Fast Times

Did the Chicago Tribune Really Find KFC's Secret Fried Chicken Recipe?

A recent Chicago Tribune article proclaimed that they believe they've discovered one of the most legendary secrets in the culinary world: the eleven herbs and spices used in the batter of KFC's famous Original Recipe fried chicken. We decided to test the recipe for ourselves to see if it's the real deal. 

The Tribune obtained the recipe from Joe Ledington, the nephew of colonel Harland Sanders, who was the iconic founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Ledington says he used to blend the spices for his uncle and told a reporter that the recipe is authentic. 

The Tribune tested it and made some determinations, like that the capital "T" in the handwritten recipe measurements meant "Tablespoon." One ingredient wasn't in the list, though: MSG. When Accent, a brand of MSG, was sprinkled onto a piece of chicken by a reporter, the flavor puzzle fell into place. A KFC spokesperson was asked whether or not the Original Recipe chicken includes MSG and that fact was confirmed. 

Here is the list of spices to mix with two cups of all-purpose flour, as adjusted by Joe Gray of the Chicago Tribune:
2/3 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 tablespoon dried basil leaves
1/3 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
1 tablespoon celery salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried mustard
4 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons garlic salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons ground white pepper

With six hungry volunteers, the Press performed a taste comparison between fried chicken made from the list in the Tribune's article and Original Recipe fried chicken purchased from KFC at 12499 Westheimer. Each taster was given two pieces of chicken, one labeled "A" and the other "B." They were also given cards to keep notes about each sample.

Tasters found sample "A" to be "more traditional, tender and golden in color." One of the volunteers, Ryan Fernandez, commented that sample "A" tasted like "college, because we ate a lot of fried chicken at school!" The tasters commented that the sample "B" chicken was "darker in color, more greasy, 'homey,' moist and flavorful."

After questions about appearance, texture, smell and taste were asked, each person was asked to pick his or her favorite. Overwhelmingly, "B" was chosen as the favorite (by a five-to-one vote). Of course, it was the home-cooked version. There were actually a few tweaks made to the Chicago Tribune recipe for this trial run. All of the 11 spices were used, but the chicken was soaked in a buttermilk bath for 48 hours before cooking. Rather than being sprinkled on, a half of a tablespoon of the MSG was added to the flour mixture.

The longer soak time in buttermilk actually seemed to improve the recipe. However, in the Tribune's test, the chicken was fried at 350 degrees and our inconsistent temperature, which ranged between that and 375 degrees, resulted in the darker crust.  A small, non-commercial deep fryer was used in this first trial. The fryer had a quirky side effect in which the temperature would drop once items were added to the oil and temperature stability was not achieved.  In the second trial, a cast-iron pan and thermometer were used, this time holding the temperature steady at 350 degrees. 

The results were dramatic. It was hard to fathom having to sprinkle raw MSG on food, so we still blended it into the flour-and-spice mixture. This time, the home-cooked version matched the real KFC chicken in both texture and flavor, but still appeared a bit darker than the real KFC fried chicken. Cooking instructions can be found in the Tribune's article.

So here's the verdict: If the Chicago Tribune's Kentucky Fried Chicken Original Recipe isn't exact, it is very, very close. If he were still alive today, the Colonel might not be very happy with his nephew for spilling the beans about his secret recipe, but he could rest assured that people still love his fried chicken.

Thanks to the discovery, a home-cooked version is only a fry away; all that's missing is the bucket.
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Cuc Lam is a freelance food writer for the Houston Press and local pop-up chef. She enjoys teaching cooking classes and hosting dinner parties when she is not writing.