What is Nashville Hot Chicken?

August 22, 2016


Nashville hot chicken, a long-standing, spicy tradition in Tennessee’s capital city, has taken front and center in recent years due to number of chicken “shacks’’ popping up by popular demand. The local specialty, dating back to the 1930s, is said to have been started by Prince’s Hot Chicken – the original, staple chicken shack.

Although the components of the dish largely remain the same, the preparation of the dish can differ greatly. A pressure fryer or deep fryer can be used, although most restaurants serve a pan-fried product. Nearly all hot chicken is marinated in buttermilk to impart flavor and to retain the meat’s juices upon frying. Some preparations of hot chicken are breaded and fried after application of the spice paste; the more traditional method has the paste applied immediately after the chicken is removed from the fryer.

A typical Nashville-style hot chicken spice paste has two key ingredients: lard and cayenne pepper. The two are mixed together, three parts pepper to one part lard, and heated until they form a thick sauce. Some restaurants vary the composition of the paste, adding sugar, garlic, or additional hot sauce. The paste is applied to the fried chicken by the server using a spoon and latex gloves; it is lightly squeezed into the finished chicken by hand. The heat level of the chicken can be varied by the preparer by reducing or increasing the amount of paste applied.

The main variation to traditional hot chicken is in the application of the spice paste: before breading or after breading, and whether or not additional spices are applied. Recipes, cooking methods, and preparation steps for hot chicken are often closely guarded secrets, proprietary to the specific restaurant, so the appearance of the chicken may vary widely.

Various restaurants in Nashville serve a version of this pollo caliente and, much akin to Memphis’s Barbeque fest; Nashville has a citywide festival and competition commemorating the spicy dish.

Nashville Hot Chicken Becomes a Nationwide Trend

August 16, 2016


A humble dish from Tennessee has become the hottest trend in fried food.

Nashville hot chicken has swept the nation, inspiring regional variations, chef-inspired touches, and experimentation with proteins ranging from pig ears to rabbit feet. With KFC’s introduction of the dish as a limited-time offer earlier this year, hot chicken has clearly gone mainstream.

Although Nashville hot chicken has been trending for awhile, a Google Trends search shows that it really took off when Louisville, Ky.-based chicken giant KFC introduced it as a limited-time offer at its 4,270 locations nationwide.

Chief marketing officer Kevin Hochman said that, although hot chicken has been big in foodie circles for a few years now, “It did not have broad awareness for the masses [until we introduced it], and that’s something we’re exceptionally proud of.”

“Hot chicken has really gone nuts,” said Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins, CEO of Resurgens Hospitality Group, which operates eight restaurants, including Hop’s Chicken. Hop’s Chicken opened last September in Ponce City Market and serves fried chicken by the piece in sauces such as black pepper gravy, buttermilk ranch, honey mustard and a hot sauce.

The hot sauce is inspired by Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, which is credited for inventing the dish some 80 years ago.

Nashville hot chicken is traditionally made by coating fried chicken in a cayenne-heavy, oil-based paste and serving it with white bread and pickles.

“This wasn’t some fancy, chef-driven artisan phenomenon,” Hopkins said. “It was really about what you could find at, say, a Piggly Wiggly [supermarket] in the American south.”

But cayenne pepper, he noted, comes on quickly and then goes away, unlike peppers such as habanero that linger and even build over time. “It’s a bright slap in the face that then cools down with waves,” he said of cayenne.

He added that the chicken meat also has a cooling effect, and for that reason he prefers the breast for hot chicken.

“Wings are good, but you want a high ratio of hot, seasoned, moist chicken meat,” he said.

He brines the chicken and then lets it marinate in buttermilk. He follows that with a coating of flour, salt, pepper, cayenne and a little paprika.

“You really want to get most of the flour off of there,” he said.

Then, like at many quick-service chains, he pressure fries it at 245° to 250° Fahrenheit.

The classic hot chicken sauce is a combination of cayenne and paprika mixed with the frying oil. But Hopkins also adds garlic, onion powder and some granulated sugar. He mixes that into a paste with lard and brushes it on the chicken when it comes out of the fryer.

Celebrity chef Carla Hall, a native of Nashville, recently brought hot chicken to Brooklyn, N.Y., with the opening of Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, where meals, including two pieces of chicken or three tenders, two side dishes and a slice of bread.

She said much of what she does with her fried chicken is simply how her grandmothers made it, but she has changed the frying medium. She uses rice bran oil.

“It’s lighter, [the chicken] actually absorbs less oil and it lasts longer,” she said. “We get about 20 fries out of it, and then we filter it.

“The taste is really light and the skin is really crispy. It’s a little more expensive, but I think it’s worth it.”

She dry-brines the chicken with vinegar powder, paprika and garlic powder. She dredges it in flour seasoned with some of that brine powder, and then fries it.

Unlike many fried chicken makers, she doesn’t soak it in buttermilk, which she said saves time and money, “and it’s also the way my grandmothers used to do it.”

“I ran the gamut [of chiles] and I knew I wanted the pepper to stand out. That would be my part — to eat and honor the peppers,” Hall said.

Rather than lard, she uses canola oil as the base for her hot sauces.

Kyle Anderson, the chef of Moxie, the Restaurant, in Cleveland, also uses canola oil for his hot chicken. Although he originally used lard and thought it tasted better that way, he decided to use vegetable oil so it would have broader appeal. He mixed it with a blend of sweet paprika, smoked paprika, cayenne, black pepper, granulated garlic, kosher salt and brown sugar. He served it over super-spongy challah.

Jason Starnes uses a more obvious fat as the base of his sauce at South City Kitchen Buckhead in Atlanta: chicken fat.

He makes a hot chicken knife-and-fork sandwich that he serves on toasted focaccia and which also includes Alabama white barbecue sauce, which is made with mayonnaise, vinegar and a heavy dose of black pepper.

His hot sauce is based on his house hot sauce, which is fermented red jalapeño with a little habanero as well as some cayenne, sweet dark chile powder and vinegar. He adds that to the chicken fat along with more sweet chile, black pepper and cayenne, “because you can’t have hot chicken without cayenne,” he said.

Nashville-based fish chain Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen introduced Nashville Hot Fish to locations in Nashville, St. Louis and Jacksonville, Fla., last fall, and then rolled out as a limited-time offer at all of its 510 locations. It was topped with pickles and served with two sides and hush puppies.

Instead of preparing a hot oil-based sauce, they developed a dry coating that can be shaken onto his fried fish and then uses an atomizer to spritz it with oil.

Henderson said the oil keeps the spice coating on the fish and “kind of becomes one with the breading system. It gives it that authentic kind of oil-and-seasoning mouthfeel.”

He said that, although Captain D’s customers haven’t traditionally taken to spicy food, they enjoyed this one. Franchisees have the option of keeping the hot fish on the menu, and they also keep the spice mix around in case guests want it on anything else, such as chicken tenders, shrimp or grilled fish.