Did we say sweet tea? And fried chicken? Yes, we did! Two traditional foods of the South come together here: The sweet tea works as a brine to make this fried chicken extra juicy and extra flavorful.
To say that I love fried chicken is an understatement.
If it’s on a menu at a restaurant, I’ll probably order it. I make it at home way more often than I probably should, considering the fact that my kitchen doesn’t have a hood and it makes the apartment smell like a fast food joint.
I even made sure that a summer cross-country road trip I took a few years ago went through the southern part of the US, even though it was crazy hot…because I wanted Southern fried chicken.
SWEET TEA + FRIED CHICKEN = BFF
During my road trip, I didn’t expect to fall in love with sweet tea, a pre-sweetened iced tea that is served everywhere. In fact, it’s so common that if you want unsweetened iced tea or hot tea, you have to specify that!
I also noticed that Southerners seem to be using sweet tea as a brine for chicken, ranging from tailgate sweet-tea brined grilled chicken to James Beard Award-nominated chef John Fleer making the fried chicken version.
Despite the legendary nature of both fried chicken and sweet teas in Southern cooking, sweet tea as a brine doesn’t seem to have a long history. According to Virginia Willis, the James Beard Award-winning author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, “Sweet tea fried chicken is a new South chef-driven dish.”
What is Sweet Tea?
Sweet tea (or just “tea” if you live in the South), is traditionally served as a black tea sweetened with cane sugar, though there are variations of it with honey, agave, and even artificial sweeteners. It’s typically served cold.
Tea has a long history in the South; South Carolina was the first place in the U.S. to commercially grow tea. And although there are tons of theories on why sweet tea became so popular in the South, the fact is most folks who live there drink sweet tea like it’s water.
Why Brine With Sweet Tea?
Sweet tea also happens to be the perfect brine for chicken—it infuses flavor into the meat, adds moisture, and makes a juicier finished product. This is why brining in general is recommended for Thanksgiving turkey, lean cuts of pork, and chicken, as it is an easy way to make the lean meat juicier and more tender.
The sugar in the sweet tea brings out the sweetness of the chicken meat, while the tannins in the black tea help tenderize the chicken, similar to the action of the tannins in wine. Don’t be too concerned about the brine turning the chicken into meat candy, though! It adds a subtle sweetness that works well with the salty skin.
I also add salt to the sweet tea brine, to help create an extra juicy fried chicken. Salt is important as it denatures the protein of the meat. Basically, this means the meat muscle unwinds and relaxes, allowing more water and liquid to penetrate. More water means more juicy meat after cooking!
What’s the Best Tea to Use for a Brine?
Though Julia Child often is quoted as saying that you should cook with wine that you would drink out of hand, don’t bother using the fancy expensive tea for this recipe! The tea will have both sugar and salt added to it. Three things to keep in mind:
- Choose a classic: Lipton’s yellow label tea is what I opted for. You can substitute a generic grocery store orange pekoe or black tea in its place.
- Experiment: If you want to get fancy, you can certainly experiment with different flavored teas as well, as long as it’s green, black, or white!
- Avoid herbal teas: Herbal teas (i.e. not green, white, or black tea) don’t have the tannins that help tenderize the chicken. It will still be tasty, but the black tea helps tenderize the chicken in a similar way that mildly acidic buttermilk does by breaking down the protein, allowing for a juicier fried chicken.
The Best Chicken for Fried Chicken
I prefer to use dark meat (thighs and legs) for fried chicken. They tend to be cheaper cuts with more flavor and are inherently juicier. But you can make your fried chicken out of breasts or wings if you prefer, or a mix of all cuts.
The brine will help keep the breast from drying out. Just make sure to adjust the cooking time slightly, cooking the breasts an additional two minutes per side, while wings (which are smaller) will fry more quickly, so reduce the cook time by one minute.
How Long to Brine with Sweet Tea?
A buttermilk brine only needs an hour minimum to work, but sweet tea is a different situation.
You need to brine this chicken at least overnight (8 hours) for the flavor to come through, or up to 24 hours. The longer you brine the chicken, the sweeter and more “tea” flavor the chicken will have.
A 12-hour brine is optimal: It produces a noticeable sweetness and subtle tea flavor but nothing too strong. But your taste may vary.
The Best Pan for Deep Frying
Classic Southern fried chicken is cooked up in a cast iron skillet. But you don’t need that to make great fried chicken (though some would probably disagree). I used a nonstick, 11-inch wide sauté pan with straight sides but you can also use a Dutch oven.
I also only use a shallow amount of oil in the pan, about 1 1/2-inches deep. This allows me to use less oil (which means less oil to dispose of). I pan fry the chicken, making sure all the sides are crispy golden brown, then finish the chicken off in the oven. This also has the added bonus of making sure all the chicken parts are warmed through at the same time and don’t dry out.