The chicken wars have begun in St. Louis. Great fun for eaters, especially those who'd grown weary of the bird in other incarnations, but as with similar situations with barbecue and pizza, the side arguments get involved. One that hasn't arisen - yet - about fried chicken is optimal temperature.
Now, fresh-out-of-the- skillet, -deep-fryer or -Broaster® (yes, the now-generic term for pressure-frying is, in fact, trademarked), fried chicken is a fine thing, to be sure. It's the point of maximum impact for the crispness of the crust and the juiciness of the bird. For some chicken, it's all about that crust. The meat is just an accessory, the equivalent of potatoes to wipe up the gravy. But for a kitchen that goes to the effort of marinating the chicken for flavor and not just tenderness, nuance can be lost in the crunch of the crust and the heat of the dish.
Piping hot is generally the beau ideal of a main course's serving temperature. But there's a reason, for instance, that in Italy soup is served warm, not hot. It tastes better, more complex, that way. (Although I admit wars were waged over this at Chez Pollack.) Good fried chicken is the same way. Warm, even room temperature, will leave a good crust pretty much unchanged and yield an ensemble of tastes.
And cold fried chicken? It seems that only in the South and Midwest do people understand that it's worthy of more than the stand-in-front-of-the-fridge moment - not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that. Fried chicken cooked before the event is the ultimate picnic food, and it's served cold or at room temp. My mother wouldn't allow the family to picnic if there wasn't time to fry a bird. Tasted at room temperature, good chicken really shouldn't have much of a greasy texture even at this point. More importantly, yet another set of flavors are revealed.
It's interesting how few people appreciate fried chicken that's less than hot. Talking to a New York City pal of mine, he'd never even heard of cold fried chicken. It was, I explained, a fine picnic dish, cold chicken, a blanket in the sun, a Thermos of hand-squeezed lemonade. "Oh, my God," groaned my pal, apparently salivating; it was a particularly grim and slushy day, and a little food porn was just the thing.
Some of my colleagues in an international group of food bloggers are thumbs-down to the idea, although one in Queens, NY, pointed out that Korean fried chicken, a popular item in New York and California, stays crisp even refrigerated, a virtue he attributes to its being twice-fried. Googling "cold fried chicken" brings forth a myriad of strong responses on both sides, but the positives are definitely in the minority.
And one more soapbox point: I was at a famous chicken spot (not in St. Louis) with a group. The chicken deserved all its accolades, but one young lady (I choose the noun deliberately) said she thought it was awfully greasy. We were all eating from the same platter and none of the folks at the eight-top table had remarked on it. Mine certainly wasn't. I glanced at her plate. She'd gotten a thigh, the favored piece of the wondrous Julia Child. ("So juicy and moist," Julia would carol.) "You generally a person who likes white meat?" I asked casually. "Oh, yes," she said. Someone else at the table caught on, and asked, "Are your fingers sticky?" The complainer wrinkled her nose. "Yes, they are." "Honey," came the response, "that's not grease. That's chicken juice. Thighs are juicy. Breasts usually aren't."
Most fried chicken orders are generous enough to take a piece, even two, home. Next time, try the leftovers at a different temperature.