Fried chicken is one of the main attractions on the buffet at Keystone Family Restaurant in Waynseboro, Pa.
Decades ago, homemade fried chicken was a favorite maindish attraction at family get-togethers. While the task of cleaning, breading and frying the chicken in a skillet was time-consuming, it was tackled with a sense of purpose and pleasure by cooks aiming to please the palates of their families and friends.
"Everyone has that memory of going to Grandma's for fried chicken," says AC&T District Manager Susan Tibbens. Those memories are tied to a different time period where comfort foods were not merely an occasional treat, but part of the normal routine for workers whose jobs required activity and motion. For family matriarchs, cooking was much more than an after-hours chore. It was an integral part of the work-athome day. "I grew up as a farm girl, and my mother made fried chicken every week for Sunday dinner," says Bonnie Renard, owner of Smithsburg Market at 48 S. Main St.
Many customers tell Bonnie they don't have time to prepare fried chicken from scratch like their mothers or grandmothers did. They'd rather buy fried chicken prepared by someone else. Bonnie says her biggest compliment is when people pass off her fried chicken as their own. Sometimes customers buy chicken from her store and take it home to serve on a fancy platter.
For those who do prepare chicken at home, Bonnie says it is important to invest in a meat thermometer, which will help prevent overcooking. To be considered safe to eat, chicken should reach at least 160 degrees. Bonnie says people are often concerned about the health risks of undercooking chicken, and, as a result, overcook it. A thermometer eliminates the concern of undercooking and the dryness of overcooking, she says.
Cooks preparing chicken at home should start with cold chicken and make sure the grease is hot, says Susan, who oversees AC&T food- service operations.
Phil Hott, owner of Phil and Jerry's Meats and More, says most businesses pressure cook fried chicken, which keeps the juices in and adds to the flavor.
The breading used can make all the difference in the taste, and home cooks can create their own breading from basic kitchen ingredients. Keystone Family Restaurant in Waynesboro, Pa., uses breading that is made in-house, and while Manager Jason Gouff declines to share the specifics of the recipe, he says the base of it is flour mixed with various seasonings, such as paprika, garlic powder, salt and pepper.
For a "bitey" taste, red pepper can be added to the breading, too, suggests George Rowe of Ernst Market, 11650 Dam No. 5 Road in Clear Spring. "I'm all the time trying something different," George says about his cooking at home. George recommends letting the chicken sit refrigerated in the breading for a couple hours so the flavors have time to soak into the meat.
After frying, Bonnie suggests that the chicken bones be placed facedown so the "pretty" side of the chicken is facing up, which also will help any residual grease to drain. To reduce the amount of fat added to the skin, try lightly searing the chicken in oil on the stove and then baking it in an oven until it is finished, Jason advises.
Most businesses pressure cook fried chicken, which keeps the juices in, adding to the flavor, says Phil Hott, owner of Phil and Jerry's Meats and More, a family-owned business on Jefferson Boulevard near Smithsburg. Fried chicken prepared that way retains moisture more effectively than skillet- frying, which is how most fried chicken is prepared at home. Pressure frying is also quicker than pan frying, Phil says. Whereas chicken fried in a pan can take up to 30 minutes to prepare, chicken done in a pressure cooker takes about 15 minutes.
The concept of pressure-cooked chicken is credited to Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. KFC chicken is pressure-cooked at a low temperature, according to kfc.com.
While KFC is a fast-food mainstay, fried chicken connoisseurs have several local options for crisp, juicy offerings to serve for anything from a small family gathering to a large celebration. Busy families like to stop in for an eight-piece chicken dinner with sides and rolls, Susan says, adding that customers call ahead so the dinners are ready for pickup when they arrive. "It's quick, easy and on the way home," she says. "Now it's easier than ever to roll into an AC&T and grab dinner for the evening. We are able to move a lot of chicken. It's fresh, hot and affordable."
Fried chicken is also a mainstay on buffets offered in area restaurants and catered events. The buffet at Keystone Family Restaurant features fried chicken seven days a week for lunch and dinner. "It's one of our main attractions," says Jason, noting that he also receives a substantial number of carryout orders and catering requests for fried chicken.
From picnics to wedding receptions, fried chicken is also the most requested item offered for events catered by Ernst Market. "At least 80 percent of people want fried chicken with the menu" for special events, says George, who is a partner in the business with Greg Ernst.
Other chicken options also are hits at area markets and restaurants. Among the offerings most popular with Phil and Jerry's customers are the chicken livers and gizzards, Phil says. AC&T customers also ask for the fried chicken livers and gizzards. Additionally, sales of chicken tenders and chicken wings are increasing.
Sometimes AC&T customers order fried chicken and pans of macaroni and cheese and coleslaw to create their own "catering" event for a family reunion or other get-togethers. It's less work than making the dishes at home, says Susan, explaining that customers selecting that option do the setup themselves. Quite often, the sides are as popular as the main event.
At times, Smithsburg Market customers bring in serving dishes and request a "bowl full" of Bonnie's coleslaw. "My coleslaw recipe is the recipe that got my husband to marry me," she says with a laugh.
At Ernst Market in Clear Spring, fried chicken is ready in the warming tray for customers to take home for dinner.
The coleslaw and Bonnie's homemade macaroni and cheese make great sides to complement chicken, Bonnie says, but she is reluctant to share her secret recipes, one of the reasons her customers keep coming back.
Some popular side dishes at AC&T include macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with chicken pan gravy, homemade coleslaw, broccoli-cauliflower salad, baked beans, potato wedges and apple crisp. "All our cold salads are made on-site," Susan says, noting, "We have different vegetables every day for the vegetable of the day."
While macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy are popular side dishes at Keystone, Harvard beets also rate high with customers. Jason says it would be difficult to share the Harvard beet recipe because most home cooks would not make the large quantity that Keystone prepares. Keystone makes the beets in six-gallon pots, while most home cooks would make a pint or a quart at a time.
He shared the basics of the recipe Keystone uses — add butter, sugar, apple-cider vinegar, salt and pepper to the desired number of beets, and then use a thickening agent, such as cornstarch, to get the right consistency. Some experimenting at home could result in a version close to Keystone's Harvard beets, Jason says.
Whether a table is graced with Grandma's favorite fried chicken recipe or a bucketful from a local market picked up on the way home, time spent with family, friends and good food can be enjoyable and delicious.