Sriracha may well have been the first condiment to go viral, but it certainly wasn’t the last. See: pantry staples ranging from Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Seasoning to Calabrian chili paste.
Now, it’s hot honey’s turn. It’s on sandwiches, it’s on cheese boards, it’s on pizza (frozen or otherwise), and thanks to chef Rob Sonderman, it’s also on fried chicken sandwiches.
Pit master Sonderman is already a household name among D.C. barbecue fans, with time at DCity Smokehouse as well as his own Federalist Pig. And with the opening of Honeymoon Chicken in January, he proved he’s no one-trick pony. This retro spot specializes not in the pork shoulder or chopped brisket he’s already known for, but rather the fried chicken he first started dishing up at a spot in Bethesda’s Ensemble Kitchen food hall. With his new, all-day address, Sonderman is able to offer seated service, not to mention higher-octane accompaniments. Perhaps the most famous offering thus far? A split of Veuve.
“The juxtaposition of the sort of highbrow Champagne meets humble fried chicken makes it all the more enjoyable,” Sonderman tells InsideHook. He’s being modest. His fried chicken is far from humble.
Whether working with bone-in pieces for his buckets or the boneless, skinless breasts at the heart of this sandwich, his fried chicken always starts the same way: a day and a half ahead of time. It’s at this point that Sonderman bathes the chicken in pickle juice, brining it for up to 36 hours before it even sees a kiss of flour — or, to be specific, self-rising flour mixed with both masa and cornstarch and seasoned with a bevy of spices.
“We like this combination as the corn flour adds a slight bit of texture and flavor,” he explains. “The self-rising flour and cornstarch combo makes for a nice light crunch.”
Once fried, the chicken is sandwiched on buttery brioche dolloped with homemade ranch and piled with hot pickle chips and iceberg lettuce, which, despite its current unfortunate rep as bland and nutrient-poor, nonetheless has its role to play.
“It definitely works in certain cases,” he says. “All we are looking for here is a light, crisp, fresh crunch to add another layer of texture without bringing a ton of extra flavor to the party, as we already have a lot going on.”
It’s also a nod to more classic fast-food fried chicken sandwiches, something Sonderman notes is a purposeful choice.
“We’ve definitely pulled inspiration from all the classic fried chicken restaurants around the country,” he says. (Case in point: his Henny Penny pressure fryer, which is also the secret sauce behind KFC’s ultra-crispy chicken.)
“But the main focus,” he adds, “was to create something unique, funky, fun and obviously delicious.”
That’s in no small part thanks to the crowning glory of this particular sandwich: Sonderman’s proprietary hot honey, which generously coats the chicken in moreish stickiness. His recipe for this super-special sauce begins with a blend of both clover and orange blossom honeys, something he says was a bit of an accident.
“There wasn’t enough regular clover honey at the grocery store,” he says. “We tried the orange blossom honey and really enjoyed the light citrus note it added to the recipe.”
This recipe makes quite a bit of that delightful honey, which marries natural sweetness with a kick of apple cider vinegar, garlic and two kinds of chiles. Sonderman loves pairing leftovers with bloomy Brie or blue cheeses or drizzling it over cornbread, or cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts or cauliflower, or pizza. While there are loads of components to this sandwich, it’s definitely achievable for the home cook — not least because, according to Sonderman, “everything can/should be prepped the day before.”
That way, he adds, “all you’re doing day-of is frying the chicken, assembling sandwiches, and enjoying your guests’ company.” And maybe a glass of bubbly.
Hot Honey Chicken Sandwich
For the hot honey
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 16 ounces clover honey
- 12 ounces orange blossom honey
- 3 tablespoons granulated garlic
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ teaspoon chipotle powder
- ¼ teaspoon habanero powder
For the herb buttermilk ranch
- 1 cup mayo
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons creole or whole grain mustard
- 1 tablespoon fine chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon fine chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon fine sliced chives
- ½ teaspoon finely chopped dill
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the chicken
- 6 (5- to 6-ounce) chicken breasts (about 2 pounds total)
- 6 ounces buttermilk
- 3 ounces pickle juice
- 1 quart oil, for frying
For the seasoned flour
- 1½ pounds self-rising flour
- ½ pound corn flour (masa)
- ½ pound corn starch
- 3½ tablespoon salt
- 1½ tablespoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons granulated garlic
- ½ tablespoon onion powder
- ½ tablespoon smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon chipotle powder
For the sandwiches
- 6 brioche buns
- Butter, for toasting
- ½ head iceberg lettuce, shaved thin
- 1 jar spicy pickle chips
Make the hot honey. Add all of the ingredients to a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once at a simmer, remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a food-safe container. (The hot honey is best if used the next day, so the flavors have time to marry.)
Make the buttermilk ranch by combining all of the ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Store in a food-safe container until ready to use.
A few hours (up to 36) before serving, brine the chicken. First, lightly pound out the chicken breast to make sure they are even thickness. Then combine the remaining ingredients to make a slightly thick marinade. Coat the chicken completely, and allow it to marinate for at least 5 to 6 hours or ideally overnight and up to 36 hours.
When you are ready to fry the chicken (or in advance, if you like!) make the seasoned flour by combining all of the ingredients in a bowl.
When you’re ready to cook the chicken, heat the oil in a large, deep pan, taking care not to fill the pan more than halfway with oil to avoid spilling or bubbling over. Heat over medium to medium-high heat until the oil reaches about 350º F.
Dredge the chicken breasts in the seasoned flour, making sure they are nicely coated. Shake off any excess, and drop the chicken into the pan of hot oil, taking care not to splash yourself. Fry for about 2 to 3 minutes per side, flipping the breasts halfway through the cooking process to brown both sides. Once cooked, remove the chicken breasts from oil and allow to cool for a minute on a drying rack.
Spread the brioche buns with a bit of butter, and toast. Put about a tablespoon or so of ranch on each side of the bun, and add as many pickles as you’d like on the bottom bun (Chef Sonderman likes 5-6 chips). Dip the still hot chicken breasts in the hot honey, making sure they are nicely coated. Place on the bun bottom bun and top with shaved iceberg lettuce. Add a little more ranch and hot honey if you’d like before closing off the sandwich. Enjoy!
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