KFC’s Secret Recipe, the Da Vinci Code of fried chicken – Food Origins

On 19 August 2016, an article with the above image was published on ChicagoTribune claiming to have KFC’s 11 secret herbs and spices handed by a relative of Colonel Sanders (he’s a real person alright).

But HOY! wait a moment. Why would the recipe be handed over to a writer seemingly for no reason, when it is one of the world’s most famous, if not protected, trade secrets? This is only a blend of herbs and spices to be mixed with flour. What about the rest of the recipe? Do you brine the chicken in anything? Do we have a double dip batter or single, or are there other methods? What about the oil temperature? Method of cooking?

And lastly, which KFC recipe is it?

With the leak, many people have started tried the recipe, and said that it is similar to the KFC bought. ChicagoTribune’s kitchen proceeded to  the recipe – and claimed that the blend does indeed taste like the Original Recipe KFC bought in a nearby KFC outlet, after adding a sprinkle of MSG to chicken. The others felt that store bought KFC and the recipe tastes similar, but a bit different – which probably points to MSG which they did not include.

The taste comparison to KFC that we can buy in 2018 only means that the given recipe is probably close to the corporate recipe. While that is an accomplishment, there is a major problem.

KFC is shit

At least, that’s what Colonel Sanders thought. That’s right. The original creator and face of the restaurant chain that we know (and love or hate depending on what kind of snobby foodie you are) hated his own creation. When I say KFC is shit, I meant the chain now, a corporate brand transferred several times with many adjustments made to make Colonel Sander’s products viable. Turns out, franchising something requires making the process stupidly simple and idiot proof so that even some poor underpaid worker can do it. And there’s of course the thing about reducing costs to make it more economically viable.

In the Colonel’s words, “My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my mother make it. … There’s no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it. … crispy recipe is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.”

The Colonel is a perfectionist when it comes to food, and when it came to franchising, he was very much concerned with being known for his food rather than being rich. He also had been cooking since he was 7 years old, so yeah that guy knows a little bit about cooking. A gravy to him should “make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy.”

To quote a company executive, ““Let’s face it, the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic, but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it. It involved too much time, it left too much room for human error, and it was too expensive.”

“If you were a franchisee turning out perfect gravy but making very little money for the company and I was a franchisee making lots of money for the company but serving gravy that was merely excellent, the Colonel would think that you were great and I was a bum,” a KFC executive told the New Yorker. “With the Colonel, it isn’t money that counts, it’s artistic talent.”

After the Colonel sold the company in 1964 (still serving in the board of directors), he would pay visits to KFC outlets in his business travels and criticized the food, even going so far as to throwing it on the floor. As recounted on this article: 

In 1979, Sanders rolled up in a chauffeur-driven white Cadillac to the Hikes Point KFC. Back then, Jeffersontown City Councilman Ray Perkins was a teenager breading chicken in the back. As he did three or four times a year, Sanders walked behind the counter, tasted the gravy, sampled the mashed potatoes and cole slaw and then chomped into a chicken leg.

“I heard metal trays clattering and I came around the corner and saw the Colonel using his cane to push eight trays of fried chicken onto the floor,” Perkins said. “He was cussing out our manager.”

“The manager looked at us and said, ‘Shut up. Don’t say a thing. Just wait until he leaves and we will drop more chicken in the fryer.'”

“You just didn’t argue with him,” Perkins, now 50, said of the Colonel. “He still felt like it was his.”

It got to the point where Colonel Sanders opened a new restaurant of his own and got sued by KFC.

Colonel Sander’s Fried Chicken is pretty awesome

We have established that the Colonel’s original recipe was way more awesome than the one we can get nearby now. It was, awesome enough that one of the pioneers for rating restaurants, Duncan Hines, recommended the original small restaurant in his book.

To understand a little history (the full history is better read on Wikipedia):

1930 – Sanders sold chicken dishes and other meals like country ham and steak in a Shell Oil Company service station.

1939 – Duncan Hines recommendation. Sanders acquired a motel for a 140 seat restaurant.

1940 – Sanders finalized his fried chicken recipe, using a pressure cooker.

1941 – Restaurant business forced to halt due to World War II.

1952 – Sanders started franchising his recipe to existing restaurants, receiving a nickle every time his fried chicken is ordered. Highly successful, KFC expanded even internationally at this point.

1964 – Becoming too old to handle the rapid expansion, Sanders sold KFC to John Y. Brown, Jr. This is when Sanders’ control over KFC handed over and Corporate KFC really began.

This means that if we were to say that we want to eat the Original Colonel Sander’s fried chicken, we would be talking about any recipe from 1940 to 1952. Of course, this assumes that his recipe did not change after he began franchising. It is suspected that during this period, MSG might have been implemented. It is also expected that the taste has changed throughout the years. Ultimately, the legendary fried chicken should lie in between the period 1940 to 1964.

Shit, but where and how can we eat some of that legendary chicken?

Use a Time Machine

Unfortunately, this is the most reliable and only method to taste the Colonel’s fried chicken. Remnants of the original awesome fried chicken is mostly left in the memories of people who have had the chance to taste the Colonel’s chicken.

Claudia Sander’s Dinner House

Yes, this is the restaurant that the Colonel opened after being disappointed with corporate KFC. The restaurant serves Southern fare, though it is unsure if the fried chicken served here is close to the Colonel’s chicken. The restaurant itself currently seems to be overshadowed by other restaurants, with very little online sources raving about their fried chicken. So either it means the Colonel’s chicken isn’t that good by today’s culinary standards or the restaurant is not producing the Colonel’s chicken.

Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken

While the fried chicken at this chain of restaurants is probably a lot different now compared to the one the Colonel had, this chain was opened by a nephew of Colonel Sanders. The important point here is that the nephew traveled with the Colonel selling their blend of spices and pressure cookers. Does it taste like the Colonels? I don’t know, but there are people saying it is better than Claudia Sander’s and also corporate KFC.

Use Marion-Kay’s Chicken Seasoning 99-X

As with everything in the article, whether this tastes like the Colonel’s I don’t know. But it is said that the Colonel had asked Marion-Kay to recreate his spice, but then lawsuits happen and Marion-Kay weren’t able to sell their mix to KFC franchises. However, the mix is still sold in their stores under the name 99-X

It is said that while Marion-Kay’s seasoning is close to the original, it is missing some key ingredients and doesn’t quite achieve the same. Who do I rely on for this information? A bunch of old dudes (old enough to have eaten at the original KFC) had, for decades (not a typo), tried to crack the code and unlock ultimate fried chicken power, with their findings shared on a super secret forum (and probably more unpublished in their test kitchens). That forum is currently dead, with a separate new forum alive somewhere recreated by another their members. I do feel like I am disturbing their sanctuary if I put the forum’s name here, so I will refrain from doing that.

But this brings me to my next point…

Solving the Da Vinci Code

The best possible way to eat the Colonel’s chicken, save for time travelling, is to follow one of the O.R. KFC recreation members’ recipe. Or maybe you can join them and try to crack the code. That being said, here is one of the recipe (by no means THE recipe), likely to be close to ones from 1952 to 1971:

Colonel Sanders’ Original Recipe Chicken

Cut one 3½- 4lb  (1.6 to 1.8kg) chicken into 9 pieces using the method for Southern Fried Chicken. Place them in a brine for 4 hours.

Brine:

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 tbsp white Vinegar
  • 1 tbsp table salt, non iodized
  • 1 tbsp Sugar, white
  • 1 tbsp MSG

After 4 hours, remove the chicken from brine and rinse in fresh water. Add the brined chicken to egg wash.

Egg Wash:

  • 1 cup milk (The Col. used skim or reconstituted)
  • 1 large egg

Combine well, dip chicken in egg wash dredge in the seasoned flour as per the following.

Seasoned Flour: 

  • 4 cups cake flour – Low protein flour is very important here. If you don’t, the chicken coating will become very gluey, dense and hard. Low protein flour is also used for the biscuits. Unbleached pastry flour it is ideal. More information can be found here.
  • 4 tsp freshly ground white pepper; Sarawak from Malaysia
  • 3 tsp freshly ground black pepper, Tellicherry from India (others prefer Lampong or Kampot peppercorns)
  • 4 tsp freshly ground sage; Dalmatian
  • 1 1/2 tsp freshly ground coriander; Indian
  • 1 1/4 tsp high quality ground ginger; Jamaican
  • 1 tsp freshly ground Ancho chile; Mexican; (Unsure if the Col. toasted them)
  • 3/4 tsp freshly ground whole Tahitian (Raiatea) vanilla bean (do not use the more common Bourbon Vanilla, the flavors are different)
  • 3/4 tsp freshly ground bay leaf; Turkish
  • 3/4 tsp freshly ground savory; Canadian
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground cloves; East Indies
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground green cardamom; Guatamalan – (seeds only, don’t include the pods)
  • 1 tsp MSG

Yes, the original recipe is crazy enough that herbs and spices from specific regions are used.

Add salt to cooked chicken at a ratio of 1lb chicken to 1ts popcorn salt (same as normal salt, but finely grained). Use salt to taste, as it can taste quite salty for some.

You do want to make more than enough for breading, as the extra can be used to make gravy.

If you want crunchier chicken mix a little milk with the breading, about an ounce (28g) or so, enough to make the flour shaggy. Press the flour firmly on the egg/milk dipped chicken.

Frying the Chicken:

Pan Fry/Oven Method – for those who don’t want to pressure cook the chicken. No where as moist as the pressure fried chicken, but less complicated and still delicious.

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (about 200 degrees C).
  2. Heat corn or vegetable oil in 11-inch straight-sided sauté pan over medium-high heat to 375 degrees.
  3. Carefully place chicken pieces in pan, skin side down, and cook until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Carefully flip and continue to cook until golden brown on second side, 2 to 4 minutes longer.
  5. Transfer chicken to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet.
  6. Bake chicken until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of chicken registers 160 degrees for breasts and 175 for legs and thighs, 15 to 20 minutes. Smaller pieces may cook faster than larger pieces. Remove pieces from oven as they reach -correct temperature.
  7. Let chicken rest 5 minutes before serving.

Pressure Cooker Method

Video on this method

**WARNING** Can be dangerous if you don’t have much experience with pressure cookers, if your pressure cooker model and/or gasket is old or unsuitable or if you are careless. You will need a modern type of 2nd generation stainless steel pressure cooker for this process. If you use an old fashion pressure cooker it will explode or leak oil vapor that will result in explosions and everything that is not awesome! All these warnings are probably because normal pressure cookers are not designed for pressure frying, which will also weaken your gasket. Use a pressure cooker that is at least 8 qt (7.57 liters). Best if its designed for pressure frying.**WARNING**

Gives more of a smooth textured crust, and much softer than the pan fry/oven method. I would advise you to do more research on pressure cooking before trying this.

  1. Heat up about 1 1/2 quart (1.41 liters) of oil to 365 degree (185 C).
  2. Brown half your chicken for 1 minute before sealing and cooking at 15 psi for 8 minutes then using cold water in the sink to reduce pressure.

Colonel Sanders Original “Cracklin Gravy 1952-1964”

  • 1 TBSP butter (margarine can’t be a good substitute)
  • 1/4 cup Original Recipe breading flour
  • 1/2 cup cracklings strained from the pressure cooker or frying pan
  • 1 cup whole milk – cold
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1/4 cup whole cream – cold
  1. Put butter, flour and cracklings into a frying pan over low to medium heat.
  2. Stir continuously until the ingredients are fully blended and the raw flour is lightly browned. This takes a few minutes. The roux should not be darker than peanut butter brown.
  3. Gently pour the milk, hot water, and cream, continue stirring until it begins to thicken. Salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Allow mixture to simmer until it reaches desired thickness, then turn off the heat and serve.

Coleslaw

  • ½ cup Miracle Whip (other brands turned the mixture grey)
  • ½ cup tarragon vinegar (Heinz)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup salad oil scant (Kraft)
  • dash salt to taste
  • 1 head cabbage, cored and chopped not shredded (Colonel pretty adamant about this)
  • 1-2 carrots, grated- optional
  • 1/4 cup grated onion – optional
  1. Mix the cabbage, carrots and onion in a bowl.
  2. Add other ingredients, mix well, cover and keep in refrigerator overnight.

Recreating Corporate KFC

If for whatever reason you feel like recreating the corporate KFC yourself, there are obviously many guides to help you. Perhaps you want to help the Colonel spit in the face of corporate KFC, or you just want to make them so you don’t ever have to go to KFC anymore.

The following recipe and GIF are kindly stolen from this reddit thread. Do note that anything else other than the flour + herbs and spices mix is merely a way to fry chicken, and is not likely to be the way that KFC does theirs.

And just another reason why this is probably not KFC’s secret blend:

Nutrition Information:

Servings 8
Calories 349
Total Fat 15.5g
Saturated Fat 2.1g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 99mg
Sodium 785mg
Potassium 143mg
Total Carb 31.3g
Dietary Fiber 2.5g
Sugars 3.5g
Protein 20.5g

Ingredients:

  • 400 milliliters (1 and 2/3 cup) butter milk

  • 2 eggs

  • 8 chicken drumsticks

  • 2 liters vegetable oil

  • 250g (~1 cup) plain flour

  • 2 teaspoon salt

  • ½ tablespoon thyme

  • ½ tablespoon basil

  • 1 teaspoon oregano

  • 1 teaspoon celery salt

  • ½ tablespoon black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon dried mustard

  • 2 tablespoon paprika

  • 2 tablespoon garlic salt

  • 1 tablespoon ginger

  • 1 tablespoon white pepper

Directions:

  1. Beat the eggs into the buttermilk.

  2. Add the chicken pieces to the buttermilk mixture and chill for an hour.

  3. In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour with all the herbs and spices.

  4. Coat the soaked chicken pieces in the herbed flour mixture, shaking off any excess.

  5. Heat oil in a large sauce pan to 170°C/325˚F, then turn to low heat.

  6. Fry the chicken in batches for 15 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the skins turn golden brown.

  7. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

  8. Enjoy!

To make crispy version, you have to double coat the chicken. Or you can also add a small amount of buttermilk into the dry mix to form a damp flour mixture. The moisture clumps the flour mixture a little, which makes for extra craggy exterior after frying.

While the recipe does call for buttermilk, it is to be noted that current KFC does not use buttermilk, and instead uses only water to clean the chicken and make the seasoned flour adhere better. For a better idea of how they fry stuff in the restaurant, you can look at this video.

Also as I have said foremost, the method of cooking might vastly change the flavors. Using a pressure fryer is the best thing you can use to recreate the experience.

Additional Things

It can be seen from the following pictures that chicken supplied to the KFC chain are pre-marinated in MSG, salt and herbs and spices. I got the pictures below from the forum.

Interestingly, you can also buy a version of the marinate from China on this website here (no idea whether this is bootleg or legal but…).

Other Useful Resources

Colonel Sanders Stuff

Wikipedia on KFC Original Recipe – Useful for general history of the recipe

Wikipedia on Colonel Sanders – Useful for understanding the Colonel’s history

Astrum People’s Biography on Colonel Sanders – A shorter, more digestible version of his history

New Yorker’s article on Colonel Sanders – Useful for understanding Colonel Sanders as a person and his relationship to KFC

Fact Fiend’s Video on Colonel Sanders sued by KFC 

Article Version of Fact Fiend’s Video

Colonel Sanders Story

Colonel Sanders didn’t start KFC until he was 62 years old and broke. Here are more resources to inspire yourself.

Today I Found Out’s succinct video on Colonel Sanders’ history

Startup Stories’ video on Colonel Sanders’ inspirational timeline – focuses more on the success story

Consumerists’ article on Colonel Sanders – Contains old relevant image and some quotes from the Colonel

Making Fried Chicken

You wanna learn to make fried chicken, but you need more help:

Old television show with Colonel Sanders demonstrating how he fries his chicken

Some dude’s recreation of KFC on IMGUR (before Joe Ledington leak)

SeriousEats’ article on making the best Southern Fried Chicken for extra tips to make ultra awesome fried chicken

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