The Art of Recreating Southern Fried Chicken in an Air-Fryer

A buttermilk-pickle brine and a well seasoned dredge work together with the air fryer for this quick, easy, and fantastically juicy and crispy “fried” chicken.

A blue platter with air-fryer fried chicken
Serious Eats / Photographer: Jen Causey, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly , Prop Stylist: Josh Hoggle

I grew up mostly in North Carolina and a little bit in Louisiana, and although I've lived in the Northeast for nearly 30 years, I still miss the truly excellent fried chicken you get in the South—perfectly juicy, extra crispy, flavorful-in-every-bite fried chicken is just too hard to come by up here. And, sure, I could make my own, but deep frying in my studio apartment was a one-and-done event for me. When your kitchen is also your living room and bedroom, the cost-benefit analysis doesn't fall on the "deep fry it!" side very often.

Lucky for me—and all fried chicken lovers—you can make a great version of fried chicken in your air fryer, no vat of oil required, thanks to this air-fryer fried chicken recipe created by our Birmingham, Alabama-based test kitchen colleague Marianne Williams. Read on to learn how, through numerous tests and tweaks, Williams created a recipe that delivers air-fryer "fried" chicken that's juicy and full of flavor on the inside and super-crispy on the outside, then use our tips and the full recipe below to create it in your own kitchen.

While the recipe is written for a combination of bone-in and skin-on breasts and thighs, you can make this recipe with whatever chicken pieces you prefer: skin-on or skinless, bone-in or boneless, breasts, thighs, or other parts. (Though if you are going with boneless and skinless meat, we recommend choosing thighs, which stay juicier than breasts.) This recipe is written to serve six people and must be cooked in two batches, but it's easily halved if you just want to serve two or three people. I like it with Southern sides like cornbread or buttermilk biscuits, stewed green beans or okra, and mac and cheese.

Four images of making air-fryer Southern fried chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

5 Tips for Marking the Best Southern Fried Chicken in the Air Fryer

  1. Lock in flavor and juiciness with a buttermilk-pickle brine. Soaking the chicken in a combination of egg, buttermilk, and pickle juice, along with hot sauce for a little kick and honey for a touch of sweetness, ensures the meat is seasoned throughout with both salt and a touch of acidity. The salt and acid not only add flavor but also lock in juiciness—thanks to salt's ability to prevent proteins from releasing too much water during cooking and acid's natural tenderizing effects. We normally don't recommend marinating for more than a few hours (most flavors outside of salt and acid don't penetrate far into the meat, and most acids can turn meat mushy if left on it for too long), but this marinade can be allowed to work its magic up to overnight, since the lactic acid in the brine is gentler on meat than other acids
  2. Pat the chicken dry after marinating. While you normally don’t pat chicken dry after a buttermilk brine and before dredging, since the wetness can help the dredge to adhere, but in this case drying the chicken helps a ton with getting a crispy crunchy exterior in the air fryer. Too much moisture can lead to soggy fried chicken. 
  3. Add rice flour to the dry dredge. Cutting the wheat flour with rice flour improves the crispness and texture of the final coating. This is because wheat flour contains gluten-forming proteins, which can lead to excessive toughness. A more pure starch like rice flour mixed in reduces the total amount of those gluten-forming proteins, while still providing starch to absorb moisture. The final result is a light, crunchy coating that resists sogginess. (Baking powder is also added to the dredge for similar toughness-fighting benefits.)
  4. Generously season the dry dredge. One complaint I have about a lot of the fried chicken you get outside of the South is that even if the coating is adequately crispy (a big if), it's often bland and underseasoned. Williams solves this by spiking the dry dredge with not only adequate salt but also onion powder, granulated garlic, and smoked paprika, which give the crunchy exterior a robust flavor. 
  5. Use oil smartly. While you need much less oil in the air fryer than for deep frying, some oil is still necessary for crispy "fried" chicken. The first step is adding oil to the air-fryer basket (you'll line it with foil first), which our testing revealed is an important step to ensure the chicken crisps where it's in contact with the basket. Then you'll use cooking spray to coat the chicken all over before frying, creating something like a micro-layer of oil in which the chicken can "fry." Don't hold back here: You want to spray the oil all over the chicken pieces until no dry flour is visible.
  6. Cook it at the right temperature. Williams tested air frying the chicken and various temperatures to arrive at the "Goldilocks" spot of 380°F (193°C). Any cooler and the chicken will not be crispy enough, but go hotter and it's likely to overbrown and burn before the meat is cooked through. 
A platter of air-fryer Southern fried chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly , Prop Stylist: Josh Hoggle

In a large bowl, whisk buttermilk, eggs, pickle brine, hot sauce, honey, and 3 tablespoons (27g) of the salt together until well-combined. Add chicken thighs and breasts and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours. Remove chicken from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.

Two stacked images: Whisking buttermilk brine and soaking chicken in it
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

When ready to cook, line two baking sheets with wire racks. In a large bowl, whisk together all-purpose flour, rice flour, onion powder, granulated garlic, smoked paprika, baking powder, pepper, and remaining 1 tablespoon (9g) salt until well-combined.

Whisking dry dredge ingredients for air-fryer fried chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Pour about 1/4 cup (60ml) of the buttermilk marinade from bowl with chicken into flour mixture, using your hands or a flexible spatula, stir to form small clumps (most of flour should be dry).

Pouring brine ingredients into dry ingredients for fried chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Working with one or two pieces at a time, remove chicken from marinade, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl, and pat excess marinade from chicken using paper towels. Place chicken into the bowl with flour mixture and turn, pressing to coat chicken evenly in flour mixture.

Battering chicken for air frying
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Drizzle more buttermilk mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, over breaded chicken in bowl and turn once more so additional craggy bits of coating stick to chicken.

Drizzling brine over chicken for frying in air fryer
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Transfer breaded chicken to one of the prepared baking sheets (leave one of the baking sheets empty for cooked chicken). Let chicken sit on wire rack for 15 minutes before cooking. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 225°F (110ºC). Using a fork or a sharp knife, pierce a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil large enough to wrap the basket of a 6-quart air fryer all over, then wrap the basket tightly with foil.

Wrapping air fryer basket in aluminum foil
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the canola oil over foil and set the prepared basket in the air fryer. Preheat air fryer to 380°F (195ºC) for 3 minutes. Once preheated, place 4 thighs or 2 breasts, skin-side down, in the air fryer. Spray all over with a generous amount of cooking spray until no dry flour is visible.

Spraying chicken with cooking spray in air fryer
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Cook chicken until golden-brown and crispy on both sides, and an instant-read thermometer registers 170°F (77ºC) for chicken thighs and 155°F (68ºC) for chicken breasts, about 22 to 25 minutes for the chicken thighs and 30 minutes for the chicken breast, flipping and spraying the top side of the chicken with more cooking spray halfway through.

Transfer the cooked chicken to the clean baking sheet and season to taste with salt. Place in oven to keep warm while preparing the remaining chicken. Brush now-empty foil-lined basket with remaining tablespoon of oil and repeat cooking with remaining chicken. (Let chicken rest 10 minutes.) Serve with your favorite sides.

Fried Chicken in Air Fryer
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Special Equipment

2 rimmed baking sheets, 2 wire racks, 6-quart air fryer, instant-read thermometer

Notes

Rice flours can vary widely in texture and consistency. We recommend Bob’s Red Mill white rice flour, which is readily available in grocery stores and online.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Cooked chicken safely be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to four days, but it will lose its crunchiness.