NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most folks know Memphis for its barbecue and Philly for its cheesesteaks, but how about Nashville and its hot chicken?
If you're not sure, you've never tried this fried chicken so fiery it will leave your mouth in shock. It's a flavor you don't soon forget.
Born as cheap, flavorful fare for Nashville's working-class community and offered late into the night for its party-goers, hot chicken has long been a staple in town.
At heart, it's fried chicken that gets finished with a potent — and nearly always secret — blend of dry, peppery seasonings (paprika and cayenne are common, though that's just the start).
“Prince's Hot Chicken Shack has been serving up searing hot chicken since sometime during the 1940s.
“It's something different,” said Andre Prince Jeffries, second-generation owner of Prince's. “It's not a boring chicken. I mean, you wake up on this chicken. You're gonna talk about it.”
Prince's is the most popular of Nashville's growing roster of hot-chicken restaurants. Over the years, it has moved several times and its owners have missed a few bills, but Jeffries, with the help of her daughter, niece, brother and cousins, has managed to keep it in her family.
As the story goes, it all began with Jeffries' Great Uncle Thornton Prince, a bit of a man about town whose girlfriend had put up with enough and wanted a bit of spicy retribution. So she made him a special chicken for breakfast with a fiery kick.
“But he liked it, I'm sure after he kind of startled himself on it,” Jeffries said. “He had her make some more, whatever stuff she put on it. And word got around. People started coming out to the house for chicken.”
“My great uncle started it, but of course I give credit to his lady friend,” Jeffries said.
Sixty-odd years later, the family will be honored in May with a prestigious James Beard Foundation America's Classics Award.
Nashville hot fried chicken
To ensure that the exterior doesn't burn before the interior cooks through, keep the oil temperature between 300 and 325 degrees.
Start to finish: 2 hours
2 quarts cold water
1/2 cup hot sauce
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 - to 4-pound whole chicken, quartered
3 quarts peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
Hearty white sandwich bread (optional)
Pickle chips (optional)
In a large bowl, whisk cold water, hot sauce, 1/2 cup salt and 1/2 cup sugar until salt and sugar dissolve. Add chicken and refrigerate, covered, for 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
When ready to cook, in a small saucepan over medium, heat 3 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add cayenne, 1/2 teaspoon salt, paprika, remaining 1/2 teaspoon sugar and garlic powder. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer to small bowl and set aside.
Remove chicken from refrigerator and pour off brine.
In a large bowl, combine flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Two at a time, dredge chicken pieces through flour mixture. Shake excess flour from chicken, then transfer it to wire rack. Do not discard seasoned flour.
Adjust an oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200 F. Set a clean wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
In a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat remaining oil to 350 degrees.
Return chicken pieces to flour mixture and turn to coat, then shake off the excess. Add half of the chicken to oil and fry, adjusting burner as necessary to maintain oil temperature between 300 F and 325 F, until skin is a deep golden brown and white meat registers 160 F and dark meat registers 175 F, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Drain fried chicken on prepared wire rack and place in oven to keep warm. Return oil to 350 F and repeat with remaining chicken.
When all of the chicken is cooked, stir spicy oil mixture to recombine, then brush it over both sides of the chicken. Serve on bread, if using, and top with pickles, if using.
Nutrition information per serving: 780 calories; 510 calories from fat (65 percent of total calories); 57 g fat (10 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 140 mg cholesterol; 27 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 38 g protein; 1100 mg sodium.
(Recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated magazine)