Chick-fil-A, that Southern chain of fried chicken sandwich restaurants, has long been something of a mystery to me. Truett Cathy, the founder of the Georgia-based chain, claims to have invented the chicken sandwich, though I doubt that he was the first person to think to put chicken in between two slices of bread. The fans of this restaurant are legion; passionate about these fast food chicken sandwiches in a way I haven’t seen associated with other chains. I always doubted the fanatical press I read about Chick-fil-A’s simple sandwich, assuming that people were blinded by loyalty and Southern pride.
Everything changed this Summer, when I flew to Florida to pick up my mother and drive her to Maine. I arrived at the Jacksonville airport, hopped in the car, and before immediately beginning the 1,600 mile drive back to the Northeast, stopped at the first Chick-fil-A I saw. A few minutes later, and I was diving into my first steam-filled paper sack of chicken sandwiches. And that’s when I finally understood the hype. Chick-fil-A’s signature chicken sandwich is damn near perfect: a hamburger bun, grilled in butter, with two slices of sour pickle as the only condiment because, as legend has it, it was all Cathy had on hand when he invented the sandwich.
Since returning to Maine, at least a hundred miles from the nearest Chick-fil-A, the sandwiches I ate that day have gotten in my head. When I want a fried chicken sandwich, it’s Chick-fil-A’s version that I want, that unique combination of special, secret seasonings, cut only by the sharp bite of tart pickles. I bought a jar of sour pickles from Amato’s for the occasion, and they worked perfectly.
The other secret, as it seems to be in all great Southern cooking, is butter. Grill the buns in butter until golden brown, and then close your eyes and butter them again when you assemble your sandwich. The resulting masterpiece melts as you eat it, the butter destroying the bun and oozing into the lightly spicy, golden-battered chicken. It’s not a light lunch, but it will hold you over until your next trip down South.
- 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- Kosher salt and ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- Peanut oil, for frying
- 1 egg
- ½ cup milk
- ¾ cup all purpose flour
- ¼ cup whole-wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon dry milk
- 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 sour pickle, cut into eight slices
- 4 soft hamburger buns, split
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- In a shallow baking dish, whisk together egg, milk, ½ teaspoon paprika, and 2 tablespoons water. In another baking dish, whisk together both types of flour, dry milk, powdered sugar, baking soda, dry mustard, and remaining ½ teaspoon paprika, and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat about two inches of peanut oil to 325 degrees in a heavy-bottomed pot or cast iron skillet. While oil heats, slice pickle, and set aside.
- Working in batches, dip chicken in the egg mixture, turning to coat, then dredge in flour mixture and shake off any excess. Fry the chicken in hot oil, using a candy thermometer to monitor oil temperature, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Spread the cut side of the buns with some butter, and lightly toast in the skillet, buttered-side down. To assemble sandwiches, spread grilled buns with more butter, dip 2 pickle slices in jarred pickle juice to moisten and place on the bottom bun. Top with a piece of fried chicken and the bun top.