Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

What’s better than fried chicken? Those of us with sturdy digestive tracts would agree—the kind of fried chicken that gets its chile-pepper talons out and claws your mouth and throat on the way down. That’s right, none other than Nashville hot chicken. The combination of perfectly seasoned chicken that’s fried until juicy and tender inside while craggy and crunchy on the outside, then painted with a fiery hot sauce that guarantees you won’t forget it. 

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

While the original hot chicken from Prince’s is not a sandwich per se, it is served on slices of white sandwich bread, so the sandwich-ification of hot chicken is something of a no-brainer, and today a sandwich option is common on most hot chicken restaurant menus. (You can read the full story of this fried chicken’s history and Nashville roots here.)

Our version of the sandwich here is inspired by Hattie B’s, another highly regarded palace of hot chicken, even down to the slather of Duke’s on the bun. We’ll admit that a fair share of Hattie B’s was consumed throughout development—all in the name of sandwich research.

The art of frying chicken is seemingly simple, but can quickly take a turn for the worse. It’s easy to lose control of the cooking process once the chicken hits a big pot of hot oil. The exterior coating can turn too dark before the chicken reaches its proper internal cooking temperature or, alternatively, the meat can turn dry and tough before the coating reaches an ideal crunch. Here are a few key steps for how to get chicken that fries up perfectly crisp, flavorful and juicy for a homemade version that is worthy of the Nashville name.

So Nice, We Dredge It Twice: How to Brine and Dredge the Chicken for Frying

Before dredging and frying the chicken we start with a seasoned buttermilk brine. Most southern-style fried chicken recipes start with a brine (often buttermilk) for a good reason. Sitting in the salt solution alters the protein structure of the chicken so that it retains more moisture once it cooks, and the acidity of the buttermilk has a tenderizing effect. It’s also an opportunity to start building the chicken’s signature heat with added cayenne, paprika, and black pepper in the brine. 

While the brine works best if the chicken is refrigerated in the buttermilk overnight (eight to twelve hours), for those who aren’t patient enough, or forward-thinking enough (I’ll raise my hand here) to brine that far in advance, we found that even a short two-hour buttermilk brine seasons and tenderizes the chicken very well.

Now it’s time to dredge. Nobody loves dredging raw chicken. It’s a guaranteed mess. You can have your dredging station as well organized as possible, attempt to keep one “dry hand” and one “wet hand” the whole time, but you’re still going to make a mess. Embrace it. The ten minutes of having your fingers and counter covered in raw chicken juices and sticky egg and flour coating is a small price to pay for this sandwich.

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To start the process, a couple of eggs are whisked into the brine after the chicken has been removed, transforming the buttermilk mixture into the flavorful glue that will hold the flour coating on the chicken.

One big goal here is optimum crunch. This coating needs to be sturdy and thick enough to stay crunchy once it’s heavily basted with hot sauce and nestled into a bun. At the same time, it needs to be light and crispy, not tough and doughy. To achieve this, we dredge the brined chicken in the flour coating twice—wet, dry, wet, dry—to build up a thick enough coating, one that will remain crisp and crunchy even after a bath in hot sauce.

To make sure this sturdy double coating is also light and crisp, cornstarch and baking powder are added to the dry flour blend. Cornstarch is light and crisp when fried, while baking powder creates delicate bubbling in the coating once it hits the heat. The coating combination of flour, cornstarch, and baking powder creates the ideal fried-chicken texture for this sauced sandwich.

Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Hot: How to Fry the Chicken

Once you’ve made your mess and the chicken is dredged, let it rest for about 15 minutes before frying. Use this time to get the oil hot and to clean up that unavoidable dredging mess. But this resting step isn’t just for you to get organized, it’s also another way to ensure that the coating sticks to the chicken as it fries. The flour will hydrate as it sits, binding to itself and ensuring the coating remains glued to the chicken once it goes into the hot oil. The result is a crispier coating that will stay on. 

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Now it’s time for the frying fun. I strongly recommend a clip-on thermometer for deep frying, which makes constant monitoring of the oil temp easy. As soon as you add the chicken, the oil temperature will drop drastically, and you’ll need to continuously adjust the heat to keep it as close to 350℉ (175°C) as possible, ideally within a 25℉ range. At this temperature range, the boneless thighs will cook through properly at the same rate the exterior turns golden and crunchy. Pull the chicken once they are deep golden brown and register 175℉ (80°C) on the inside.

Burn, Baby Burn: How To Make That Signature Hot Sauce

This sauce should burn. If it doesn’t, go back and add more cayenne to the sauce (and maybe get your taste buds checked by a doctor, because there is a lot of cayenne in this recipe). In all seriousness, we’ve tried to accommodate everyone’s palate by giving a range for how much ground cayenne pepper to add. We do not want to hear any comments about how this sauce is “too hot” nor “too mild.” You know your palate, adjust the heat to your own needs and don’t come cryin’ to us. 

It’s worth noting that there is no “make-ahead” element to this sauce. It relies on a half cup of the still-hot frying oil to bloom the cayenne and other spices. A few tablespoons of butter is also melted into the hot oil for richness—as if a fried chicken sandwich isn’t rich enough—and then liberally basted onto the chicken. It’s best to baste while the chicken and the sauce are still hot and fresh. The hotter and fresher, and less chance of the sauce turning the chicken soggy.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

The final presentation for this sandwich is purposefully simple. A hefty smear of mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s) and a few pickle chips (preferably dill) are all it needs. A buttery brioche bun guilds the lily with a final hit of richness, plus it’s sturdy enough to support the hefty fried-and-sauced thigh. All that’s left is to take a big bite into that spicy bird. Just be prepared, she will bite back.

For the Chicken: In a large bowl, whisk buttermilk, hot sauce, and 4 teaspoons salt until combined. Add chicken to the buttermilk mixture and turn to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight. 

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When ready to fry, set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk mixture, allowing excess to drip off into the bowl, and set chicken on the prepared baking sheet.

Whisk eggs into the buttermilk mixture. In a baking dish or pie plate, whisk flour, cornstarch, cayenne pepper, paprika, black pepper, baking powder, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt until combined.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Working with 1 chicken thigh at a time, dredge in flour mixture, turning to thoroughly coat and pressing to adhere, then shake off excess flour mixture. Dip chicken back into reserved buttermilk mixture, let excess drip back into the bowl, then dredge in the flour mixture a second time, turning and pressing to coat evenly. Return to wire rack and repeat with remaining chicken thighs. Let chicken rest on wire rack for about 15 minutes until ready to fry.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200°F (90°C). Set a clean wire rack in a clean rimmed baking sheet and line wire rack with a triple layer of paper towels; set aside. Add oil to a large Dutch oven or pot until it measures about 2 inches deep. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350℉ (175°C). Carefully add 3 chicken pieces and fry, flipping chicken halfway through frying, until chicken is golden brown and registers 175℉ (80°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 8 to 12 minutes. (Adjust heat as needed to maintain oil temperature between 325 to 350℉.) Transfer chicken to prepared paper towel–lined rack and transfer to oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining chicken thighs. Measure and reserve 1/2 cup hot frying oil.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

For the Sauce: In a large heatproof bowl, combine butter, cayenne, brown sugar, onion powder, salt, paprika, chile powder, and black pepper. Pour reserved 1/2 cup hot frying oil over mixture and whisk vigorously until combined and butter is melted. 

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Brush 1/3 cup butter sauce over top of chicken; reserve remaining sauce for serving.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

For Serving: Spread 1 tablespoon mayonnaise evenly on each bun bottom. Place chicken on bun bottoms, then top with pickles and bun tops. Serve with remaining hot sauce. 

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Special Equipment

Clip-on or digital instant-read thermometer, large Dutch oven or large sauce pot

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