A good piece of fried chicken is perfect "company food." It's good enough in its own right to appeal to the most demanding of your foodie friends, but it's comforting and down-home enough for everyone else too. You can even keep it tantalizingly hot and crispy – as long as you know what to do and what not to do.
Understand the Problem Clearly
You've probably heard the saying "No good deed goes unpunished." That's exactly what you're up against when you try to keep fried chicken hot and crispy. If you've done your job properly, the chicken will be beautifully moist on the inside, and that's why keeping it crispy is so hard. Juices will try to ooze from the chicken as it rests, making the bottom soggy, and hot steam trapped inside the chicken pieces will do the same everywhere else. That's especially true if the chicken is covered. Your goal, then, is not just to keep the chicken hot but also to let it drain while allowing steam to dissipate.
Use a Low Oven
A low oven, set to about 200 F, is an ideal environment for keeping your chicken at a good serving temperature. There's enough space for steam to evaporate without making your chicken soggy and enough heat to keep it crisp without overcooking it.
Your best bet is to line a sheet pan with foil or parchment – to make cleanup easier – and then set a wire rack on the pan. Arrange your chicken pieces on the rack with a bit of space between them so air can circulate and then slide the rack into your oven. Keep adding pieces as you take them out of the hot fat, until you've filled the pan. Use a second sheet for a really big batch rather than stacking the chicken in a second layer. If your oven has a convection mode, the fan will also help to keep the surface of the chicken crisp and dry.
Use a Toaster Oven
You can use the same basic technique if you have a toaster oven or small countertop oven. Most of these appliances will only hold four to eight pieces of chicken comfortably, but that's plenty for a small group.
Note that there are a couple of potential issues with this approach: One is that the elements in toaster ovens are low, so you may need to slide a small square of foil over the chicken to keep it from scorching. As long as you don't fold the foil down over the chicken, though, it shouldn't trap too much steam. The other problem is finding a wire rack the right size to fit into the small roasting pan of the toaster oven. You might need to scour thrift stores and online vendors for a while to find one. Alternatively, some toaster ovens are designed so the pan slides right under the oven's own rack. That works just fine.
Use a Roaster or Slow Cooker
A countertop roaster oven or slow cooker can also work well, though they're not as good at circulating air around the chicken pieces. Still, as long as you keep your chicken pieces in a single layer, they can do the job. Heat the roaster to 200 F or the slow cooker to its high setting and find a wire rack that fits. In an oval slow cooker, you might need to use a square or rectangular rack in the middle and round ones at the ends.
Can't find a rack to fit? Try scrunching foil into balls about the size of a golf ball and using them to fill the bottom of the roaster or slow cooker. They'll work like a rack, allowing the chicken to drain and air to circulate. This isn't as good as a rack, but it's a useful hack. Don't put the lid on the roaster or slow cooker, because that would trap steam. Instead, cover it with a clean kitchen towel.
Use a Chafing Dish
If you're going to be serving in the backyard and you don't want to run an extension cord out there, consider buying or renting a chafing dish. These come in various sizes and shapes, but the most useful are the big rectangular types that restaurants use. They burn gel fuel, and they'll definitely create enough heat to keep your chicken hot.
Again, place a rack at the bottom to keep the underside of your chicken from getting soggy and don't use the lid that comes with the dish. A clean kitchen towel is your friend here too. Be sure to use a towel that's just big enough to cover the chicken, because if it's long enough to hang over the edge, it'll probably find its way to the gel flame sooner or later. And you want your guests to remember the chicken, not any unnecessary "excitement."
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.