Broasted chicken is a Wisconsin invention
BELOIT – Confession: I’m a lifelong Wisconsinite who has long enjoyed Broasted chicken and long assumed Broasted was just a term we use in place of fried chicken. Like bubbler instead of drinking fountain.
Order Broasted chicken and you get this beautiful, golden, crunchy outside, juicy inside, slightly salty piece of poultry goodness. That’s fried chicken. Right?
Broasted chicken is fried in oil. But it is fried, in essence, inside a pressure cooker. Generically speaking, the machinery that can fry and pressure cook chicken simultaneously is known as a pressure fryer.
However, to be Genuine Broaster Chicken requires more than a pressure fryer. The Wisconsin supper club staple food has gone worldwide now, but it all traces back to a 65-year-old Wisconsin institution, complete with patents and a carefully guarded secret recipe. And that story takes us to Beloit, home of Broasted chicken.
CAN’T AN INVENTOR GET A PIECE OF FRIED CHICKEN? QUICKLY?
L.A.M. Phelan just wanted some fried chicken. And he wanted it quick. Not able to find a device already capable of completing the task, Phelan set out to create one. In 1953 he combined a pressure cooker with a deep fryer as a simple and fast way to cook chicken. The Broaster Company was formed the next year.
It’s impossible to know if he envisioned the day the Wisconsin-based company that arose from his invention would be shipping Broasters to Saudi Arabia, his secret blend of spices to India or hosting a crew from Estonia for training.
I’m guessing not, but, still, here we are in 2018 and more than 4,000 operators worldwide use Phelan’s pressure fryers and program.
If you’re not using our pressure fryer, coatings and marinade, says Broaster CEO Jay Cipra, you cannot legally use the name Broasted.
They have good reason to be vigilant.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that salty seasoning flavor comes through in every bite of chicken, even after the crispy skin has long since been devoured. That’s not an accident.
Deep fried under pressure after marinating and being dusted in a blend of spices that have only seen minimal change since Phelan perfected them, chicken that comes out of Broasters oozes clear juices — on your shirt if you’re not careful.
SUPPER CLUBS WERE EARLY BROASTER ADAPTERS
About the same time Phelan created the commercial grade Broasters, KFC was rising in popularity. Even though the Colonel eventually adapted his own pressure fryer, franchising a KFC limited a restaurant’s options. Nobody’s going there for an authentic Wisconsin Friday fish fry or prime rib on Saturday night.
Broaster has the advantage of being a brand that a supper club, or any restaurant, can incorporate into menus and signs while retaining its own identity.
These days local favorites like Van Abel’s of Hollandtown, Susters Arcade in Denmark, Gosse’s at The Northwestern House in Sheboygan and Parnell’s Place in Oshkosh are not only Broaster purveyors, but have earned Broaster’s golden chicken award for operator excellence.
Parnell’s Place first served Broaster chicken in 1979, as best as owner Tim Hughes can recall, and was the first in Oshkosh to offer Broasted chicken. Hughes’ father owned the restaurant at the time, but when Hughes bought Parnell’s in 1989, there was never a doubt he was sticking with the Broaster program. Chicken accounts for at least 60 percent of food sales, says Hughes, and on Sundays they’re doing more than 1,000 pieces.
It probably doesn’t hurt that if you can snag a seat in Parnell’s cozy dining area on Sunday, chicken dinners are nearly half-price. Between the quality and the price, those dinners more than live up to Parnell’s tagline of “great food, sensibly priced” on the sign out front. The Sunday chicken price is for dine-in only. Buckets of chicken can be ordered to go without the discount.
Hughes has upgraded the largest Broaster made, one that can cook more than 20 pounds of chicken in just about 10 minutes and uses natural gas as heat, which is more efficient than electric models. Still, Hughes has the original Broaster tucked away. He pulls it out for special caterings around AirVenture time.
As word of Broaster chicken spread through local restaurants, the company carried out its own advertising campaigns.
Broaster now employs 60 full-time staff whose duties include sales, distribution and manufacturing.
EACH BROASTER IS BUILT FROM SCRATCH IN BELOIT
Bang. Bang. Bang. The rhythmic sound of metal being molded, cut and otherwise fabricated shares the same space as the scent of spices inside the Broaster 56,000-square-foot manufacturing building. It’s been home to all such operations since 1977, when the company outgrew its facility in Rockton, Illinois. Broaster was sold to Alco Standard Corporation in 1970, before being sold to a group of private investors in 1991.
This is where the company receives shipments of everything from stainless steel to salt that will be forged and blended then shipped worldwide.
Machinists cut sheets of metal and aluminum into needed pieces. Electronics are assembled. Welders. Grinders. Tools of the trade stretch through the shop.
All the blending and packaging happens in rooms secluded from the manufacturing and regularly inspected, same as any food industry production facility.
At the heart of Broaster’s pressure fryer is a cylindrical pot. This, says pretty much every Broaster executive, is a big advantage over their competitors. The round design does a better job of evenly heating the oil and thus cooking the chicken.
At the end of the tour, six machines stand in varying stages of completion. I’m told they’re bound for Saudi Arabia.
Nearby, boxes of packaged spice blends and coatings — Broaster has about 50 different varieties — are racked high enough that a forklift is needed to retrieve them.
PRESSURE FRYING COOKS CHICKEN FASTER, AND JUICIER
Putting the deep fryer under pressure cuts cooking time. Broaster’s 2400 model, the company’s largest pressure fryer, can produce 22 pounds of chicken in about 10 minutes. If each chicken meets Broaster’s recommended weight, that’s seven chickens.
The ideal chicken delivers eight pieces collectively weighing three pounds. Chickens that size are younger, says Broaster vice president Gregory West, and more tender.
Though 15 years ago each chicken averaged about 2½ pounds. Today’s bigger chickens have pushed cook time from 9½ minutes to 10½ minutes.
Speed is a boon for places like the Brass Rail in Grandy, Minnesota, that on an average week is serving 120,000 pieces.
The faster cook has another advantage. The quicker your cook meat, the less juice you lose, says Hughes.
It also reduces the amount of oil absorbed by foods.
An independent laboratory test in 2007 showed an order of Broasted potato wedges had 30 fewer calories and 3 fewer grams of fat than potato wedges prepared in an open deep fryer.
“Once we lock down the pressure that sears the outside of the chicken,” West said at company headquarters where they were demonstrating the cooking process. “In traditional fryers, once it gets cooking, the oil can get inside the chicken. In pressure fryer, it sears the outside preventing the oil from getting in. When you bite into the chicken you’re getting the natural juices and flavors and not tasting the oil as much.”
BEER BATTERED CHEESE CURDS, FRESH CHICKEN TENDERS AND BROASTER’S FUTURE
Broaster continues to innovate. And it’s more than just what other foods can be prepared using traditional Broasting methods, like pork chops.
In addition to the apple pies, Broaster is releasing a Wisconsin cheese curd made with a beer batter. Yes, the beer comes from a beloved state brewery. They still offer a classic breaded cheese curd option.
West credits another Wisconsin original with helping spread the joys of cheese curds: “Because of Culver’s there is becoming a very strong nationwide interest in curds.”
Also look for fresh chicken tenders coated in a batter that carry on the classic Broasted flavor.
Broaster has also acquired Smokaroma that makes a pressure smoker capable of smoking a brisket in three hours or ribs in 45 minutes. They’re also makers of Instant Burger, a cooking press that turns out burgers from fresh patties in less than a minute.
The guts of the pressure fryer is basically the same. Phelan’s genius lives on in that regard. Today’s innovations are more about improving efficiency both to reduce energy use and training time for staff.
Not that Cipra needs those innovations when doing his Thanksgiving turkey in a 2400 model he has at his home. Just follow the program: Marinate. Season. Pressure fry.