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In the last 30 years that I have been writing about food, fried foods have certainly been vilified. Outside of soda, they are the most popular food that everyone focuses on – patients, doctors, dietitians all think of this first when they talk about eating healthier. I get it and fried food can be a problem, but it is not the only problem with our diet. The challenge is that people do eat a lot of fried foods because of the easy availability of fast food, and this leads to a lack of variety in what many folks are eating.
"Complete meals" at places like Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeye's Fried Chicken generally consist of two pieces of chicken, fries and a soda. Quite simply, that is not a complete meal. A complete meal would have one piece of chicken and possibly some mashed potatoes or corn on the cob and a vegetable like cole slaw or green beans.
But looking out across the landscape of fried food, the meals are mostly just that: fried. Fried chicken, fried fish, French fries, fried onion rings, Bloomin' Onions, egg rolls, fries shrimp, tater tots – the list goes on and on. Again, these foods do not add up to a complete meal, but people are consuming them as if they are. And they eat these "meals" a lot.
The simple catch phrase of "don't eat fried food" doesn't help anyone, however. You have probably read before that I believe that this sort of simple message doesn't do anyone a real service. Granted, eating healthy takes some education, but it is important for those doing the teaching to help people understand about balance – fried chicken with great (non-fried) side dishes can make a great meal.
Which brings me to the question of how you should eat fried chicken. Make it yourself, of course. This is, after all, the Dr. Gourmet way. But what about all that added oil?
I have wondered that myself. Back when I was a kid Crisco used to have a television ad where they claimed that almost all of the oil was returned to the pan (they showed oil being poured into a measuring cup and there was only a tablespoon used supposedly). Even then, that didn't make much sense to me and now I wonder how much chicken they fried. It is likely that this was a single piece (not to mention frying it in one of the worst of all fats – hydrogenated vegetable oil).
This needed a little critical research.
I started on the USDA Web site. They report that four ounces of roasted chicken thigh with skin is 256 calories and 16.5 grams of fat. KFC reports that four ounces of their fried chicken thigh (original recipe) is only 291 calories and 19.5 grams of fat. Popeye's claims that four ounces of their chicken is 351 calories and 24.4 grams of fat. Those are widely different numbers. Which might be correct?
I set out to find out and to create a recipe that you can easily make for yourself every now and then.
While creating and testing this recipe I measured everything that went into it in an effort to determine exactly how much of each ingredient ended up in the final piece of fried chicken. I weighed the chicken thighs, flour, herbs, spices, buttermilk, and oil, along with plates, pans, bowls, and utensils. We weighed the paper towels before and after the finished chicken had been set on them to drain. I even measured the amount of flour stuck on the tongs.
In the end there are some interesting numbers:
Of the total flour mixture only 55.6% was actually put on the chicken, and only 43.9% of the buttermilk mixture ended up on the chicken. Chicken thigh bones weigh an average of 17 grams. Interesting information, no?
The most interesting finding was that for frying 4 chicken thighs I used a total of 39 grams of oil (meaning there was actually 111 grams or 74% of the oil left over). That works out to about 2.5 teaspoons of oil used per piece of chicken (it might be a little more but not more than three teaspoons).
Now that adds up. Two and a half teaspoons of canola oil ( a MUCH better choice for frying than Crisco) is 99 calories of added fat, and when I run the numbers on these fried chicken thighs they come in at 409 calories and 31 grams of fat. This is a LOT more than is claimed by KFC and Popeye's, but as I mentioned earlier, their numbers just don't add up, and when you go for fast food fried chicken you are likely getting many more calories than you think.
There has been more than one study showing such inaccuracies in packaged and restaurant food. At the end of the day, should you trust them? Probably not. Should you be eating fast food? Certainly not very often – maybe once a month in a pinch.
Should you eat fried chicken? Yes, of course. How often? Every now and then. Making your own fried chicken is the perfect way to eat great food and eat healthy.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.