Sunday, September 2, 2012

North Carolina Style Chicken and Dumplings

I've had all types of chicken and dumplings, and unfortunately, I don't like most of them. I'm probably biased.  I'm perfectly willing to admit that. The only kind I really like are the ones my parents and grandparents made. So here is the way we make them in our family.

Chicken and dumplings
1 whole chicken
all-purpose flour
shortening (I usually use organic palm shortening) or lard
salt and pepper

You'll start by boiling your chicken until it's falling apart - that will make it easier to pick later.  Then scoop out the pieces and set it aside so it can cool down while you're making the dumplings.  You need to make sure there is plenty of broth in the pot.  If my liquid level looks low, I'll add water and let it cook a few minutes before I pull the bird out.  Your pot should be at least 2/3rds full once the bird has been removed.
Now we'll make the dumplings.  I don't measure.  I haven't ever measured, but  if you'll use about 1/3c. shortening to every 2 cups of flour, that should be about right.  It's been a long time since I've made a small, or even an average size pot of chicken and dumplings, but 4 cups of flour may make enough for the average family.  If you can make biscuits, you can make dumplings.  
As usual, I was making a lot.
Put the flour in a large bowl, add the shortening, and then work the shortening into the flour with a rubbing motion.  You want it worked through thoroughly.  Visually, it should remind you of cornmeal.  If you squeeze some in your hand it should hold together, but break apart easily when you rub across it.  If it stays together there is too much shortening, and if it won't hold together in the first place, there isn't enough.
Once you have the texture right you can add your milk.
I have no measurements for the milk, just add some in and start mixing.  Don't add too much at once - you can always add more, but you can't take it away, and if you have to add a bunch of flour that doesn't have shortening in it, the texture of the dumplings won't be quite right.  
Don't worry - unlike working with biscuits, extra stirring will not adversely affect the dumplings, so you can start with a little milk and keep adding until the dough comes together.  You'll eventually get the feel of about how much milk to add right from the start.
Another way this is a little different from biscuit making is that you do knead this a little after the dough is formed.  Kneading it helps the dough toughen up some by activating the gluten (which is why you don't knead biscuits), so the dumplings will hold together better in the pot. 
After the dough is finished, pull smallish pieces (about the size of a tennis or baseball) off the larger dough ball,  and place them on a well floured counter or cutting board, and flour the top.  Also flour your rolling pin and sprinkle a bit more flour as needed as you work with the dough.  Roll thin and slice into strips about an inch wide.  I do it right on the counter because I have and old, dull, long knife that I use specifically for cutting dumplings.  It isn't sharp enough to damage the counters.
As you cut each batch of dumplings, place them on a plate, platter, or, if you're making a lot, a large baking sheet.  Once you have one layer down, sprinkle the dumplings with flour and then lay the next layer down perpendicular to the first.  This will help keep them from sticking together and make it easier to pick them up and add to the pot.
Now here's the crucial part.  Your broth must be boiling hard.  If it's not, you'll end up with a sticky, doughy mess in the bottom of your pot.  Keep a spoon nearby to stir it down if it starts to boil up too far.
Then add the dumplings a few at a time.  You don't have to do it one at a time, but you shouldn't add more than three or four at once.  The cold dough can drop the temperature of the broth so that it's not boiling hard enough.  If the boil starts to slow, stop adding the dumplings for a second so it can get back up to temp.  The dumplings will sink for a second and then float up to the top.  As the pot gets full, you'll need to stir it from time to time to open up a hole to drop the dumplings through.  It won't take as long as you think once you get the hang of it.  
When all of the dumplings have been added you just need to keep an eye on it.  You don't turn the temperature down unless it's threatening to boil over, then you only turn it down enough to keep that from happening.  You need this to keep boiling pretty hard until the dumplings have cooked for awhile.
Stir very often, and when you feel them start to stick to the bottom of the pan you can turn them down very low, again stirring often to keep them from burning.  At this point the dumplings should be done, or very close to it.  I've even taken them completely off the heat and just put a lid on the pot. With the residual heat in the pot, they'll continue to cook without the risk of burning.  
While the dumplings are cooking, pick the meat off the bones of the chicken and pull it into small pieces.  Add it back to the pot once the dumplings are done, and add salt and pepper to taste.
I would suggest picking the bird during the first part of the dumpling cooking.  The pot needs to be watched fairly closely during the final stages of cooking, and if you wait to pick the bird, it might burn while you're busy.
When things go wrong.
This batch of chicken and dumplings was actually started in my really big stock pot.  They weren't watched closely enough near the end of cooking and they started to scorch in the bottom of the pot.  All is not lost if you catch them soon enough.  As soon as you notice them sticking badly, dump them out into another pot (or two if you're first pot was your largest) and let them sit for a couple of minutes.  If the scorching isn't too severe, getting them out of the pot will keep the remaining dumpling from picking up a scorched taste and they will be fine.  Just don't scrap the bottom of the pan.  The dumpling that are stuck to the bottom are the ones that are scorched and will have that flavor.  If you get them in your new pot, they will taint the whole batch.  Return them to the heat if they need it, and keep a close eye on them.
As long as your dumplings were thin to begin with, they should really be just about done by the time they start wanting to stick to the bottom of the pan.  To test for doneness, pull a dumpling out, let it cool for a second, and bite into it.  It should not taste or feel doughy at all.  It will be kind of soft and fluffy on the outside and a bit firmer inside.  If it looks kind of bread like, or noticeably darker inside it needs to cook a little more.  

On another note - for the amount of chicken and dumplings in the picture above, I cooked two birds.

I don't know if all of North Carolina makes chicken and dumplings this way, but that's how we do it in this neck of the woods, and they are VERY good.

I've linked this post with the Homestead Barn Hop.

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  1. The recipe we use came from my grandmother on my father's side of the family. It is very close to this one! Mom only makes it every so often so that it is quite a treat! We add a bit of butter to the top of each serving. Then we push the dumplings into the small puddle of melted butter just before eating. Soooo good!

    1. That does sound good; maybe not to my waist, but certainly to my taste buds.

  2. YUM!!! I live in NC and love chicken and dumplings!

    1. Yes! They are THE comfort food of choice around here.

  3. This sounds just like how my mom makes her dumplings. Oh yum.

    1. Yum is right. This is the dish my father requests each year in place of turkey for Thanksgiving. :)

  4. Should the dough be really stiff or soft?

    1. I didn't anticipate that question - you've made me put on my thinking cap.
      It may be easier to explain it by saying that once the dough ball is formed in the bowl, give it a generous sprinkling of flour and then knead it, just like you would yeast bread for several turns (maybe 8-10), until you can feel it start to stiffen a bit and it's no longer overly sticky. You don't want it very stiff, but you do want to activate some of the gluten, and you don't want it so sticky you can't roll it out without it gluing itself to the rolling pin. It needs to be stiff enough that you can work with it. If you start rolling it out and it's sticking badly to everything (it may stick a bit under the dough - just keep the counter floured) you can just sprinkle some more flour on it, scrape it together and knead it a few more turns.
      It's one of those things you have to get the hang of. If the first batch doesn't turn out perfect, just make an adjustment and try again. If it seems like the first batch never cooked all the way through, the dough may have been too stiff - knead it less next time, and if they feel apart while cooking, the dough probably wasn't kneaded enough.
      I hope this helps.

    2. Sorry - and if they fell apart... Not, feel apart...
      One of these days I'll learn to proofread my replies before I hit publish.:D

  5. oh yum. oh yum. oh yum.

    Gotta love living in the south! We have some gooooood food!

  6. Eh. I like fluffy dumplings :-p and I live in NC, but it's basically the same thing except I make dough balls and drop them in!

    1. My husband's Grandmother, who was originally from Pennsylvania, used to make her's that way. She'd lived here for nearly 40 years by the time I met her, but she said she still preferred to make them the way her family had up north.
      I guess we all like what we've grown up with. :)

  7. Hi Becky,
    My Husband and I live in Virginia and we travel twice a year to visit friends in North Carolina and we never pass a place that we know to have the best chicken and dumplings. I have tried over and over again to make them. Flavor was good, texture real bad. My Mom's taste like theirs and she made them like yours and I thank you for the detailed recipe. I recognized immediately what I had been doing wrong.

  8. I'm so glad I was able to help.
    I hope your next pot turns out well.

  9. Do you add salt to the flour when measuring it?

  10. No - I don't add any salt until they are almost finished cooking, then I add in salt and pepper to taste.