Melissa Sperka is one of the most popular online Southern home cooks, with her fan base stretching from her blog to her Pinterest page to Facebook. Now she presents a cookbook packed with over one hundred of the recipes that made her famous, including everything from hearty breakfasts to quick-and-easy family dinners. Melissa’s Southern Cookbook (The Countryman Press, 2016) is a labor of love, paying homage to those who raised her with a love of cooking, baking, and living Southern-style. These recipes hold dear the rapidly-vanishing tradition of gathering around the table for meal together. Every Southern favorite is here, and in these excerpts you’ll find the best: fried chicken with a crunch, BLT-inspired macaroni salad, cheesy spaghetti, and warm, fluffy cinnamon rolls. Try these comfort food from the comfort of your own home, and follow in the footsteps of Melissa and her family to start new traditions around your own dinner table.
The Main Attraction
While I was growing up, my parents’ lives and work were centered on church. Due to this I attended many potluck get-togethers and meals. I grew to love those types of events dearly. Potlucks, by their very nature, encourage a sense of community as friends and neighbors bring their very best dishes to share with one another. Long tables draped with white tablecloths were filled with a variety of mouthwatering main-dish casseroles, steaming side dishes, fresh homemade breads, and slow cooker delights. The choices were mind-boggling. Then there was the incredible desserts table, bursting with an astounding assortment of drool-worthy treats. Both the aroma and anticipation of the meal made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. The community always rallied for one of those events where they could experience lively chatter, laughter, and friendly conversation all served around a community table with a heaping helping of hospitality.
The dishes that are typically served at potluck and covered-dish meals are initially perfected in everyday family meals at home. While I love fine dining, there’s nothing quite like a homemade meal with that special ingredient that money can’t buy. Whether a first-time cook or a seasoned hostess, we all need a little inspiration from time to time. Turn the main dish into the main attraction and you’ll only have to ring the dinner bell once.
Cast-Iron Buttermilk Fried Chicken
While I’m not always crazy about the stereotypes that are often associated with food in the South, we do know a thing or two about how to make the world’s greatest fried chicken. All Southern cooks have their own special technique often passed to them by family cooks who’ve been frying chicken for decades.
When I’m asked the ultimate “secret” to Southern fried chicken, I’m not certain there is a definitive answer. Just like bread making, perfecting the art of frying chicken takes practice. I was taught to begin the process of preparing the chicken the night before and placing the chicken pieces in a buttermilk brine. That would be whole buttermilk, mind you: the kind that contains all of the butter fat. The dredging station is the next step, making sure you thoughtfully add appropriate amounts of seasoning to each and every layer. More specifically you must season the chicken pieces, the flour, and the egg wash.
That said, there is something magical about shallow-frying chicken in cast iron. This was standard practice in my family and how both of my grandmothers made fried chicken and it’s still the best. The cast-iron skillet keeps the oil at a constant temperature, which gives the chicken a super-crispy coating and non-greasy texture.
There are a few things to keep in mind: You should never crowd the chicken pieces in the skillet. If you do, the pieces won’t cook evenly and will stick together. It’s also helpful to have nearby a baking pan fitted with an oven-safe rack, to keep cooked pieces warm between batches. In addition, there will always be variables: You should consider the size of the chicken pieces, increasing the cooking time for larger pieces when needed and likewise decreasing the cooking time for smaller pieces.
Here’s to the chicken-frying aficionado in us all.
• 1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces
• 3 cups whole buttermilk, divided
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• Seasoned salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon onion powder
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder
• 2 large eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon hot sauce
• Peanut oil, for frying
1. Rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces. Arrange in a single layer in a 9×13-inch baking dish and cover with 2 cups of the buttermilk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, turning once.
To bread the chicken:
1. On a plate or platter, mix together the flour, 2 teaspoons of seasoned salt, 1 teaspoon of pepper, and the onion powder and garlic powder.
2. In a wide, shallow bowl or dish, whisk the eggs with the remaining cup of buttermilk and the hot sauce.
3. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk marinade, shaking off any excess (discard the marinade). Season each chicken piece lightly with seasoned salt and pepper.
4. Dip each chicken piece into the seasoned flour, then into the egg wash, and back into the seasoned flour, then place on a waxed paper–lined baking sheet. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
To fry the chicken:
1. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Fit a baking rack into a jelly-roll pan or large, rimmed baking pan. Set aside.
2. Fill a 12-inch cast-iron skillet one-third full with peanut oil. Heat between 350 and 360 degrees F. Maintain the oil temperature around 325 degrees F while frying, but begin each batch at between 350 and 360 degrees F.
3. Place a few pieces of chicken at a time into the hot oil, being careful not to overcrowd the skillet. The pieces should not touch. Start skin side down.
4. Cook, covered, for about 5 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook for 5 minutes.
5. Turn the chicken pieces and cook covered, for 5 minutes, then uncover and cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes, or until the chicken has cooked through. Repeat this process, frying until the juices run clear. During the last 3 minutes, gently turn the pieces to crisp each side, if needed. Adjust the frying time, depending on the size of the chicken pieces.
6. To keep warm between batches, fit a rimmed baking pan with an oven-safe rack. Place the fried chicken pieces on the rack and into a 225 degrees F oven to keep warm between batches.
7. Continue until all the chicken is fried.
8. Let rest on the counter for 10 minutes before serving.
If the chicken is becoming golden brown and the juices are still pink, the chicken may be finished in a preheated (325 degrees F) oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the pieces. Large breast pieces may take longer; and smaller pieces, less time. Adjust the time accordingly.
More from Melissa's Southern Cookbook:
Reprinted with permission from Melissa’s Southern Cookbook: Tried-and-True Family Recipes by Melissa Sperka, published by The Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016.