Fried chicken cookoff: The Pioneer Woman vs. Thomas Keller.

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 21 2010 1:33 PM

The Pioneer Woman vs. Thomas Keller

Which chef has the better recipe for fried chicken?

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Keller calls for rolling the chicken in flour that has been generously seasoned with garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne, then dipping it in buttermilk, and then dipping it again in the flour. Simple enough. The only challenge I encountered while frying it was that I was simultaneously trying to run the potatoes and poached garlic through a food mill. Keller offers a tip for making the potatoes in advance, but I had failed to follow Keller's No. 1 rule of cooking: "Be organized."

By the time the meal was on the table, I had gone through 36 cooking vessels over three days. That compares unfavorably with Drummond's demands of two days and 17 vessels.

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I was prepared to hold this against Keller until I tasted the chicken. The crust was crispy and light; the meat was firm and juicy, seasoned through to the bone. I looked around the table for confirmation that this here was some life-changing fried chicken.

"This crust stays on better," Owen said, his life unchanged.

"It's a thousand times better than Pioneer Woman's," I announced.

"I wouldn't go that far," Mark said. "It's better, but fried chicken is fried chicken. And wasn't hers less work?"

The tender, fluffy biscuits were the best biscuits I've ever baked. I expected exclamations. Again, I seemed to be the only one who noticed.

As I had anticipated, even dressed up with multiple garnishes, the iceberg lettuce remained inert and unloved. And the garlicky pureed potatoes belonged on the menu at a bistro, not alongside a fried chicken served to children. "These taste weird," Owen said. Drummond would have known better.

The cake, however, was stunning: a slender, golden disc lined with glowing yellow tiles of juicy pineapple. I took a bite. Keller's delicate cake struck me as the sublime to which tacky pineapple upside-down cake had always aspired.

"It's not as pretty," said Isabel.

"I don't know about this cake," said Mark. "I want a 1950s classic to taste like a 1950s classic. I want it to be sticky and a little bit artificial."

It's impossible to argue with nostalgia. I'm telling you, though, this cake was killer.

Keller's recipes were harder, but they were also, on the whole, better. A lot better. I'm not surprised by that. What surprises me is how little anyone—except me—cared. Apparently, when it comes to comfort food served around a kitchen table, good enough is good enough. What ultimately mattered about the fried chicken was not the seasoning but that there was fried chicken. A middling hot biscuit made with Crisco was as welcome as the perfect all-butter biscuit made with cake flour.

I will add that in the weeks since this experiment, I have not tackled another dish out of Ad Hoc at Home, gorgeous though it is. I have thought about it, but I grow weary just reading the recipes. Meanwhile, I have baked Pioneer Woman's sheet cake and brownies and scones; I have cooked her meatloaf and pizza and steak sandwich. Keller's is the superior book, but the book that helps me put a good enough dinner on the table, night after night, turns out to be the book I need.

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Jennifer Reese, former book critic for Entertainment Weekly, blogs at the Tipsy Baker. Her book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, will come out in paperback in October.

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