The Mysterious, Stubborn Appeal of Mass-Produced Fried Chicken
Why do so many accomplished chefs call Popeyes their favorite fried chicken?
Except for vegetarians and perhaps the hyperlipidemic, fried chicken is beloved nearly universally. And that’s a universe that includes some pretty discriminating palates—many of whom seem to prefer Popeyes over anything else. Anthony Bourdain was a vocal fan. Celebrity chefs like David Chang and Hugh Acheson sing its praises. The fried chicken experts MUNCHIES spoke to had plenty of compliments, too.
“Popeyes has great fried chicken,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen. “I like the level of salt in the chicken. They push it just enough. It’s got a touch of spice to it. The meat is super juicy.”
Whether it’s a Michelin-rated kitchen or a hole-in-the-wall local legend, few can match Popeyes’s bird. Which is why some don’t even try: Last year, a Long Beach restaurant was busted for serving Popeyes chicken and ostensibly passing it off as its own. Poultry fraud is tough to defend, but this particular culinary con speaks to how Popeyes punches above its weight class in terms of quality.
Biting into a good piece of fried chicken is a pan-sensory experience that checks off just about every box of non-sexual physical pleasure. You pick it up with your hands, shatter the crust with your incisors, and rip the succulent flesh from the bone. Steam wafts any seasonings noseward as the hot fat coats your lips and courses over your tongue. If it’s prepared right, that first bite is a high you chase for the rest of the meal and onward until your next bucket.
Popeyes is an industrial anomaly. In virtually all other cases, mass production seems to be bad for food quality. Every sort of fast food has its devotees, but if you’re after a burger, a burrito, or a salad, the fast food version is usually a cheap approximation of what you can find in a nicer restaurant (or even what you could make yourself). Big Macs might be delicious and crave-able, but they're unlikely to land on any Best of Burgers lists. When it comes to fried chicken, though, disappointment is more likely to come on a fresh white tablecloth than in a grease-stained paperboard box.
J. Kenji López-Alt, another Beard Award-winner, goes even further. He claimed that Popeyes is the best fried chicken anywhere you can get it. (In response to the Washington Post food critic putting Popeyes on the list of the best fried chicken in D.C.)
For López-Alt, it’s the skin that stands out. “They have the crust down perfect,” he tells MUNCHIES. “The right level of craggliness. Very salty. High surface area. They get crispy all over. There aren’t any soggy spots.” He also highlighted what his Serious Eats colleague calls “the cosmic oneness between breading and skin,” such that the breading doesn’t slide off and leave you with a flabby layer of naked skin.
In many ways, fried chicken seems antithetical to mass production. It’s a food that requires levels of finesse and expertise that take decades to cultivate, not to mention that it’s often associated with the accrued family secrets of intergenerational R&D. One of those a-lifetime-to-master things. Fast food kitchens, on the other hand, are synonymous with constant staff turnover and a general deskilling of labor. The whole concept is based on the idea that any can do it.
So why is the fried chicken at 3,000 different Popeyes locations better than what so many accomplished chefs can produce either in their high-end kitchens or at home?
Fried chicken is the darling of industrialization for the simple reason that it’s extremely difficult to industrialize. In comparison to, say, a cheeseburger—where the patties, buns, and cheese all come premade from different sources, each ingredient heavily processed along the way—a fast food fried chicken restaurant is starting with something a lot closer to what the fanciest kitchens might use: raw ingredients.
At most fast food fried chicken places, the chicken shows up fresh, and it’s brined, dredged, and fried on site. “Even KFC uses fresh chicken,” says Edward Lee, chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville and Succotash in Washington, D.C. “There’s no way to pre-fry chicken. It has to be fried to order, or at least fried in batches.”
That can make things tricky. Consistency is the hallmark of fast food, and it’s especially important when it comes to chicken. Whereas a burger has a wide range of temperatures it can be cooked to—anything from medium rare to well done probably won’t be sent back—chicken has a much narrower sweet spot. It becomes virtually inedible if it’s just a little overcooked, and undercooked chicken can bring about illness and lawsuits. Every bird has to hit the bullseye.
In fast food operations, standardization is the guiding mission. Timers start ticking as soon as a basket of chicken is dropped into a fryer, they start beeping when it’s time to come out, and they don’t stop beeping until someone does it. In independent kitchens, staff are more likely to cook by feel, and the result is a less consistent product. That type of intuition can come in handy for cooking steaks to different temperatures or adapting to menu substitutions, but for fried chicken, precision is more important.
Fast food chains like Popeyes also buy a whole lot more raw inventory than a typical independent restaurant, and they can leverage that monopsonistic power toward consistency. “They have a very strict limit on the size of the chickens,” López-Alt says. “They'll reject any chickens that aren't in that range...Most fast food chains are pretty strict with their suppliers and have a lot of power because they buy so much.”
Popeyes is hardly an acquired taste, but even still the consistent familiarity of such standardization is a comfortable draw. Raj Raghunathan writes in Psychology Today that our brains have evolved to “initially dislike unfamiliar stimuli.” Evolutionarily speaking, “things that are familiar are likely to be safer than things that are not. If something is familiar, we have clearly survived exposure to it, and our brain, recognizing this, steers us towards it.” In purely sensory terms, even Popeyes has its flaws (e.g. a few of the chefs quoted in this piece commented on its lack of flavor past the skin). But we eat comfort food as much because it’s predictable as because it tastes good. Your future itches conform to how you’ve scratched past ones.
“Consistency is part of why the fried chicken we get from these places is so good,” says Sam Adkins, chef and owner of Sally’s Middle Name in Washington, D.C.. “All the little independent places will be at least a little different from one another. I feel like we grow accustomed to these things because they’re consistent, especially when you get older and it’s part of your culture.”
Fried chicken often carries an emotional weight that few other foods can contend with. Perhaps more than anything that doesn’t literally come in a heart-shaped box, it’s a food product associated with love—the unconditionally, evenly-burning sort that doesn't so much as flicker just because you've got some schmaltz on your chin or a few hot sauce stains on your shirt. It's less a food than a personal history tied to our deepest sensory memories: Church picnics, block parties, pot lucks, grandparents' kitchens. How can you mass produce something that contends with such an intimate, atomized experience?
Ashley Christensen named her fried chicken restaurant in Raleigh, North Caorlina Beasley’s Chicken and Honey as an homage to her parents. Growing up, mom cooked the chicken, and dad—an apiarist by hobby—provided the honey. “In the south, fried chicken is such a part of our tradition, so it’s something that immediately delivers a different type of comfort than any other type of fast food,” Christensen says. “What I take from the fast food experience is how meaningful fast food fried chicken is to people. You’ll see people roll up to a family event with a box of Popeyes fried chicken, and everyone’s going to go, ‘Hell yeah.’ If they rolled up with a bag of McCheeseburgers, they’re going to be like, ‘Who invited that guy?’”
Fried chicken’s popularity in the American south is sometimes seen as reinforcing the notion that the region is a monoculture—but in fact fried chicken’s cultural import there is proof of the contrary. It’s a function of southern plurality, a vat of molten fat that represents a melting pot.
“Every culture embraces poultry,” says Tracy Gates, chef and owner of the Busy Bee in Atlanta, where she has been cooking soul food since 1987. “There is no culture where you don’t see chickens. It’s a universal bird. Everybody puts their own spin on it, but it’s readily available for every culture. I think chicken will be here when everything else is gone.”
To be sure, Popeyes and its fast food ilk do things that independent kitchens actively choose to avoid—whether they want to demonstrate their skill, express their creativity, or just to differentiate their product as of a higher brow.
For example, Carolyn Bane, owner of Brooklyn’s Pies ‘n’ Thighs, lets her chicken marinate in a spice blend for 24 hours. But she rinses that off and dredges it in only flour just before frying. Popeyes, however, uses plenty of seasonings in the coating its chicken keeps.
“Sometimes, I wish we did that,” Bane says. “Garlic powder is cheating. You don’t have to do anything to make things taste good if you use it.”
But just because the end result seems obvious doesn’t mean there isn’t studied intentionality to get there. Fast food chains have, by virtue of their scale, a capacity for exploratory food science that independent restaurants cannot typically compete with. This sort of inquiry allows them to trim the (sometimes literal but mostly figurative) fat and optimize every aspect of their processes. Maximizing profit is the goal, but serving a product people want to eat—and eat often‚ is an obviously primary component of that pursuit.
One of the main differences you’ll notice in Popeyes’s kitchen versus an independent one is the deep fryers. Wendell Hays is the director of product management for Frymaster, which supplies fryers to Popeyes and other chains and restaurants. Popeyes did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but Hays explained some of the technical advantages those fryers offer. “The fryers have to be pretty sophisticated,” he says.
When you drop cold chicken into a hot fryer, the temperature of the oil drops. A typical fryer will raise the temperature back to the set point as quickly as it can, usually somewhere between 325 and 350 degrees. That’s bad for fried chicken. “If you just had your oil at 350 degrees and started cooking bone-in chicken, the outside would get done before the inside,” Hays says. Popeyes fryers, however, hold at that lower temperature for eight to ten minutes, which allows the meat to cook through evenly. The temperature then rises back to the set point toward the end of the cooking process, which gets the skin nice and crispy after the meat has cooked through.
The fryers, which are operated by touch screen, can be programmed to remember up to 20 different settings, though they typically only use a few (ones for breasts, thighs, wings, etc.). Just frying those segments separately makes a difference, too, as they all have different ratios of bone to meat to skin. The fryers also have features that make it easier to filter and change the oil, as well as instruments to measure the polarity of the oil so staff know exactly when it needs to be replaced.
Meanwhile, a restaurant not dedicated to fried chicken might be frying their chicken in a Dutch oven or a wok or a cast iron pan (which are nearly impossible to standardize at any scale), or even an electric countertop fryer, in which the oil will break down a lot faster.
But it’s not just the fryers. Unless you’re dedicating a large part of your focus and your physical space to fried chicken, it’s just not going to work. Fried chicken is a small part of Lee’s menu at Succotash, for example—the dinner menu on the restaurant’s website shows two entrees that include it and ten that do not, plus two dozen other appetizers, sides, and other dishes that do not—but he estimates that about 20 percent of his kitchen is devoted to it, which includes a brining station, a breading station, and two pressure fryers. “It’s similar to barbecue,” Lee says. “You either do it or you don’t. There’s no way to half-ass it.”
This kind of mental and resource drain for fried chicken is why Adkins serves fried chicken (pan-fried in Crisco) only on Wednesday nights at Sally’s Middle Name. “It’s too much time to make properly every night,” Adkins says. “It would slow things down.” So rather than being one-seventh of his menu all the time, it’s basically the whole menu once every seven days.
There’s just no other sort of food that demands so much dedication just to produce something as good as what a fast food chain is turning out around the clock.
As good as fried chicken can be, bad fried chicken can be especially unpleasant. Whether it’s too slimy or dry, underseasoned or overly salty, burnt or just soggy, there’s also the opportunity cost of that perfect thigh you could have gotten elsewhere. And if a restaurant is trying to do too many other things, it’s not going to do this one well.
Popeyes has become the stick by which many chefs measure their own efforts, but the point here is not that industrialization is inherently good. Virtually every other form of food makes for a strong body of evidence to the contrary. And even Popeyes is not so much the exception that proves the rule but a rather a breaking of the mold itself. Fried chicken has not simply survived industrialization; it has conquered it.