Finger Lickin’ Good
Korean fried chicken is a reality
Published: March 2, 2011
So it seems as if the phenomenon known as Korean fried chicken, aka the other KFC, aka Korean fried crack, has finally begun to find some legs here in the Baltimore area. It’s been a thing in the motherland for decades now, but only began its widespread rise here in the States with a mention in The New York Times about four years ago, and more recently a piece in Saveur magazine. At the moment Baltimore’s involvement is limited to chatter among people who’d be predisposed to be aware of, let alone give a crap about, such things, namely foodie types and Koreans I suppose, since the closest place to actually buy some is more than 50 miles away. But hey, baby steps.
So what is Korean fried chicken? Well, the amount of potential overlap in defining such a term is kinda staggering. Here in Baltimore, we have the ubiquitous “chicken box,” which is simply fried chicken (usually whole wings), fries, and some sort of sauce—“mambo,” “tiger,” or plain old “hot.” And since many chicken purveyors around here seem to be Korean, it’s natural for locals to assume it just means fried chicken served up by Koreans. This was indeed the response from about half of the total strangers I decided to survey on a downtown street one afternoon, while the other half figured it was some obscure, possibly ancient, Korean delicacy.
While deep frying isn’t very common in Korean cuisine, there is a Chinese-influenced dish called ggahng-pung gi, which consists of chicken chunks coated in batter, fried, and doused in sweet-spicy sauce. That in turn sounds a lot like General Tso’s chicken, which is in fact probably more American than Chinese in origin. Then there is my personal experience with some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life, when I was about 13 and spending a summer in Korea. It was from a Popeye’s (yes, that Popeye’s), from what I can recall the first one to open in the country. But it was in Korea, and significantly different than any Popeye’s chicken I’ve had in the States, so that counts, right? I remember it being perfectly crunchy, extremely juicy, and really fucking spicy. Man that was some good-ass fried chicken.
Finally, there is something called tong dak, usually a small chicken, lightly floured, fried whole, and then chopped into small pieces, that is popular in Korea as anjoo, or foods that are specifically intended for consumption while drinking alcohol. And it is a variation of this that defines Korean fried chicken in the current context. The key distinctions are that instead of a whole bird, it’s usually just wings and drumsticks (as a countermeasure for the hormone-fueled hugeness of American birds, according to some), and that the pieces are seasoned almost entirely via a post-cook glazing of sauce, which, in order to stave off sogginess, necessitates an exceptionally sturdy coating. And that last part is why, ostensibly, the most talked-about aspect of Korean fried chicken exists—the double fry.
I say ostensibly, because double-frying is pretty common practice, at least in many Korean- and Chinese-owned carryout joints. With plain-old wings bound for chicken boxes, or even chunks destined to be General Tso-ed, the pieces are often par-fried in advance, if only as a time saver, shaving off precious minutes during a busy lunch rush. But in addition to reducing final cooking time, the second fry enhances crispiness, possibly because the first fry, and subsequent resting period, have eradicated much of the moisture from the skin and/or batter. Deep frying’s magic lies in the hot oil’s ability to rapidly vaporize water, enabling lots of delicious browning to occur, and for tiny pockets to be formed by the escaping steam, and then quickly cook into place within a coating. Long story short: crunchiness. So my guess is that double frying probably helped in birthing Korean fried chicken, since it definitely predates it, as opposed to it striking the Korean version of Harland Sanders like a million-dollar bolt from the blue. Similarly, the composition of the famed crust is not really original, since the aforementioned ggahng-pung gi, along with many other fried-then-sauced dishes, is coated in a batter made with cornstarch, which stays crunchy in the wettest of environments.
That batch of KoFC was acquired at the Annandale location of a chain called BonChon Chicken, the closest to Baltimore, but still a good hour away without traffic. Its product is pretty typical, with an aroma that slaps you in the face with garlic (definitely powder and fresh, in my opinion); a glaze that possesses a pretty straightforward combo of salty, sweet, and in the case of the “spicy,” a fast-acting, mouth-filling heat; and an exterior that although is often described as “shatteringly crispy” is more accurately somewhere between crispy and crunchy, with just a tiny hint of chew. The meat itself is unseasoned, but extremely moist, protected from drying by its cornstarch cocoon. It’s good, finger-lickingly even, but not life-changing, and probably not worth a trip halfway around I-495. Not on a regular basis anyway.
The good news is that apparently a KoFC place is opening up soon inside the HMart in Catonsville. In the meantime, the best option for the curious is to either find someone to be a chicken mule, or to suck it up and go DIY. So although I’m not very good at fried chicken (“The Man Who Fried,” Eat Me, Dec. 19, 2007), I spent three days experimenting with recipes, going through no less than 60 wings, trying to replicate BonChon’s chicken.
Initially I fell into the seductive trap of overthinking, as did many on the interweb, as their KoFC recipes seemed to indicate. Even the much-referenced NYT and Saveur recipes were just . . . off. The latter noted the exacting nature of oil temps and cooking times at one popular chain, but for home cooks such factors are less important than the end result, which is a reasonably good facsimile with minimal time, effort, and cost. The hardest part is the batter, because a thick cornstarch-and-water mixture is a complete bitch to work with. But outside of that, if you can make Buffalo wings, you can make KoFC. In fact, in the interest of better name recognition and avoiding trademark infringement lawsuits, I hereby nominate the term “Seoul wings.” Who’s with me?
Henry’s Seoul Wings
chicken wings and/or drumsticks*, rinsed well and patted dry
frying oil (something neutral like canola or corn, not olive or sesame)
Glaze (BonChon’s offers either “soy/garlic” or “spicy”):
ketchup (or gochujang)**
hot sauce (for spicy)***
* If using whole wings, trim off the wingtips and reserve if you like (they make good stock), and separate the drumette from the other, two-bone wing piece (called the “flat”). Most KoFC places offer drumsticks, but the wings are vastly superior in my opinion.
** The glaze on BonChon’s soy-garlic chicken smells intensely of garlic, is quite sweet, has an undercurrent of soy sauce flavor, and offers not much else. Others claim to detect ginger or cinnamon, but I didn’t. It also seems pretty thick and sticky, so I experimented with honey (flavor too strong), corn syrup (too thin and weird flavor), and molasses (flavor too strong) to give the glaze some body. All fails. I also tried gochujang, or Korean red pepper paste, which many seem to think is an essential ingredient. While it added decent body and did taste really good, it added too much of its own, distinct flavor, and a little heat, rendering the gochujang batch too dissimilar to my reference chicken. I finally settled on ketchup, which contributed body along with sufficiently anonymous, background sweetness.
*** I used Huy Fong brand sriracha sauce simply because that’s what I had lying around, but any hot sauce should work. BonChon’s spicy flavored chicken has a very particular effect—the heat is clean, fast-spreading, and whole-mouth encompassing, and fairly user-friendly, perhaps a 3.5 on a 10 scale of heat. The sriracha worked OK, but was significantly less spicy than whatever BonChon uses. Dry spice such as cayenne doesn’t seem to work very well.
1) Heat at least 2 inches of oil to about 350 degrees F in a suitable cooking vessel. A deep fryer would work, or a dutch oven, a large frying pan, a large saucepan, even a stock pot or some other such large pot.
2) Make the flour dredge. In a bowl, add some flour.
3) Make the cornstarch dredge. In a large bowl (cornstarch is light and flies everywhere), add some cornstarch.
4) Make the glaze. Combine about 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon ketchup, and a little hot water to help the sugar dissolve, and mix until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste—it should be very sweet, quite salty, and have a strong garlic aroma. For the spicy glaze, add hot sauce to taste. If you use a watery hot sauce, you may need to add more sugar or ketchup to maintain proper consistency—the glaze should be about as viscous as house paint.
5) Now the hard part—make the batter. I’m providing the following measurements primarily to indicate ratios; you can scale up to suit the amount of chicken you’re cooking. This is good for about a dozen wings. In a bowl, combine 2/3 cup of cornstarch, 1/3 cup flour, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Now slowly, slooowwwly, add a little water at a time, to make a thick batter, comparable to cake batter, or maybe Elmer’s Glue. A piece of chicken coated in it shouldn’t drip for a full second or two. When mixing the batter, do it slowly—thick cornstarch slurry has the weird effect of resisting more when more force is applied to it. It’ll still be hard to mix, but do it slowly with a fork or your fingers, making sure the cornstarch is completely combined with water, and you’ll get there eventually.
6) Dredge chicken pieces in flour, shaking off excess, and allow them to rest on a plate or tray for a few minutes.
7) Get ready to fry. If you don’t have an oil thermometer, one way to gauge temperature is to have the oil over medium-low heat, then add a drop of the batter to it. The batter drop will drop to the bottom, and rise back up—if it comes back up instantly and bubbles like crazy, the oil is too hot. If it stays on the bottom for half a second or more, the oil is too cold. It should rise back up with just a little hesitation, then bubble gently on the surface. Have a plate covered with paper towels or an elevated rack ready to hold and drain the fried chicken.
8) Dredge chicken pieces in batter, coating completely, and gently place in frying oil. Cornstarch has a tendency to settle out of solution, so you may have to remix the batter periodically. Fry for about 5 minutes, until it looks like the bubbling is beginning to settle down a smidge.
9) Drain chicken and allow it to cool in a single layer for at least 10 minutes. After cooling, the exterior should be pretty set, the batter cooked and quite crisp.
10) Dredge the chicken in the cornstarch, tapping pieces to remove excess. Allow to rest for a minute, then return to oil and fry for an additional 5 minutes or so. Remove from oil and allow to drain. By this point, the exterior should be slightly nubby and at least somewhat hard—my recipe doesn’t produce very good color in the final product, so the chicken may look a little wan. I’m guessing a little sugar in the batter might help with this. The coating will continue to harden as it cools.
11) While the chicken is still warm, either brush glaze on or toss the pieces in the glaze as you would Buffalo wings. They should be just coated with the glaze. Remove to a serving plate; if the chicken was sufficiently hot, the glaze should soak right into the batter. Otherwise (or on top of that) you could borrow yet again from the Buffalo wing method and crisp the glazed chicken up in a hot oven (maybe 425 degrees F) for a couple of minutes.
• It is much easier to make this recipe with either just wings or just legs, because you don’t have to worry about disparate cooking times. I recommend wings because I just like them better, but they also offer greater surface-area-to-meat ratio, and this dish is really all about the surface. Also, use fresh chicken—those bagged frozen wings tend to be tough, and are probably too waterlogged to make for good KoFC.
• Especially if you’ve never done it before, trimming whole wings can be a pain in the ass. Kick out the extra few cents per pound for pre-trimmed wings if you’re a butchering noob or are lazy.
• Make a lot. Deep frying anything almost always makes a mess, and uses up a lot of oil, and this recipe demands a pretty significant time investment. So you might as well make a shitload. Also, these things are really, really addictive. Note that BonChon’s chicken reheated well for exactly one day—after the second day, the chicken tasted like crap.
• The most common sides for KoFC are lightly pickled daikon cubes and shredded cabbage with a pink sauce. The former, while not difficult to make, is inconvenient simply because it involves daikon. The latter, a sort of deconstructed cole slaw, is super easy—shred some cabbage and dress with a mixture of 1/2 mayo and 1/2 ketchup.
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