Everything you need to know about Philadelphia's trendsetting fried chicken and doughnuts.
Federal Donuts has a consistency problem. Or rather, a consistency goal. Acclaimed Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov puts it this way: "We only serve three things and they have to be perfect." He's speaking, of course, of the restaurant's coffee and now-legendary fried chicken and doughnuts. "It has to be right every single time, and we make thousands a day," he says of the dish. "Consistency is the hardest thing in any restaurant, and to do it at four separate stores?"
"We only serve three things and they have to be perfect."
Solomonov's answer is team work — and a commissary built into Federal Donuts's fourth location in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. But first, some backstory: Solomonov and his business partner Steve Cook paired up with local coffee shop owners Tom Henneman and Bobby Logue and Philly food maven Felicia D'Ambrosio to open the first Federal Donuts location in 2011. Henneman and Logue had been thinking of opening a doughnut shop. Henneman remembers that at that time, "there was no place to get doughnuts. Cupcakes were everywhere." Solomonov and Cook owned a restaurant next to Henneman and Logue's coffee shop, and were eager — after opening big restaurants during a recession — to get in on a more affordable project. Over late-night dinners at Korean fried chicken joint Cafe Soho, the idea emerged: coffee, doughnuts, and fried chicken. "It's something different, but it's basic," says Henneman of the concept. "It's three comforts under one roof."
The epic lines on Federal's first few days in business have become local legend; their first day open, the team sold out by 9:30 a.m. And it was a crushing amount of work. "We turned into a 24-hour operation just to be open five hours," Henneman recalls. A few years and four stores later, the Federal Donuts team is constantly tinkering with recipes and streamlining its operations. Today, chef Matt Fein heads up the culinary team and oversees the Northern Liberties commissary, where he manages all doughnut batter-making plus all chicken prep for the four other stores.
About those doughnuts and chicken: Inspired by the Korean fried chicken at Cafe Soho, Solomonov and his team set about creating a double-fried chicken with "teeth-shattering" crispy skin. For the doughnuts, they created a cake doughnut recipe inspired by the doughnut shops along the Jersey shore's boardwalks, like Brown's in Ocean City. Each store sells an eye-catching array of flavors, but for the fried chicken combination plate, a honey doughnut is served. The platter is more in the chicken and biscuits model than chicken and waffles, which is a composed entree. "The honey doughnut is a great alternative to a biscuit," Solomonov says. At his restaurant Zahav, Solomonov is known for bold, Middle Eastern flavors. At Federal Donuts, he turned to legendary spice vendor Lior Lev Sercarz to provide spice mixes that are fundamental to both the chicken and the doughnut recipes.
Federal Donuts kickstarted a trend that now spans the country.
The high caliber of both the chicken and the doughnuts has secured Federal Donuts its long-held place on the Eater Philly 38. And while the combination of fried chicken and doughnuts might have seemed unusual in 2011, a quick look through Eater's Heatmaps these past few years reveals that Federal Donuts has kickstarted a trend that now spans the country from San Diego and Portland in the west to Phoenix to Chicago and all the way east to DC. But imitators beware, the Federal Donuts crew has an eye towards expanding beyond Philadelphia in the coming years.
Below, the elements of the fried chicken and doughnuts at Federal Donuts:
1. the chicken
It all begins with Coleman Natural chicken — a vegetable-fed chicken that the shop started using in March. (It's hard to overstate just how much chicken the commissary space goes through, so finding a vendor that can deliver consistent product in volume is a priority.) The prep process starts with a dry brine, a mix of salt and a secret aromatic spice blend from Sercarz. Fein explains that dry curing overnight allows the seasoning to "settle into the chicken," helping to avoid a common fried chicken pitfall that Solomonov describes as "overly seasoned crust with a bland interior." As the chicken cures overnight, the salt from the brine breaks the meat down a bit. It also pulls some moisture from the chicken, which actually ends up making the brine a bit wet.
When it comes to how, exactly, they batter the chicken to create that extremely crispy crust, Fein and Solomonov play it close to the vest. "It's all about ratios," Solomonov demures. Here's what they can share: After dry curing overnight, the chicken gets dipped in a basic batter made from all purpose flour, cornstarch, salt, and water. The batter needs to be smooth; any lumps will create "pockets" during the frying process that won't cook properly. The entire piece gets submerged and the batter clings to the skin, which is left on for this very reason.
2. the fry
Like the Korean fried chicken it was inspired by, Federal Donuts' chicken is fried twice. The first fry happens immediately after the chicken is battered. Fein lowers the chicken pieces into a deep fryer filled with canola oil. Canola oil is versatile and flavor-neutral, says Fein, and it's a safe choice for customers since there's no allergens like soy or peanuts. Fein will let excess batter drip off the pieces, then lightly places the chicken into the oil before letting the piece go. As they fry, Fein will make sure they don't stick together. This first fry blanches the chicken, each piece taking a different amount of time. (The frying station at the commissary is surrounded by timers.) All curing and blanching happens under Fein and his crew's watch at the commissary.
The second fry is done a la minute. It also happens in canola oil, but this oil is even hotter than the first time around. Timers once again play a critical role. The finished pieces turn a "deep golden brown" and Fein notes that the oil still bubbles on the skin as it comes out of the fryer. The second fry cooks the chicken through and creates the super-crispy skin Federal Donuts' chicken is known for.
3. the finish
Once the chicken comes out the fryer, Fein can dress it with one of several options. The toppings break down into two categories: glazes and dry seasonings. The glazes are all made in-house and span a range of heat levels. At the mildest end are the honey ginger glaze and the soy garlic glaze. The hottest is the chili garlic, which is also one of the most popular orders across the shops. The dry seasonings — coconut curry, za'atar, and buttermilk ranch — have a real global spin, with the most popular order being buttermilk ranch. At the original South Philly location, guests can order an additional dry seasoning called Shabazzi, another custom Middle Eastern-inflected spice blend from Sercarz. With both the glazes and the dry seasoning, Fein aims for total coverage.
The entire process — from getting the chicken in and breaking it down to serving it to a guest — spans about 36 hours. Overseeing such a tremendous amount of fried chicken production has left its mark on Fein, who says: "I dream of fried chicken now."
4. the doughnut
Federal Donuts only sells cake doughnuts and except for a chocolate doughnut, they all start with the same batter. The doughnut batter is pretty standard — flour, granulated sugar, salt, butter, leavening agents, egg yolk, buttermilk — with one major exception. The doughnut batter, like the fried chicken dry brine, contains a special spice mix. In this case it's baharat, a Middle Eastern blend of aromatics, typically including allspice and clove. (Fein calls baharat a "Middle Eastern pumpkin pie spice.") He creams the egg yolks with sugar, adds the butter, and then the buttermilk. He combines the remaining dry ingredients (being especially careful to evenly distribute the salt) before adding them to the 60-quart mixer with the wet ingredients. The giant mixer can hold enough batter for 500 doughnuts. The first mix happens on a low speed to make a homogeneous mixture, and then Fein ups the speed to whip the batter. Prior to frying, the batter rests for about 12 hours. Fein and his team oversee the production of all doughnut batter for the shops.
Next, Fein turns to the shop's aptly named Donut Robot. He adds the batter to the hopper, which will automatically dispense properly portioned rings of batter into the hot vegetable shortening. The machine basically sends the raw doughnuts to float down a shortening river. It flips the doughnuts about halfway through, and then whisks them out of the shortening and onto a tray. While it looks easy, Fein notes that there are a lot of particulars. "I had to learn the machine's quirks and I'm still learning," he says. "It really is a science. The temperature of the doughnut batter has to be at a certain point, the temperature of the shortening has to be right, the timing has to be right. The level of the shortening has to be right: If it's too low the doughnuts won't cook properly, if it's too high up, they'll float and run into each other."
From there the doughnuts get their designated toppings and glazes, which change often. To make the honey doughnuts that come standard with the fried chicken, Fein dips the freshly fried doughnut into light amber honey, covering both sides. Not only do cake doughnuts stand up well to glaze, but Solomonov adds this cheerful bonus: "They travel well."