In our cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
Over the past five years, Honey Butter Fried Chicken has become a classic of Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. Their homey menu of fried chicken, schmaltz mashed potatoes, and pimento mac and cheese inspires lines out the door—high praise in a city where good food is abundant.
Patience is rewarded with chicken that’s fresh from the fryer and finished with honey butter. “We calculated that we’ve sold about 910,000 pieces in five years,” says co-owner Christine Cikowski.
Though New York abounds with fried chicken joints, we’re stoked when the folks behind the Chicago favorite stop by. Cikowski and Chef de Cuisine Cam Waron are in bright spirits when they arrive at the MUNCHIES test kitchen to show us how to make their signature chicken. (Co-owner Josh Kulp wanted to visit, too, but he’s got a newborn at home.)
They're early and well-prepared, bringing along two chickens (one brined and cut, the other whole), buttermilk, butter, honey, little baggies of flour, and labeled condiment cups of spices.
As they warm up and ditch their coats for aprons, we reminisce on Honey Butter’s Chef’s Night Out appearance—“People come up to [Kulp] at Whole Foods and say, ‘You’re the dude who pissed his pants,’” Cikowski says, with a laugh—and then they start cooking.
They set equipment up: a stand mixer for mixing the butter, a Dutch oven filled with several inches of canola oil and a thermometer, a cooling rack on a baking sheet, two bowls for dredging, a set of tongs, and a thermapen for checking internal temperature later.
I inquire about the Pringles can-sized shaker of smoked paprika they’ve toted along. “We’re fully committed. It’s called pimenton,” Cikowski says. With emphasis on the final word, she poses like the woman with hand to the side emoji and adds, “It’s the sassy emoji.”
Though they’ve brought one chicken pre-cut, Waron breaks the other down into drumsticks and boneless thighs and breasts (we’re not frying the wings today, but at the restaurant, those are par-fried and tossed in honey buffalo sauce). With the exception of wings and drums, Honey Butter serves their chicken boneless to cut cooking time and to make eating easier. For size consistency, Cam cuts the breasts in half and butterflies each.
Honey Butter is into making full use of things: At the restaurant, the carcass is used for stock, the fat becomes schmaltz for the gravy and potatoes, and even their spent frying oil is sold back into biofuel.
Once the chicken is cut, it’s brined in a mixture of salt and citrus for several hours. That adds flavor and ensures that the finished pieces aren’t dry.
For dredging, Cikowski pours buttermilk into one bowl and the dry ingredients into the other. The base is all-purpose flour with some rice flour to make it “pretty damn crunchy,” according to Waron.
Cikowski doesn’t skimp on the spice blend that goes into the flour: onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, black pepper, and baking powder (“with the buttermilk, it activates and sort of springs,” she says, making a poofing gesture with her hands). Once whisked, the flour is almost pink.
Working with the brined chicken pieces, Cikowski starts dredging. What’s key, she says is that “You don’t cross the streams because then you have a disaster. Dry hand, wet hand: all the wets with the wet, then the dry with the dry.”
After breading the pieces, they recommend letting them sit before frying in order to hydrate slightly. This helps form a cohesive crust on the meat, avoiding the annoying problem of skin shattering off as you eat.
That’s a good time to make the honey butter. Cikowski whips softened butter on the mixer's highest setting, using the whisk attachment and angling the bowl. Once it’s light in color and fluffy like frosting, she drizzles in the honey.
Honey Butter prefers working directly with farmers, using exclusively Wisconsin-made honey from Gentle Breeze Honey and butter from Nordic Creamery. The honey is a holdover from Kulp and Cikowski’s previous business, a granola company. Waron calls its flavor “fucking incredible.”
Waron gets started on frying. If you’re doing this at home, a thermometer is crucial. Waron and Cikowski fry at 320°F. That might sound low, but the lower temperature gives the oil time to both render the fat in the skin and cook the meat through to the bone. That way, Cikowski says, the crust doesn’t get burned while the meat cooks.
Since different cuts cook at different rates, Waron puts the drumsticks in the first, the thighs a little later, and finally the breasts. The temperature of the oil drops as you add things, and if it drops dramatically, hold off before adding more so it can come back up.
While we wait for the chicken, I ask Waron for some tips since deep frying still scares many home cooks. “Ventilation is usually a big one—if your whole house smells like fried food, it’s gonna deter people [from frying],” he says. “And clean as you go; people think frying is a major bitch to do, but doing [the cleanup] in stages is the way to go.”
Every so often, Waron moves the chicken with tongs to make sure it’s not sticking (to the bottom of the pot, or to other pieces) and to check how it looks. Once pieces look thoroughly golden, he takes them out and measures them with the thermapen. Aim for an internal temperature of 180°F, Waron says. “That sounds high, but really, the drums and thighs benefit from going higher.”
As the pieces finish, he places them on the cooling rack for excess oil to drip off. Tempting as the fresh chicken may be, we wait. “It just needs to rest a tiny bit for the juices to…” Cikowski says, making a sucking hand motion. “It’s better to rest your meat.”
After a few minutes, Cikowski shakes just enough smoked paprika onto the chicken to add a red tint. Then she piles it all up on a plate, slathers butter onto a few pieces, and tells us to give it a try.
The crust breaks cleanly, giving way to juicy meat. The chicken is smokey and its salt is balanced by the butter’s sweetness. It’s well worth the wait.