Shio Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken)
Karaage is my favorite bite-sized fried chicken and one of my favorite foods, for that matter. With flavorful and juicy chicken on the inside and a potato-chip crisp shell on the outside, it's a popular street food loved throughout Japan.
The most common version is seasoned with a soy-sauce-based marinade, but salt (shio) Karaage is another popular variation that highlights the savory flavor of the chicken. It's a sublimely light and refreshing dish with garlic, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice, perfect for summer.
There are a few tricks to ensure your chicken is packed with juicy umami and ultra-crisp, so keep reading to learn how to make the best Karaage.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- Using salt instead of soy sauce to season the chicken gives it a lighter color and taste that highlights the flavor of the chicken.
- Adding sake to the marinade provides a ton of amino acids that synergize with nucleic acids in the chicken to create umami in your mouth.
- Using skin-on chicken thighs ensures the chicken is juicy, and the skin fries up into a crisp crackling layer.
- Using potato starch to dust the chicken provides a light crispy layer that's like coating the karaage in a potato chip.
- To have the juiciest chicken, I recommend single frying the Karaage. Double frying the chicken trades juiciness for a crust that stays crisp for longer.
Ingredients for Shio Karaage
- Chicken - I recommend using skin-on chicken thighs for making karaage. Chicken thighs are more flavorful than breast meat, and they contain more fat which makes them more forgiving. While it's possible to make juicy karaage using chicken breasts, the window of when it's cooked to a safe temperature vs. being dried out and stringy is much smaller than with chicken thighs. I've been making karaage for years, and the only way I've managed to get chicken breast karaage to turn out well is to err on the side of undercooking it, which carries risks of food-borne illness. As for the skin, it does two things. The first is that it protects the chicken meat from coming into direct contact with the hot oil, which can make the surface of the chicken tough. The second benefit is that the fat renders out of the skin as it fries, making it cracklingly crisp.
- Garlic - I usually use ginger instead of garlic for my regular karaage, but I really like how a small amount of garlic plays with the black pepper and lemon in this recipe. If you really want to maximize the flavor of the chicken, you can skip the garlic, but I found the Karaage to be a little too one-dimensional without it.
- Sake - Sake is an alcoholic beverage that's brewed from rice. As part of the brewing process, the proteins in the rice are broken down into amino acids. These amino acids are perceived as umami in your mouth. Adding sake to the marinade enhances the umami that's in the chicken. Although the alcohol in the sake will burn off while frying the chicken, if you can't get sake where you live, you can substitute water with a pinch of MSG. I would not recommend substituting mirin as the high sugar content will cause it to burn before the chicken is fully cooked.
- Salt - You could get fancy here and use an amino acid enriched salt like Mojio or a flavored salt like smoked salt, but I just used plain old table salt to keep it simple.
- Black pepper - The name Shio Karaage just means "salt karaage," so pepper is not a required ingredient, but I like adding a bunch of freshly cracked black pepper to mine to add a spicy kick and its peppery aroma.
- Potato starch - Some recipes call for coatings like wheat flour or rice flour, but to make the lightest crispiest Karaage, I recommend using potato starch. While all starches consist of amylose and amylopectin molecules, the ratio of each and the size of the starch granules varies depending on what plant it comes from. Potato starch has a slightly higher concentration of amylopectin than corn starch, but the real difference is in the size of its granules. Potato starch averages 36 microns, while cornstarch granules are around 14 microns. Using potato starch to coat Karaage gives it its light and crispy texture. Cornstarch will work in a pinch, but the coating will be more dense and crunchy.
- Lemon - I like to serve Shio Karaage with a wedge of lemon to squeeze on each piece as you eat it (squeezing it on everything will make them soggy). The acidity balances out the richness of the chicken while the fresh aroma of the zest works beautifully with the garlic and pepper.
How to Make Shio Karaage
To make the Shio Karaage Marinade, grate the ginger into a medium bowl and add the sake, salt, and black pepper. Stir the mixture together until the salt is fully dissolved.
To prepare the chicken, trim off any flaps of excess fat or tough connective tissue and then follow the natural partitions in the meat to cut the chicken into strips that are about one and a half inches in width.
Now you want to cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces about the same size as a golf ball. Since some areas of chicken will be thinner than others, you'll need to cut the strips at different intervals to end up with pieces of the same weight. This is important because the chicken will be balled up before deep frying it, and smaller pieces will cook a lot faster than bigger pieces.
Transfer the chicken pieces into the bowl with the marinade and stir to coat each piece evenly. Cover the bowl and let the meat marinate for at least one hour. Ideally, you want to leave the chicken to marinate overnight.
To fry up the Karaage, add one to two inches of oil to a heavy pot with high sides such as a Dutch oven. Of course, two inches of oil would be better, but I know how expensive frying oil is these days. Preheat the oil to 340°F (170°C), and while you're waiting for that, line a wire rack with several layers of paper towels.
When the oil is up to temperature, add the potato starch to a small bowl and roll each piece of chicken in the starch to give it an even coating. Next, use your fingers to shape the chicken into a ball with the skin on the outside, and carefully lower each piece into the oil.
Continue coating the chicken and adding them until the pan is mostly full (don't overcrowd it). I recommend adding the chicken from one side to the other, so you know what order you've added them.
Unlike chicken seasoned with soy sauce, this Karaage won't turn golden brown, so the color is not a good way to judge when it's done. The chicken should take about five minutes to cook through, and you'll want to flip them periodically once the coating sets to ensure they cook through evenly. The easiest way to tell when the chicken is done is to remove a piece and test the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer (it should read 160°F or 71°C), but you can also cut it in half to make sure the juices are no longer pink.
Transfer the chicken to the prepared rack to drain as they cook.
Serve the Shio Karaage immediately with a few wedges of lemon for squeezing.
Other Japanese Fried Chicken Recipes
Shio Karaage (塩から揚げ) is a variety of Japanese fried chicken that's seasoned with salt (shio) instead of the usual soy sauce. This gives it a lighter color and flavor that allows the flavor of the chicken to shine.
Shio Karaage is a 6-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
shi like sheet
o like order
ka like copy
ra like the “ra” sound does not exist in the English language, and the best way to make it is to say the word "romp" with the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth.
a like aardvark
ge like get
There are a few tricks to making the crispiest karaage possible. The first is to use skin-on chicken. This is because the skin will render its fat as it fries and becomes crackling crisp. The second is to coat the chicken in potato starch, which creates a delicate crispy shell compared to flour or other types of starch. Finally, if you want the coating to stay crisp longer, you can double fry the Karaage. Of course, the tradeoff here is that the chicken will be much less juicy than with a single fry.
It will work in the sense that it will cook the chicken, but it won't crisp the starch in the same way as deep-frying it. Air fryers are essentially small convection ovens and work better with foods coated with something that's already crispy, like breadcrumbs.
- Whisk the garlic, sake, salt, and black pepper together in a medium bowl until the salt is fully dissolved.
- Trim any excess fat or tough connective tissue of the chicken.
- Look for natural partitions in the meat with the skin-side down and follow them with a sharp knife to slice the chicken into 1.5-inch strips (4cm).
- Next, you want to cut the strips into pieces of chicken that are roughly the volume of a golf ball. This will mean that thinner areas will need to be cut longer while thicker areas should be shorter.
- Add the cut chicken to the marinade and stir to coat each piece evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight.
- When you're ready to fry your chicken karaage, add 1-2 inches of oil to a heavy pot with high sides and preheat to 340°F (170°C). Prepare a cooling rack by lining it with a few paper towels.
- Put the potato starch in a bowl, and then roll each piece of chicken in the starch to coat it in an even layer. Next, use your fingers to squeeze the chicken into a ball and lower each piece into the preheated oil. I recommend frying the Karaage in two batches.
- Once the coating on the chicken has set, flip the pieces over to cook them evenly.
- How long the chicken takes to cook will depend on how large the pieces are, but they should take about 5 minutes to cook through. They should read an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) when they're cooked. Transfer the chicken as they cook to the prepared rack to drain.
- Serve the Shio Karaage immediately with a few wedges of lemon.