Sweet-Tea Fried Chicken

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Two Southern staples in their own right, sweet tea and fried chicken are often found on the same table. But it wasn’t until I tasted the sweet-tea fried chicken sandwich from Saw’s BBQ in Birmingham, Alabama, that I realized they’re even more powerful together. In this recipe, inspired by the dish from Saw’s, sweet tea acts as a flavor-charged brine for chicken thighs, resulting in tender, ultra-succulent fried chicken with a lingering hint of sweetness. 

For the brine, I take a cue from the age-old Southern secret of spiking sweet tea with a pinch of baking soda. This trick is said to strip the tea of any lingering bitterness, but adding a little baking soda to the brine also performs the valuable role of tenderizing the meat. Instead of deep-frying, I opt for a shallow-fry in a cast-iron skillet, which yields spectacularly crispy, craggy chicken with a fraction of the oil.

The ultimate companion for sweet-tea-brined chicken? Alabama white sauce. Unlike many barbecue sauces—which lean heavily on ketchup and molasses—this pale mayonnaise-and-vinegar-based one is bright and punchy, a trademark of Alabama barbecue. Laced with plenty of black pepper, this versatile white sauce would be great on just about anything: In Alabama, it’s most commonly slathered on grilled or smoked chicken—the thin mayo-based sauce keeps the bird moist and juicy—but I also use it as a salad dressing and a dipping sauce for fries (Big Ranch Energy).

My favorite way to serve this chicken is over a slice of soft white bread to sop up all that sauce. For an epic chicken sandwich, tuck the fried thighs into a plush potato bun along with sliced pickles and a hefty spoonful of Alabama white sauce. Whichever way you choose, don’t forget a side of fried green tomatoes.

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4 servings



cup mayonnaise


cup buttermilk


cup distilled white vinegar


Tbsp. freshly cracked pepper

tsp. dark brown sugar

tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 tsp. Morton kosher salt


tsp. Dijon mustard


tsp. garlic powder


tsp. Worcestershire sauce

tsp. cayenne pepper

Chicken and Assembly


cup granulated sugar


Tbsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 Tbsp. plus 2¼ tsp. Morton kosher salt, divided, plus more


black tea bags


tsp. baking soda


skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 1 lb.)

cups all-purpose flour


cup cornstarch


tsp. garlic powder


tsp. freshly cracked pepper


tsp. cayenne pepper


cup buttermilk

Vegetable oil (for frying; about 4 cups)

White bread (for serving)

Special Equipment:

A deep-fry thermometer

PreparationSauceStep 1

Vigorously whisk ¾ cup mayonnaise, ¼ cup buttermilk, ¼ cup distilled white vinegar, 1 Tbsp. freshly cracked pepper, 1½ tsp. dark brown sugar, 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 tsp. Morton kosher salt, ½ tsp. Dijon mustard, ½ tsp. garlic powder, ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce, and ⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper in a small bowl until smooth. Cover and chill white sauce at least 1 hour and up to 3 days.

Chicken and AssemblyStep 2

Heat ½ cup granulated sugar, 2 Tbsp. Diamond Crystal or 1 Tbsp. plus ½ tsp. Morton kosher salt, and 2 cups water in a small saucepan over medium, stirring to dissolve sugar, until mixture is steaming but not simmering, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately add 8 black tea bags; let sit 8 minutes. Remove tea bags, squeezing out excess over pan; discard. Add 1 tsp. baking soda and stir to dissolve (mixture may fizz). Pour in 2 cups cool tap water and stir to combine. Let sweet tea cool.

Step 3

Place 4 skinless, boneless chicken thighs in a medium bowl and pour sweet tea over (chicken should be submerged). Cover with a lid or plate and chill at least 1 hour and up to 12 hours. If chilling longer than 4 hours, let chicken sit at room temperature 1 hour before dredging and frying.

Step 4

Whisk 1½ cups all-purpose flour, ½ cup cornstarch, 1 Tbsp. Diamond Crystal or 1¾ tsp. Morton kosher salt, 2 tsp. garlic powder, 1 tsp. freshly cracked pepper, and ¾ tsp. cayenne pepper in a shallow bowl or baking dish. Pour 1 cup buttermilk into another medium bowl and season with a large pinch of salt.

Step 5

Working with 1 chicken thigh at a time and using 1 hand for wet ingredients and the other for dry ingredients, remove chicken from marinade, letting excess drip back into bowl. Dip chicken in buttermilk, letting excess to drip back into bowl, then dredge in flour mixture, tapping off excess. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet.

Step 6

Pour vegetable oil into a medium cast-iron skillet to come 1"–1½" up sides; fit with thermometer. Heat oil until thermometer registers 325°. Carefully lower chicken thighs into oil and fry, turning with tongs every 1–2 minutes and adjusting heat as needed to keep oil between 300°–325°, until deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part thighs registers 165°, 8–12 minutes. Using tongs, transfer chicken to a wire rack set inside a clean rimmed baking sheet; season lightly with salt. Let cool 10 minutes.

Step 7

To serve, transfer chicken to a platter and drizzle with white sauce. Serve with white bread and remaining white sauce alongside.