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The Easiest Fried Chicken

By Lan Lam Published

Juicy, deeply seasoned thigh meat encased in a supercrispy crust makes Japanese karaage a fried chicken lover’s dream. Minimal oil and fast frying make it a cinch to cook.

I’ve never met a bite of fried chicken that I didn’t like, but my favorite is the first bite of a fried chicken thigh. The crunch is big because thighs are thin and tapered, so there’s a high ratio of crispy crust to chicken. And when you bite through that crust, you’re met with juicy, rich dark meat. 

Happily for me, a Japanese style of fried chicken called karaage not only traditionally uses chicken thighs but also happens to be very easy to prepare. To make it, you debone bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs; cut the meat into small chunks; marinate them in a soy-and-sake-based mixture that’s seasoned with garlic, ginger, and sometimes salt or sugar; dredge them in potato starch; and fry them until they’re brown and crispy. Because the pieces are small, you need only a few cups of oil to submerge them, and the frying time is fast. Plus, thanks to the thighs’ abundant fat and collagen, there’s no risk that the meat will dry out during frying. You don’t even have to temp the pieces; once they’re golden and crispy, they’re done.

There’s no risk that the meat will dry out during cooking. You don’t even have to temp the pieces; once they’re golden and crisp, they’re done.

For all these reasons, karaage is my favorite style of fried chicken both to eat and to make. That said, I’ve always wanted to take a closer look at the potato starch: Though it fries up exceptionally crispy, it forms a sticky coating that can be difficult to manage as you cook.

Senior editor Lan Lam tests starches for the coating: potato starch (the traditional choice) versus cornstarch (a common alternative).

Battle of the Starches

Before I got started, I decided to streamline the already-efficient method by doing away with the knife work needed to debone skin-on thighs. The skin is usually included because it contributes richness and crunch, but the fried coating would provide both of those in spades. Instead, I opted for 1½ pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which I trimmed and cut into strips instead of smaller chunks. That created about 20 pieces—half as many to marinate, dredge, and fry, and each one with plenty of surface area to keep the ratio of crispy crust to juicy meat really high.

How to Slice Thighs into Strips

  • SLICE CROSSWISE

    SLICE CROSSWISE

    Arrange each thigh, skinned side up, with long side parallel to edge of counter. Slice crosswise into 1- to 1 ½-inch-wide strips.

I marinated the chicken for 30 minutes before moving to a head-to-head starch test: potato (the traditional choice) versus corn (a common alternative). I dredged half the strips in potato starch and half in cornstarch and then fried each batch in a Dutch oven filled with 4 cups of 325-degree vegetable oil. I let the strips fry until they were crispy, which took no more than 5 minutes.

Both starch options came with challenges, starting with the aforementioned stickiness of the potato starch coating. Once it hit the hot oil, the potato starch quickly formed a gluey gel that made the pieces stick to everything—the tongs, the pot, each other—and trying to separate them while they bubbled in the hot oil was dicey. The cornstarch batch didn’t turn gluey, so it was a cinch to fry, but the cooked pieces were coated in a fine dusting of unhydrated starch that felt sandy on the tongue. (Looking at photos of karaage, I noticed that these dusty patches are a common flaw in recipes that call for cornstarch.)

Dredging the chicken in cornstarch before heating the oil allows time for the cornstarch to hydrate, which helps avoid dry patches on the finished dish.

The key difference turned out to be how the two types of starch absorb water: Potato starch is more absorbent than cornstarch, and in this case it had soaked up so much liquid from the marinade that it turned sticky. The cornstarch hadn’t absorbed enough of the marinade—hence the powdery residue.

Ultimately, I opted for cornstarch because it’s readily available and because it would be easier to fix my dredging method than it would be to fuss with clumps of sticky chicken in hot oil. (A good rule of thumb from my restaurant days: Any time you can move the challenging parts of cooking to the prep stage as opposed to the cooking stage, you avoid a lot of headaches.)

How to Set Up a Fry Station

As with most other cooking tasks, frying is simple as long as you are organized. Setting up your station with prepped food and the right tools at the ready is the first step to success. 

 

Rest and Hydration

The question was how to get the cornstarch to absorb more of the marinade. My first instinct was to mix some into a slurry with the marinade and microwave it, since heating cornstarch makes it more absorbent. But as I’d found with the potato starch, it was hard to keep the gel-coated chicken strips separate in the hot oil.

I dug a little deeper into my potato starch versus cornstarch research and realized I’d overlooked an important point: Cornstarch not only absorbs less water than potato starch does but also absorbs water more slowly, which made me wonder if simply letting the coated chicken rest before cooking would allow more of the cornstarch to hydrate.

To moisten any dry patches of coating, we tried painting water onto the chicken pieces . . .
. . . and spraying them with a mister.
Ultimately, we dabbed some of the reserved marinade onto the dry patches with the back of a spoon.

For the next batch, I went back to dredging the marinated chicken in dry cornstarch but made sure to dredge before I heated the oil to allow time for the cornstarch to hydrate. I could see improvement as soon as I pulled the fried chicken from the oil: The coating was golden and crunchy with just a few spare dry patches. To fix that, I made sure to shake off any excess cornstarch after dredging the chicken. Then, just before frying, I checked the chicken pieces for dry patches and used the back of a spoon to dab them with reserved marinade. That moistened the starch just enough that it fried up into a crispy, cohesive crust.

While the chicken drained on a paper towel–lined rack, I cut up some lemon wedges for serving. It’s the traditional karaage accompaniment, and for good reason: The acid cuts through the richness of the fried dark meat, and the tangy fruit deftly underscores (without overpowering) the bright heat of the ginger in the marinade. There may be no better application for a squeeze of citrus. If you love fried chicken but don’t love frying, this may be the recipe for you.

Recipe Japanese Fried Chicken Thighs (Karaage)

Juicy, deeply seasoned thigh meat encased in a supercrispy crust makes Japanese karaage a fried chicken lover's dream. Minimal oil and fast frying make it a cinch to cook.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.