Think Like the Colonel to Make Great Fried Chicken

Did you hear that Colonel Harlan Sanders’ handwritten secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken got temporarily moved out of corporate headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky with much fanfare? Makes me wonder if that publicity stunt not only triggered KFC sales, but also increased curiosity about the original formula he developed in 1939-40.

It was enough to get me thinking about his secret recipe, so I expect others have the same interest, too. And, I wonder what ingredients were actually available during that time period.

For example, some of the copy-cat/replica recipes you can find online for KFC call for dry onion soup or Italian salad dressing mixes. While these products were fairly new during the Colonel’s days, it is unlikely he would have used pre-mix in his secret recipe. The expense alone would have been a deterrent, and the need for a steady supply would have made pre-mix a potential problem and too risky to use. The Colonel was a notorious stickler for consistency, and I recall he had enough of an ego to want control over “his” recipe.

So, those secret recipe replicas for KFC using ingredients like Lipton Onion Soup mix or Good Seasons Italian Dressing mix, are probably not too authentic (although they may taste good).  What else could the Colonel know about, or do to, chicken in his kitchen?

PREPARING THE CHICKEN
When I was growing up in the ’30s, our next door neighbor was a wonderful Southern lady from North Carolina who always made the best fried chicken. She showed me her secret recipe one day when I was visiting: she soaked pieces of cut-up chicken in heavily salted water overnight. (I’ve heard the Colonel did and did not use a marinade.) In the morning, she would empty the discolored water (the brine cleans out any remaining blood), and drain the chicken pieces until they were nearly dry. She dipped the chicken pieces in an egg and milk wash, then dredged them in a combination of flour, salt, pepper, and a little paprika for extra color. After slowly frying in an iron skillet, her chicken was golden brown and delicious — crispy, moist, and full of flavor.

Therefore, I think the Colonel’s secret recipe using his famous “11 herbs and spices” was, and still is, pretty simple:

-Chicken, cut into pieces
-Flour (most likely he used all-purpose flour. Some copy-cats say to use self-rising flour, pancake flour, even Bisquick, which was around in 1930, but I doubt he used them due to cost and availability factors as discussed above)
-Egg & milk (or buttermilk) to make a wash for the flour to adhere to the chicken

THE HERBS (6)
In selecting dried (not fresh) herbs to enhance the flavor of his chicken coating, the Colonel probably used Fines Herbes, a fairly common dried 4-herb French blend used in restaurant kitchens:
-Dried parsley
-Chervil
-Chives
-Tarragon

He also may have added these other two dried herbs for extra flavor dimension:
-Marjoram
-Sage

THE SPICES (5)
As I mentioned above, our Southern neighbor kept the spices simple, so the Colonel probably did, too:
-Salt
-Pepper
-Paprika (for extra color)
-Onion powder
-Powdered instant chicken bouillon, which has been a staple in restaurant kitchens for many decades.

OTHER INGREDIENTS
No one has ever said the KFC secret recipe had ONLY 11 herbs and spices. It is possible that the Colonel may have added other ingredients (beyond the advertising slogan) to his secret recipe. He could have also used monsodium glutamate (MSG) as a flavor enhancer.  Remember, we are talking about 1939-40, when it was perfectly acceptable to use MSG in foods in restaurants.  (I’m not saying that he did, just that it was possible.)

Also, the Colonel may have used some of the following ingredients, which are mentioned in some of the copy-cat secret recipes:

-Allspice
-Basil (dried)
-Celery powder
-Curry powder
-Garlic powder
-Ginger
-Granulated sugar/brown sugar
-Nutmeg
-Oregano (ground)
-Rosemary (ground)
-Spaghetti sauce mix
-Thyme (ground)

Admittedly, I have not experimented with how much of each dried ingredient the Colonel may have used in his secret recipe.  But whichever ones he did use, he most surely ground all the ingredients together to release their flavors. Today we can pulverize all the herbs and spices in a blender or food chopper until we have a fine powder to mix into the flour coating.

COOKING OILS
The Colonel may have used lard to fry his chicken at first. Or, he may possibly have used Crisco, which was introduced in 1911.  He may have switched to a vegetable oil due to cost factors.  I hear KFC began using a soy-based oil in 2007 with no trans fats (which is healthier, but some people now dislike the new KFC flavor).

COOKING METHODS
The Colonel used a pressure cooker to prepare his chicken.  In the mid-1950s a similar technique was perfected with “broaster” pressure fryers. Today, you can achieve good results with a deep fryer, iron skillet, and even baking (if you want to reduce your oil consumption). The key to frying chicken is to cook it slowly (350-365°), lovingly, and not crowd your pan. It may take 30 minutes per pan-full, so be patient.

Now that I have openly speculated about the Colonel’s secret recipe for KFC, I have to go and try my own theory by fixing a batch of Southern fried chicken at home. If it turns out well, I may have to add it to my family cookbook under the heading “Secret Recipes.” However, if my attempt is less than satisfactory, I still have the “original” to fall back on.  Come to think of it, I’d better go get some “original” before I attempt to replicate it on my own, just to be sure I know what taste I’m aiming for.

Aha! Those clever KFC people
Who says the power of suggestion doesn’t work!

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By the way, this reminds me of a great scene from a fairly forgettable movie, “So I Married an Axe-Murderer.” Michael Meyers exposes the real truth about the Colonel. (Warning: A little bit of PG-13 language.)

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