For acclaimed Australian chef Aaron Turner, hot chicken isn't just food - it's salvation in crispy, fried and devilishly spicy form. In The Hot Chicken Project, he travels back to Nashville, the place of its birth, to pay his respects to the makers, to chart the love and obsession that has shaped his world, and to make sure that what he does back home is doing it justice. Part cookbook, part pilgrimage, The Hot Chicken Project is both an epic love letter to the fiery bird and a celebration of a way of life that is in danger of vanishing forever.
Part recipe book (40 recipes covering the best mains, sandwiches, sides, salads and sauces), part narrative, part pictorial celebration of the history and power hot chicken holds over the city of Nashville, it frames the stories of the people and families and communities who have cooked and eaten and appropriated it in Nashville over several generations.
Gas station fried chicken
When breaking down your chicken here, separate the dark meat into legs and thighs and cut the white meat in two, leaving the wings and the breast plate attached. The crust coating the chicken should be soft with just a little crunch and the chicken warm or at room temperature when serving.
250g rock salt
2.5 litres warm water
1 1.2 kg chicken, broken down into eight parts
500ml cottonseed or grapeseed oil
400ml canola oil
300g plain flour
125g cornmeal polenta
1 tbsp table salt
1 tbsp celery salt
2 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp dried oregano
1. Add the rock salt to the water in a large bowl and stir to dissolve. Lower the chicken pieces into the brine and leave for three hours.
2. Meanwhile, for the coating, mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl.
3. Remove the chicken pieces from the brine and transfer to a suitable container, pour over the coating mixture and push down to pack tightly, covering the surface of the chicken.
4. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight.
5. The next day, remove the chicken from the fridge and leave for two hours to come to room temperature.
6. Preheat the oven to 100C.
7. Heat the cottonseed and canola oils in a large heavy-based skillet or saucepan to 180C.
8. Gently lower the chicken pieces into the hot oil, maintaining the temperature as best you can, and fry until a golden crust starts to form around the chicken pieces, about six minutes. (At this stage the chicken won't be cooked through.)
9. Remove from the hot oil, transfer to an oven tray and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Season and leave to sit on the bench for 20 minutes before serving.
Skillet fried chicken
This recipe is cobbled together from countless hours of trial and error and lots and lots of burnt chicken pieces, and if there's only one thing you take from it then make it this: don't skimp on the lard here. If you do, your chicken will be dry and nasty. One more piece of advice: don't cop out on the skillet. Invest in quality, take care of it and you'll be frying for a lifetime. (A splatter screen is also pretty much a chicken fryer's must-have - it'll save both your kitchen and your favourite metal-band t-shirts from ruin.)
Finally, when breaking down the chicken, be sure that the bones are left in and the skin is left on. There is no place in this world for skinless, boneless skillet-fried chicken.
1 x 1.2kg chicken, cut into eight pieces (2 wings, 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 breasts)
lard, for deep-frying
600g plain flour
2 tbsp cornflour
1 tbsp table salt
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp dried oregano
1. Place all the chicken pieces in a bowl, pour over the buttermilk and toss to coat all over. Leave the chicken to sit for 20 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack set above a tray to let the excess buttermilk drip away.
2. Mix together the breading ingredients in a large bowl. Individually coat all the chicken pieces in the breading mix, then transfer to a tray. Refrigerate overnight.
3. The next day, coat the chicken a second time in the breading mix and leave to sit at room temperature on a wire rack for 30 minutes.
4. Half-fill a heavy-based skillet with melted lard and heat to 180C. Carefully add the leg and thigh pieces to the hot fat and cook for four minutes, then add the breasts and wings and cook for a further four minutes. Turn the pieces and continue to fry, turning as you go, until the internal temperature reaches 75C when measured with a probe thermometer, the juices of the chicken are running clear and the spices are golden and crisp. Remove the chicken pieces from the skillet and place on paper towel to drain off any excess oil, then season with salt and serve immediately.
Mac n cheese
You can really use whatever cheese you like here-I like to use equal parts gouda, smoked gouda and cheddar. I've dusted the mac with a little smoked paprika and dived right in after covering it with the cheese sauce, but it's also good spooned into an ovenproof dish, covered in breadcrumbs and baked in a 200C oven for 20 minutes.
150g plain flour
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 cardamom pod
2 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
1 litre (milk
300g shredded cheese mix (such as gouda, cheddar etc.)
smoked paprika, to serve
1. Boil the macaroni according to the packet instructions until just cooked. Strain and run under cold water for five minutes, then set aside in a dish.
2. Melt the butter in a large heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the flour a tablespoon at a time, stirring continuously, to form a smooth paste (roux). Continue to cook, stirring, for eight minutes to cook out the taste of the flour, being careful not to burn the paste as you go.
3. Continuing to stir, add the nutmeg, bay leaves, cardamom, onion, salt, white pepper and milk to the pan, and cook, lowering the heat if necessary to prevent the milk from boiling or catching on the bottom and burning, until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon.
4. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the spices and onion, then return to the pan together with the cheese and stir together over a medium heat until the cheese has melted and combined.
5. To serve, pour the hot cheese sauce over the macaroni and mix through until all the pasta is coated. Spoon into bowls, sprinkle over a little smoked paprika and dive in.
Serves 4-6 as a side.
Hot sauce chicken ribs
Chicken ribs are more of a butchering trick than anything, really - they're just another way to cut down the bone-in chicken breast. Take note: the blue cheese sauce for dipping here is non-negotiable.
250g rock salt
2.5 litres warm water
1 kg chicken ribs
250g plain flour
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp cracked black pepper
200ml hot sauce
vegetable oil, for frying
Blue cheese sauce (see below), to serve
1. Add the rock salt to the water in a large bowl and stir together to dissolve. Lower the chicken ribs into the brine and leave for one hour. Drain and pat dry with paper towel.
2. Mix the flour, oregano and black pepper together in another large bowl. Add the brined chicken ribs and toss to coat. Set aside.
3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then whisk together with the hot sauce until combined and emulsified. Keep warm.
4. Half-fill a heavy-based skillet, saucepan or deep-fryer with oil and heat to 185C.
5. Working in batches and being careful not to overload the pan (which will reduce the heat of the oil and make your ribs oily), lower the chicken ribs into the hot oil and fry until crisp and golden brown, about six minutes.
6. Remove the ribs from the oil, drain on paper towel and season well with salt, then toss them in the hot sauce/butter combo until really well coated. Serve with blue cheese sauce.
Blue cheese sauce
Blue cheese sauce is addictive and will go with just about anything - it's my go-to sauce for all my fried chicken needs. This might seem like a large quantity but trust me, it's worth making more than you think you need.
80g Danish blue cheese
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
240ml double cream
240g sour cream
175g whole-egg mayonnaise
2 tbsp apple-cider vinegar
1. Add all the ingredients to a food processor and blitz together until smooth and creamy. Transfer to a jar or bowl, cover and store in an airtight container in the fridge until needed (it will keep for two to three days).
- This is an edited extract from The Hot Chicken Project by Aaron Turner published by Hardie Grant Books, $48. Photography: Julian Kingma.