What Is Nashville Hot Chicken And How Is It Different From Buffalo Chicken?

If you ordered a spicy chicken sandwich at a restaurant, what type of dish would you expect? Perhaps it would be crunchy and fiery, dusted with cayenne and spices. Maybe you'd predict something a bit more saucy. The sandwich you get can depend on where you are, or what style the chef adheres to — Nashville hot or Buffalo. Because they share spicy flavors and reddish-orange hues, it may be tempting to lump them into one big fried chicken basket. These recipes also hint at where they hail from, but they're even more different than Maine and Connecticut-style lobster rolls.

Before digging into their origins, the basic difference between these chickens is that Nashville hot uses spices mixed with oil, while Buffalo chicken uses a rich sauce. Despite this distinction, both recipes have another common denominator – storied pasts.

Although many credit Frank and Teressa Bellissimo of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York for inventing Buffalo chicken, it may have been dreamed up by someone else — John Young of Wings and Things, also of Buffalo, who was known for serving up wings doused in a rich, spicy sauce. 

When it comes to Nashville's signature dish, the family behind Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, Tennessee, likely created the recipe — perhaps without meaning to initially. According to legend, Thornton Prince's wife sought revenge for his infidelity by loading his fried chicken with an excessive amount of spice. Ironically, he loved it — and started selling it.

So, what is Nashville hot chicken?

Nashville hot chicken's fiery history lives on today as a beloved dish in Nashville and beyond. The dish starts with brining chicken in hot sauce, buttermilk, and sometimes pickle juice, before breading and frying it. The secret to this recipe is its seasoning — a spice blend with a bit of brown sugar and plenty of ground cayenne gets mixed with hot oil and then brushed onto the chicken. Then, the chicken is usually loaded onto a sandwich with pickles and often coleslaw, although traditionally, you may find it served on white bread.

Although you can order Nashville hot chicken to your spice liking, the truly spicy ones are not for the faint of heart. In fact, Anthony Bourdain said during his Nashville hot chicken sandwich experience, "Oh, oh that hurts. I think I'm hallucinating." The ground cayenne pepper in this recipe is likely to blame, as cayenne peppers register at a Scoville level 12 times hotter than lowly jalapenos. However, many enjoy the painful heat from peppers, as the chemical compound capsaicin simulates a burning pain response, which triggers the release of feel-good endorphins.

What's so different about buffalo chicken?

Aside from its origin story, Buffalo chicken has quite a few differences from its Nashvillian cousin. Its spice comes from a rich (but also spicy) sauce, made from hot sauce, vinegar, and sometimes other additions like Worcestershire sauce and spices. This condiment can coat just about anything. You'll usually see it on wings, like the buffalo wings we eat truckloads of during the Super Bowl, but it is also featured in other preparations, like pulled chicken, sandwiches, wraps, or buffalo chicken dip. The vinegar in its sauce adds a tangy kick that cuts through the richness of the butter, while the cayenne notes from the hot sauce punch through.

While both Nashville hot chicken and Buffalo chicken celebrate the thrill of spicy food, each has something unique to offer. Nashville chicken brings dry, scorching heat and a tantalizing crunch, with spice levels that can often be tuned to how adventurous your tastebuds are. On the other hand, Buffalo chicken offers a saucier, sometimes milder flavor experience. So the next time you're debating over a spicy chicken order, remember that the style you choose—Nashville hot or Buffalo—can offer both taste of its origin and a test of your spice tolerance.

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