The best karaage chicken I ever ate was at a Japanese restaurant down in the Bowery area of New York City called Bessou. The restaurant took great pride in highlighting the wonders of Japanese comfort food, and that cosy feeling of wellbeing came in one single dish–their karaage chicken, which had a brain-rattling crunch more crackly than any other. Sadly, like many beloved restaurants of NYC, Bessou closed after the height of the pandemic (you can still contact them for catering, or follow them to keep up with their latest endeavours), but I’ll never forget that chicken.
What is karaage chicken?
Karaage chicken is a Japanese fried chicken and it’s similar to Korean fried chicken in its preparation. Sounds simple enough, but there are two distinct differences between American-style fried chicken and Japanese karaage fried chicken: The breading and frying procedure. Besides the actual chicken, these two steps are the next most important parts of creating a perfectly crunchy bird.
Most Western-style fried chicken involves dipping the chicken in eggs or buttermilk, and a flour-based breading of sorts. Karaage chicken is initially different in that the marinade is actually full of flavorful liquids, like soy sauce, ginger juice, and sake. More importantly, where crunch is concerned, flour is replaced completely, or mostly, with potato starch (katakuriko). (Go here for tips on alternative coatings.)
Flour, potato starch, and cornstarch are pre-fry coatings of choice because they all contain amylose and amylopectin, the molecules responsible for that crunchy sensation. Starchy flours that have higher concentrations of these molecules will create more crispy connections and result in a crunchier piece of chicken. Compared to each other, flour has the lowest concentration of starches, with potato starch in second, and cornstarch eeking-out first place with slightly higher amylose content. So why isn’t cornstarch the ultimate coating? It turns out that potato starch is the starchy coating with the highest amylose content in addition to the biggest granule size, according to Serious Eats potato starch deep-dive.
The potato starch granule size is what seals the deal for its crunch-resilience. The larger starch particles do not gelatinize as readily as the finer ground flour and cornstarch, which means potato starch doesn’t bind up with as much water before the evaporation occurs in the hot oil, allowing the crusty coating to stay crisp for longer. If you can’t find potato starch in the grocery store, the next best choice would be cornstarch, or a mixture of cornstarch and all-purpose flour to get closer to a karaage crunch.
Double fry your chicken
Once you’ve coated the chicken in the best starch for the job, the next step is to fry the poultry into crispy morsels. Fry them, and then fry them again. The crunchy coating is a team effort between the starchy layer and the double fry at two different temperatures. Double frying chicken, with a few minutes cooling time out of the oil in between dips in the pool, is crucial to evaporating as much water as possible from the skin without overcooking the tender chicken inside.
Although there are different examples of why double frying makes for crispier food, common in both chicken and Belgian frites, the science behind frying at two different temperatures is less apparent. Based on the optimal frying temperatures for chicken, it seems like the two temperatures serve different purposes of thoroughly cooking the meat and driving out remaining moisture. Karaage chicken takes the initial baptism at around 160°C-180°C, depending on the recipe you’re using, and the chicken spends more time at this temp — about five or six minutes.
Deep frying always drives out moisture, but here, the lower heat allows the chicken to nearly cook through while also crisping the starchy exterior. As the starches gelatinize, the heat allows the molecules to restructure as water evaporates and creates more direct channels for evaporation. This restructuring of breading reads as “crunch” to our mouths. The chicken rests for about five minutes, and as it cools, moisture is drawn to the surface and continues to evaporate. This is when once-fried chicken can become soggy.
The second fry is usually around 190°C-200°C, for a shorter period of time — about two minutes. This fry finishes cooking of the meat and evaporates the new moisture that has approached the surface, and the breading during resting. Taking advantage of the starch’s new structure, moisture leaves quicker and, due to the high heat, the Maillard reaction occurs rapidly. When you take the chicken out after this speedy second dunk, you’re left with a thick, deeply browned crust that stays crunchy for several hours.
Make your karaage chicken in advance
You can make karaage chicken hours in advance. I hate deep frying when I’m having friends over because it makes my apartment smell like oil. If you’re hosting a get-together, fry karaage chicken a few hours ahead of time and let it cool at room temperature. This gives you a good two or three hour window to air-out the place and turn your attention to any other party prep. Then warm up the chicken before serving in a 180°C oven for five or ten minutes.
You can also prepare karaage chicken much farther ahead of time by storing it in the fridge after the first fry. Before Bessou closed, they sold make-at-home meal kits that you could finish cooking at home, and I brought home their karaage chicken kit. (It was a great way to have restaurant quality food during the height of the pandemic.) The first fry cooks the meat, helps the moisture start to migrate, and restructures starches, and that work remains even after sitting in the fridge for a day or three. You too can pre-fry your chicken and, when you’re ready, finish it off with the second fry (even if you’re not ready for few days). Karaage chicken will give you a new standard for crunch, and luckily you can apply this frying method to your grandma’s recipe, too.