Have you ever wondered, with fingers slicked from the remains of once-golden wings, what is "broasted chicken" anyway? Is "broasted" even a real word? Possibly a portmanteau of "broiled" and "roasted" coined to confuse you around what clearly appears to be simply fried chicken?
Broasted chicken and wedge potatoes are a reliable Midwestern pair but seem largely forgotten for Nashville hot, Korean fried and even honey-buttered. But Broasted chicken is more complicated than it seems, a promising moment in postwar Wisconsin that has now gone global via Pakistan and India, picking up surprising flavors before coming home to roost.
"Broaster is actually a company started back in 1954," said Jay Cipra, president and CEO of the Broaster Co. Cipra spoke by phone recently, along with Greg West, senior vice president of marketing and food innovation at Broaster. "The company was really based on an invention made by local businessman and inventor (Louis Austin Merritt "L.A.M." Phelan) in Beloit, Wis.," said Cipra. "He had a passion for fried chicken and came up with a contraption at the time that was a fryer and a pressure cooker. That was the first patent for a commercial pressure fryer."
"What evolved shortly after he invented the pressure fryer was not only the equipment, but he came up with his own marinades and coatings. Those taste profiles are what we're still using today as genuine Broaster chicken."
Phelan evidently had an affinity for futuristic postwar language too. In 1945, he also invented the Zest-O-Mat frozen custard freezer. Today, trademarked Broasted chicken is still marinated in proprietary Chickite marinade, coated in Slo-Bro coating and pressure-fried in a Broaster pressure-fryer.
"A lot of people don't necessarily think of it as fried chicken, even though it technically is fried," said West.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, you may be thinking of the Colonel Sanders origin story - both claim a secret recipe for pressure-fried chicken - but it's different. There are other pressure fryers, too, and they all cut cooking time nearly in half.
"We were the first ones to make a big splash in the marketplace, especially here in the Midwest," said Cipra. "You go into Sheboygan or Green Bay or some other towns in Wisconsin, and it's Broasted chicken land."
But it's not "true" Broasted chicken unless it follows the whole program. Chicken Shack - open since 1956 in Royal Oak, Mich., now with over 20 locations around Detroit - has always cooked with Broasters, but simply lists "chicken" on its menu since the restaurant uses its own secret recipes.
"While we're honored everyone wants to call their product Broasted chicken, enforcement of your trademarks is never an easy thing," said West. "The farther we get from Beloit, enforcement is always a bit of a challenge."
You can't get much farther than Pakistan, where Broasted chicken is synonymous with fried chicken - but sometimes not the same. Sadly, I did not have the budget to travel to Karachi on a Broasted chicken quest but did visit some Pakistani restaurants in Chicagoland. While Broaster does now make spicy Chickite marinade and Slo-Bro coating with hatch, habanero and chipotle chile pepper heat, a source at one local restaurant that serves "chicken broast" on its menu said they use their own recipe and fry in an open deep-fryer, not a closed pressure-fryer.
Meanwhile, Mr. Broast in the far west suburb of Lombard makes genuine Broasted chicken, and it's halal. Abdul Ghani, from Karachi, opened the counter-service restaurant in 2012, said his son and store manager Sarwar Ghani by phone.
"Broasted chicken is really popular on the subcontinent," said the younger Ghani. While their chicken follows the classic flavor profile, with distinctively crispy skin, what sets Mr. Broast apart are the sauces made from recipes by Sarwar's mother, Tahira Ghani. Skip the standard barbecue, and get extra white garlic sauce, made with fresh garlic, cream and vinegar. Plus the family began bottling hot sauces last year, including a searing red habanero. Do note there are other Mr. Broast locations, but they don't have the hot sauces.
If you want the Wisconsin experience, try Millie's Supper Club in Lincoln Park. Opened in 2016 with a retro woodland vibe, the restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat Broasted chicken meal Wednesdays, with some of the best Broasted potato wedges I've had anywhere. Here, a chef's touch shows with beautifully encrusted bird and fluffy starch. Sit under the moose head, and ask for the relish tray, complimentary but served by request only.
But it wasn't until I visited Mother Cluckers Kitchen in Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side that I went behind the scenes and into the kitchen to see the making of Broasted chicken, thanks to owner Penny Schweigel.
"We start with fresh chicken every day, never frozen," said Schweigel. She and late husband Richard Schweigel opened in 2015, adding a second location in Palatine this past February.
Cook Tino Lagunas showed me the raw chicken marinating in the refrigerator. He drained a batch into a colander set over a sink. One by one, Lagunas tossed the chicken into the floury coating. He then dropped each piece carefully into the roiling oil of the Broaster before closing and securing the lid.
Done about nine minutes later, the heady aroma of chicken skin cracklings preceded the appearance of a basket of burnished bird.
"It's a light coating," said Schweigel. "You're pretty much just eating the skin with seasoning, so you don't feel so bad about eating it."
Which gets us to the other big question about Broasted chicken: Is it good for you?
The Broaster Co. claims, on its website, that "the pressure seals in foods' natural juices and locks out the cooking oil," which is a common but debunked myth. There's always some moisture loss and oil absorption, though it may be reduced and overall not necessarily a bad thing. You don't want to eat chicken that's as wet as it is raw, and some fat enhances flavor.
Consider that in India, an Americana-themed Genuine Broaster Chicken chain launched in 2016, with plans for 300 locations in 40 cities. On the menu? A spicy Happy Fried Chicken on the menu, served with a curry mango jalapeno dip. Paired with a mint lovers pizza, how can that not be good?
Millie's Supper Club, 2438 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-857-2000, www.millieschicago.com
Mother Cluckers Kitchen; 5200 N. Elston Ave., 773-685-4630; 218 N. Northwest Highway, Palatine; 847-496-7029; www.mothercluckerskitchen.com
Mr. Broast Lombard; 833 E. Roosevelt Road, Lombard; 630-889-1188; www.mrbroast.com