooker. Chicken pieces are then floured or battered and then placed in the hot fat. The lid is placed on the pressure cooker, and the chicken pieces are thus fried under pressure.
Fritters have existed in Europe since the middle ages. The Scots, and later Scottish immigrants to the southern United States, had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat, unlike their English counterparts who baked or boiled chicken.
A number of West African cuisines featured dishes where chicken was fried, typically in palm oil, sometimes having been battered before. These would be served on special occasions in some areas, or sometimes sold in the streets as snacks in others. This provided some means of independent economy for enslaved and segregated African American women, who became noted sellers of poultry (live or cooked) as early as the 1730s. Because of this and the expensive nature of the ingredients, it was, despite popular perception, a rare and special dish in the African-American community.
After the development of larger and faster-growing hogs (due to crosses between European and Asian breeds) in the 18th and 19th century, in the United States, backyard and small-scale hog production provided an inexpensive means of converting waste food, crop waste, and garbage into calories (in a relatively small space and in a relatively short period of time). Many of those calories came in the form of fat and rendered lard. Lard was used for almost all cooking and was a fundamental component in many common homestead foods (many that today are still regarded as holiday and comfort foods) like biscuits and pies. The economic/caloric necessity of consuming lard and other saved fats may have led to the popularity of fried foods, not only in the US, but worldwide. In the 19th century cast iron became widely available for use in cooking. The combination of flour, lard, a chicken and a heavy pan placed over a relatively controllable flame became the beginning of today's fried chicken.
When it was introduced to the American South, fried chicken became a common staple. Later, as the slave trade led to Africans being brought to work on southern plantations, the slaves who became cooks incorporated seasonings and spices that were absent in traditional Scottish cuisine, enriching the flavor. Since most slaves were unable to raise expensive meats, but generally allowed to keep chickens, frying chicken on special occasions continued in the African American communities of the South. It endured the fall of slavery and gradually passed into common use as a general Southern dish. Since fried chicken traveled well in hot weather before refrigeration was commonplace, it gained further favor in the periods of American history when segregationclosed off most restaurants to the black population. Fried chicken continues to be among this region's top choices for "Sunday dinner" among both blacks and whites. Holidays such asIndependence Day and other gatherings often feature this dish.
Since the American Civil War, traditional slave foods like fried chicken, watermelon, and chitterlings have suffered a strong association with African American stereotypes and blackfaceminstrelsy. This was commercialized for the first half of the 20th century by restaurants like Sambo's and Coon Chicken Inn, which selected exaggerated depictions of blacks as mascots, implying quality by their association with the stereotype. Although also being acknowledged positively as "soul food" today, the affinity that African American culture has for fried chicken has been considered a delicate, often pejorative issue. While the perception of fried chicken as an ethnic dish has been fading for several decades, with the ubiquity of fried chicken dishes in the US, it persists as a racial stereotype.
Before the industrialization of chicken production, and the creation of broiler breeds of chicken, only young spring chickens (pullets or cockerels) would be suitable for the higher heat and relatively fast cooking time of frying, making fried chicken a luxury of spring and summer. Older, tougher birds require longer cooking times at lower temperatures. To compensate for this, sometimes tougher birds are simmered till tender, allowed to cool and dry, and then fried. (This method is common in Australia.) Another method is to fry the chicken pieces using a pan fried method. The chicken pieces are then simmered in liquid, usually, a gravy made in the pan that the chicken pieces were cooked in. This process (of flouring, frying and simmering in gravy) is known as "smothering" and can be used for other tough cuts of meat, such as swiss steak. Smothered chicken is still consumed today, though with the exception of people who raise their own chickens, or who seek out stewing hens, it is primarily made using commercial broiler chickens.
The derivative phrases "country fried" and "chicken fried" often refer to other foods prepared in the manner of fried chicken. Usually, this means a boneless, tenderized piece of meat that has been floured or battered and cooked in any of the methods described above or simply chicken which is cooked outdoors. Chicken fried steak and "country fried" boneless chicken breast are two common examples.