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The KFC Secret Recipe: Is the KFC fried chicken recipe really still a secret?

A reporter stumbled upon what appeared to be the KFC fried chicken recipe — the famed 11 herbs and spices — in 2016. But we still don’t know for sure.

 

Phil West

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When is a secret recipe no longer secret? In the case of the famed KFC secret recipe—the 11 herbs and spices that were allegedly perfected by the real Colonel Sanders in 1939 according to KFC’s website—it might have been unveiled in 2016 when a Chicago Tribune reporter just casually ran across it when interviewing Sanders’ nephew.

But then a KFC spokesperson denied that the KFC fried chicken recipe that was unveiled, despite being a specific list of 11 herbs and spices, were not the actual 11 herbs and spices that combined to create the celebrated concoction.

That spokesperson told the New York Times, “Many people have made these claims over the years, and no one has been accurate — this one isn’t either.” KFC guards its secret recipe so fervently that it’s filed at least one lawsuit over someone claiming to have and reveal the identity of the 11 herbs and spices.

A 2001 ABC News story, in fact, revealed that KFC dropped a lawsuit it had filed against a couple who claimed they’d found the recipe while living in a house once owned by Sanders. The story noted the couple, who happened to be restaurateurs, “stumbled upon a dusty, 1964 leather-bound datebook in the basement of the home while sorting some old boxes 16 months ago. In it was a note, allegedly handwritten by Colonel Sanders, that contained 11 herbs and spices in specific percentages.”

Yet a spokeperson at the time said, “Some of the spices in the secret recipe are missing.”

But the 2016 version of the KFC secret recipe might just be it.

What is the history of KFC and the KFC fried chicken recipe?

There was really a Col. Sanders, born in 1890, and there was an original version of what would come to be known as Kentucky Fried Chicken. According to the KFC site’s history timeline, in 1930, Sanders “buys a roadside motel in Corbin, Kentucky and begins serving his southern style chicken.”

By 1952, Sanders started the franchise with a restaurant in Salt Lake City. As Atlas Obscura noted, a sign painter who worked with the franchise owner “had the clever idea to refer to the product as Kentucky-fried chicken instead of Southern-fried to make it stand out.”

In 1991, the restaurant colloquially knows as KFC changed its name to the three-letter initials. As Reader’s Digest noted in a 2022 article, rumors exist that explain—incorrectly—that both the “chicken” and the “Kentucky” parts of the name were the issue. But, really, it was the word in the middle; the article states, “The company claimed publicly that the name change from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC was to shy away from the word ‘fried’ for potential health-conscious patrons.”

Though KFC’s certainly famous for other things beside its secret recipe, like its famous bowl literally called the Famous Bowl, the allure of whatever’s in those 11 herbs and spices keeps the fast food chain relevant.

What’s in the KFC secret recipe? Do we know?

Fast forward to 2016, when Chicago Tribune reporter Jay Jones interviewed Sanders’ nephew, Joe Ledington, on assignment in Corbin, Ky. Ledington hands Jones a family photo album to thumb through, and Jones happens upon a handwritten recipe that consists of 11 herbs and spices.

Jones, in his article, quotes Ledington as saying, “That is the original 11 herbs and spices that were supposed to be so secretive.”

The recipe, as written, includes these 11 spices mixed with two cups of white flour:

  • 2/3 Ts Salt
  • 1/2 Ts Thyme
  • 1/2 Ts Basil
  • 1/3 Ts Origino (sic)
  • 1 Ts Celery Salt
  • 1 Ts Black Pepper
  • 1 Ts Dried Mustard
  • 4 Ts Paprika
  • 2 Ts Garlic Salt
  • 1 Ts Ground Ginger
  • 3 Ts White Pepper

The Tribune, making the recipe for an accompanying article, gleaned that T stood for tablespoons based on taste. Their article noted that “with the oil temperature just right at 350 degrees, the chicken soaked in buttermilk and coated just once in the breading mixture,” they were able to arrive at “fried chicken was even better than the Colonel’s.”

Though it came close, it took a reporter sprinkling MSG on the chicken to get it “virtually indistinguishable from the batch bought at KFC”—and a KFC spokesperson did verify that MSG is used it in the Original Recipe chicken, even if they won’t dish on the other ingredients.

Of course, it also helps to have a pressure fryer if you really want to do it the Colonel’s way.

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