Countless recipes have been tried out in the Tribune test kitchen but never one quite like this.
Our mission: find out if 11 ingredients handwritten on a piece of paper could be the secret blend of 11 herbs and spices that go into Kentucky Fried Chicken's Original Recipe — a closely guarded formula that remains one of the world's biggest culinary mysteries.
The recipe came to us by way of Colonel Harland Sanders' nephew, Joe Ledington of Kentucky. He says he found it in a scrapbook belonging to his late Aunt Claudia, Sanders' second wife. Ledington, 67, says he used to blend the spices that went into his uncle's world-famous fried chicken, and the recipe in question is the real deal.
We wanted to see — make that taste — for ourselves. So we put it to the test.
Our aim was not to replicate the exact cooking method used by KFC. That method has been explored and written about by others. Indeed, we decided to soak the raw chicken in a buttermilk-egg bath before frying based on some of those descriptions. Instead, we wanted to test the spice blend detailed in the recipe, which also calls for two cups of white flour.
Several batches of chicken were prepared in the Tribune test kitchen by recipe tester and stylist Lisa Schumacher. Food & Dining reporters and editors tasted each batch, comparing it to a bucket of KFC Original Recipe fried chicken that we purchased at the restaurant at 1144 S. Western Ave. in Chicago.
We bought all new herbs and spices — common grocery store brands — for the testing. We used all-purpose flour and standard table salt.
The spice recipe, as written:
11 Spices – Mix With 2 Cups White Fl.
1) 2/3 Ts Salt
2) 1/2 Ts Thyme
3) 1/2 Ts Basil
4) 1/3 Ts Origino (sic)
5) 1 Ts Celery Salt
6) 1 Ts Black Pepper
7) 1 Ts Dried Mustard
8) 4 Ts Paprika
9) 2 Ts Garlic Salt
10) 1 Ts Ground Ginger
11) 3 Ts White Pepper
The first challenge was to determine what that capital T meant. Standard practice in abbreviating recipe measures has a capital T standing for tablespoon. But what if the person who wrote the list on a seemingly random piece of paper meant teaspoon? So we tested the spice mix both ways: with teaspoon measures and with tablespoon measures, both mixed into two cups of flour.
In comparing those first two batches, tasters immediately agreed that the answer was: T equals tablespoons. After frying, the coating with the lesser amount of herbs and spices did not have the intensity of flavor we were looking for.
But even the flavor of the favored batch wasn't quite right. Turns out the frying oil was too hot, causing the breading to brown too much, which overpowered the taste of the herbs and spices.
For the next couple batches, Schumacher tried double dipping into the spice and flour mixture. Too much coating, tasters decided.
With the oil temperature just right at 350 degrees, the chicken soaked in buttermilk and coated just once in the breading mixture, we had our final tasting.
How was it? Well, really good. In fact, tasters agreed the test kitchen fried chicken was even better than the Colonel's.
But more important, did it taste like the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices? It came very close, yet something was still missing. That’s when a reporter grabbed a small container of the MSG flavor-enhancer Accent (how did that get in the test kitchen?) and sprinkled it on a piece of the fried chicken. That did the trick. Our chicken was virtually indistinguishable from the batch bought at KFC. (Does KFC add MSG? A KFC spokesperson confirms that it does use it in the Original Recipe chicken.)
Bottom line, could this be the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices? We sure think so. The only folks who can say definitively are the keepers of the recipe at KFC’s parent company, Yum! Brands. We asked, but the company would only say, “Lots of people through the years have claimed to discover or figure out the secret recipe, but no one’s ever been right.”
All we know is the recipe we tested certainly tastes like KFC. And whatever it is, it's finger lickin' good.
Fried chicken with 11 herbs and spices
Prep: 30 minutes
Soak: 20-30 minutes
Cook: 15-18 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 tablespoon dried basil leaves
1/3 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
1 tablespoon celery salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried mustard
4 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons garlic salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons ground white pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, beaten
1 chicken, cut up, the breast pieces cut in half for more even frying
Expeller-pressed canola oil
1 Mix the flour in a bowl with all the herbs and spices; set aside.
2 Mix the buttermilk and egg together in a separate bowl until combined. Soak the chicken in the buttermilk mixture at room temperature, 20-30 minutes.
3 Remove chicken from the buttermilk, allowing excess to drip off. Dip the chicken pieces in the herb-spice-flour mixture to coat all sides, shaking off excess. Allow to sit on a rack over a baking sheet, 20 minutes.
4 Meanwhile, heat about 3 inches of the oil in a large Dutch oven (or similar heavy pot with high sides) over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. (Use a deep-frying thermometer to check the temperature.) When temperature is reached, lower the heat to medium to maintain it at 350. Fry 3 or 4 pieces at a time, being careful not to crowd the pot. Fry until medium golden brown, turning once, 15-18 minutes. Transfer chicken pieces to a baking sheet covered with paper towels. Allow the oil to return to temperature before adding more chicken. Repeat with remaining chicken.
A note on MSG: A number of readers have asked how much MSG to use in the recipe above. Although KFC has confirmed that its present-day recipe uses MSG, that ingredient was not part of the list of herbs and spices we received from the Colonel's nephew, so we didn't include MSG in the published recipe. But we did taste the fried chicken with a sprinkle of MSG. If you want to try the chicken with MSG, we suggest doing as we did: Sprinkle a little on the finished chicken pieces right before eating.