Fried chicken is a many-headed beast, and we're not just talking about the head meat likely in your nuggets. It can be a thing of high class, or something you shove into your face when you're driving. That's why you owe it to yourself to become an expert, starting with this crash course in wonderful styles you're likely to come across.
Style: Country-fried chicken
The 411: Kind of the O.G. of the fried-chicken world, it started off in medieval times as things known as "fritters", though it was often also seen at tribal feasts in Africa. The two styles came crashing together in the American South, where fried chicken paved the path for pretty much every food in the south to get breaded and fried.
Key attributes: Crispy flour crust that rips off with the skin; close association with well-coiffed Southern military men; heroin-like addictive qualities.
Style: Broasted chicken
The 411: Like many things that conspire together to taste delicious and make us fat -- beer, cheese, beer cheese -- the technique of broasting originated in Wisconsin. It's essentially the country-fried method's high-falootin' big-city cousin, utilizing a combination of pressure cooking and deep-frying to craft chunks of bird that maintain the perfect skin/breading crispiness without compromising the moisture of the meat inside.
Key attributes: Crispy/crunchy exterior; dangerously hot and moist interior that could send dangerously hot jets of juice spraying everywhere when bitten.
Style: Buffalo wings
The 411: Though their exact creators' identities are often debated (credit most often goes to Teressa and Frank Bellissimo of Buffalo's Anchor Bar), one thing is clear: some time in the mid-1960s, somebody decided to fry up a bunch of chicken wings -- usually discarded for being chintzy on meat -- and douse them in hot sauce, thus contributing to football culture exponentially more than the Bills.
Key attributes: Extreme messiness; ability to trick you into actually eating celery out of mouth-cooling necessity.
Style: Buttermilk-fried chicken
The 411: Sometimes known as Chicken Maryland, there are a few key differences between buttermilk-fried chicken and the country-fried kind: First, it's marinated in thick buttermilk for extra flavor (it's not just a clever name). Second, it's pan-fried in a skillet rather than submerged in grease, then covered, allowing it to steam up and lock in juices while the cook can ladle grease overtop to keep the outside crispy. Typically, it's also served with creamy gravy.
Key attributes: A smooth, buttery aftertaste; a crispy top and a bottom soggy with gravy.
The 411: Originally a simple preparation for a pork cutlet, katsu is a double-breading method in which a pounded-out breast is hit with flour, then hit with egg (kind of like an elaborate bullying attack), then dredged in panko breading. It's then sliced into little rectangles and served on rice or as part of a sandwich. It's frequently found in Americanized izakayas and on Hawaiian plates.
Key attributes: Flaky and crispy breading; extra salty; hilarious to watch white people try to eat with chopsticks.
Style: Korean fried chicken
The 411: Long before the folks in Buffalo realized the magic of chicken wings, Korean joints were popping out these super-crispy beauties, which are seasoned with spices, chilis, and sugars before being fried so they're not messy. Then they're fried again. Because that's awesome.
Key attributes: Ultra-crunchy, almost clear skins with crispy bubbles.
Style: Chicken lollipops
The 411: Pioneered by Indian Chinese chefs and now a favorite of Asian-fusion chefs all over the world (re: every other chef out there), the "lollipops" are made from the middle of the wing or the thigh, with the meat flayed away from the bone and bunched together at the top to resemble a sucker that takes infinite licks to get to the center of. Typically served with an array of dipping sauces.
Key attributes: Big, bulbous meat on the top; unexpectedly hot sticks.
Style: Chicken fingers/tenders
The 411: Most often made with breast meat, it's pretty much a law that every bar has to serve chicken tenders with some sort of honey mustard. Everybody has their variations of them, but the constant is the extra-thick, egg/flour-based batter that swaddles the chicken and keeps it impossibly hot until it hits your mouth.
Key attributes: Extremely tender center paired with extra crunchy/overcooked ends.
The 411: What most Americans consider the ultimate Chinese dish is actually a pretty Americanized one, but sweet & sour fried chicken and almond chicken both utilize a panko/batter-fried style in which small pieces of chicken are enveloped in a dough-like goo that grows three times bigger than the meat... the same effect experienced by the people who eat it daily.
Key attributes: Gigantic breading housing tiny amounts of chicken; half-raw dough on the interior surrounded by a crisp shell.
Style: Popcorn chicken
The 411: For those whose preferred breading/chicken ratio runs between 50/50 and 70/30, these bite-sized wonders started out as passable appetizers before the big fast-food joints caught on, resulting in little boxes of popcorn chicken on pretty much every corner. God bless America.
Key attributes: The joy of experiencing a perfectly proportioned and tender chicken/breading bite, followed by the horror of biting into a hard, overcooked one and cracking a molar.
The 411: "But what do we do with all these tendons and meat scraps that aren't good enough to eat?", asked Cornell food science Professor Robert C. Baker back in the '50s. The answer: Make a gooey slurry of it, press it into molds, then bread and fry the sh*t out of it. And thus the world became a happier place filled with dinosaur-shaped meat.
Key attributes: Spongy interior; crispy breading that slides off like an iPhone case, leaving you to ponder what that glistening meat you're holding actually is.
Andy Kryza is Thrillist's national eat/drink senior editor, and has proudly lived vegetable-free since 2001. Follow his adventures/slow decline via Twitter at @apkryza.