KFC recipe revealed? Tribune shown family scrapbook with 11 herbs and spices

Credit Jay Jones freelance writer

So many stories have been told about Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken, it's impossible to know where the truth ends and the fiction begins.

This is one of those stories. A mix of memory, mystery and a pinch of "what if?" It involves one of the best-kept culinary secrets of all time.

The real Colonel was a bespectacled, white-haired guy named Harland David Sanders who spawned a fast-food empire. For decades, "The Colonel" was synonymous with snow-colored suits, black string ties and "finger lickin' good" chicken coated in a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

Yes it is good enough to lick your fingers! There is a reason for your craving as I will explain.

For KFC Corp., keeping the elusive mix of 11 herbs and spices under wraps has been paramount — not to mention a great marketing tool. In 2008, the Louisville, Ky.-based company used a Brink's armored truck and briefcase marked "Top Secret" when it made a big show of beefing up security at the vault containing the Colonel's handwritten recipe. Other protective measures include using two different suppliers to prepare the 11 herbs and spices so that no single entity can crack the code.

The recipe is, without question, a secret as juicy as well-fried fowl — and has been for the better part of a century.

So, imagine my surprise when a list of 11 herbs and spices was plucked from a Sanders family scrapbook and placed into my hands. Crazy, right?

Let me explain …

Our story begins with my trip to the small town of Corbin, Ky., where the Colonel first served his chicken more than 75 years ago to hungry motorists at the service station he ran. I'm here to visit the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum, a shrine of sorts to the fried chicken magnate. His namesake restaurant has been restored to its mid-20th-century appearance but with a modern-day KFC store as an appendage. My assignment: research the restaurant, museum and fried chicken in Corbin for a "Fork in the Road" feature in the Chicago Tribune's Travel section.

With the help of the local tourism office, I arrange to meet a man named Joe Ledington. The 67-year-old retired teacher has spent his entire life in Appalachia. He still lives in the house in which he grew up, just north of the city limits of Corbin, a town of about 7,300. He agrees to meet me to share a few yarns about the Colonel. You see, the guy he called "H.D." and "Old Man Sanders" was his uncle. Ledington says he used to do chores in the modest cafe as a young boy, making a quarter a day to sweep and clean up.

I enter the dark-paneled restaurant lit by naked fluorescent tubes and find Ledington leafing through a photo album. His wife, Jill, sits quietly at the next table, munching chicken from a familiar red-and-white box.

Ledington and I shake hands, and I tell him about the assignment that brought me to this part of southeast Kentucky. Before I can even open my notebook, he draws my attention to the photo album overstuffed with pictures, newspaper clippings and various family documents.

"This was Aunt Claudia's album," he says, referring to his father's sister, Claudia Ledington, who became Harland Sanders' second wife when they wed in the late '40s. Claudia worked as a waitress in the cafe and was instrumental in launching what would become a multibillion-dollar fast-food chain boasting nearly 20,000 KFC restaurants in more than 125 countries.

The album, with its nondescript cover and clear cellophane sheets, looks like the kind I used to buy for a buck at Walgreens. Ledington turns the pages, occasionally stopping to point out certain pictures, like the one of him posing with his famous uncle and others taken at the opening of a KFC in some faraway land. Sanders was always sporting one of his iconic white suits. Ledington says he had a closet full of them.

Ledington continues to leaf through the family scrapbook, pausing here and there to share a memory or an anecdote about his uncle. At the back of the album is an official-looking document, its pages stapled together: the last will and testament of his Aunt Claudia, he tells me. She died on New Year's Eve 1996 at age 94.

"I can show you what every family member got," he says, poring over the papers. "This was my dad, Robert Ledington. He was the first one. He got $209,888."

But what I'm really interested in is the handwritten note on the back of the document. At the top of the page, in blue ink, it reads, "11 Spices — Mix With 2 Cups White Fl." That's followed by an enumerated list of herbs and spices. Eleven herbs and spices. And the measurements for each.



AnyCalculator.com

Cawabunga! This is it.

Could this be what I think it is? The 11 herbs and spices?

Ledington tells me, yep, this is it. (He worked with his uncle "the colonel" for years making his chicken.)

"That is the original 11 herbs and spices that were supposed to be so secretive," he says with conviction.

(In a subsequent phone interview with a Tribune editor, Ledington dialed back his certainty and expressed reluctance about sharing a recipe that — if it's legit — ranks among corporate America's most closely guarded secrets. "It could be; I don't know for sure," he said about the handwritten list of ingredients, adding that this was the first time he'd shown it to a reporter. "I've only had that album for four years, since my sister passed away.")

During our chat, he quickly points out that the writing isn't his uncle's. He's not sure who jotted down the list of 11 ingredients. But he says he's sure it's authentic because, as a boy, he helped blend those herbs and spices on the flat concrete roof of his uncle's garage.

"I mixed them over the top of the garage for years," he recalls, noting that the job came with the fringe benefit of getting to use the swimming pool at Sanders' motel-restaurant complex — a nice perk during the hot summer months.

"The big thing we did was mix it with flour and bag it up and sell it to restaurants," Ledington says. "Actually, my job was cutting up chickens and bagging up chicken mix. That's what I did as a 10-, 11-, 12-year-old kid."

The main ingredients for the coating, according to this recipe, are paprika (4 tablespoons), white pepper (3 tablespoons) and garlic salt (2 tablespoons). But Ledington says one ingredient is the real star.

"The main ingredient is white pepper," he says. "I call that the herbs and spices. Nobody (in the 1950s) knew what white pepper was. Nobody knew how to use it."

Later, back in Chicago, the Tribune put the recipe to the test in its on-site kitchen and compared it with a bucket of KFC Original Recipe chicken.

It was finger lickin' good.

On the internet, cooks have posted copycat recipes they say replicate the original. Only a few of those contain the white pepper Ledington claims is key. 

I showed Ledington's list of 11 herbs and spices to KFC's parent corporation, Yum! Brands, located on Colonel Sanders Lane in Louisville. I asked if it is indeed the Colonel's Original Recipe. 

A KFC spokesperson responded via email.

"In the 1940's, Colonel Sanders developed the original recipe chicken to be sold at his gas station diner. At the time, the recipe was written above the door so anyone could have read it. But today, we go to great lengths to protect such a sacred blend of herbs and spices. In fact, the recipe ranks among America's most valuable trade secrets."

I tried again, adding that a "yes," "no" or "no comment" would be helpful.

The response:

"Lots of people through the years have claimed to discover or figure out the secret recipe, but no one's ever been right."

What's not a secret is the pressure-cooking technique used by Sanders and now KFC to make the fried chicken.

In the early '50s, the Colonel — an honorary title bestowed by the governor of Kentucky — began selling to other restaurants the two keys to his tasty birds: custom pressure cookers and the enigmatic mix.

"The original KFC chicken, I think, was better, because it had more breading to it," Ledington says. "It was individually hand-breaded and dropped in those pressure cookers. You cooked it until it started turning brown. And then you put the lid on the pressure cooker and brought it to 12 pounds of pressure for 10 minutes. And then you started letting the pressure off, and when you uncapped it and the pressure was off, it was perfect: golden brown and fall-off-the-bone."

As I sit across from this unassuming fellow with a Southern drawl, I'm a bit in shock at the prospect of being privy to what might be the secret recipe, perfected by the Colonel in this very spot.

I take a few pictures of Ledington and his photo album. There's a little more small talk, by which time his wife is done with her lunch. We all shake hands and say goodbye.

I watch Ledington gather his scrapbook. He walks out of the restaurant, whose floors he said he swept as a kid, carrying with him what could be a secret so valuable it belongs on the other side of Kentucky, in Fort Knox.



The spice recipe, as written:   T equals tablespoons.  Oil temperature just right at 350 degrees, the chicken soaked in buttermilk and coated just once in the breading mixture

11 Spices – Mix With 2 Cups White Fl.

1) 2/3 Ts Salt

2) 1/2 Ts Thyme

3) 1/2 Ts Basil

4) 1/3 Ts Origino (sic)

5) 1 Ts Celery Salt

6) 1 Ts Black Pepper

7) 1 Ts Dried Mustard

8) 4 Ts Paprika

9) 2 Ts Garlic Salt

10) 1 Ts Ground Ginger

11) 3 Ts White Pepper

12) Yes this is the real real SECRET to the Colonel's chicken. Its even listed on the KFC website.  KFC Adds MSG To Their Original Recipe Chicken         MSG. (This is what makes it finger lickin good.)

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)  This tricks your brain into thinking something takes better than it really does!

Tasters agreed the test kitchen fried chicken was even better than the Colonel's.

But more important, did it taste like the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices? It came very close, yet something was still missing. That’s when a reporter grabbed a small container of the MSG flavor-enhancer Accent (how did that get in the test kitchen?) and sprinkled it on a piece of the fried chicken. That did the trick. Our chicken was virtually indistinguishable from the batch bought at KFC. (Does KFC add MSG? A KFC spokesperson confirms that it does use it in the Original Recipe chicken.)

Cooking And Taste Test Of The Colonel's Recipe   Test Kitchen Link

There Was More To Colonel Sanders Than His Secret Recipe



KFC Adds MSG To The Original Recipe Chicken

Chicken On The Bone (Original Recipe® Chicken Breast: Fresh Chicken Marinated With: Salt, Sodium Phosphate and Monosodium Glutamate. Breaded With: Wheat Flour, Salt, Nonfat Milk, Whey, Potato Starch, Egg Whites, Maltodextrin, Triglycerides, Food Starch- Modified, Natural Flavor, Colonel's Secret Original Recipe Seasoning., Original Recipe® Chicken Thigh: Fresh Chicken Marinated With: Salt, Sodium Phosphate and Monosodium Glutamate. Breaded With: Wheat Flour, Salt, Nonfat Milk, Whey, Potato Starch, Egg Whites, Maltodextrin, Triglycerides, Food Starch- Modified, Natural Flavor, Colonel's Secret Original Recipe Seasoning., Original Recipe® Chicken Drumstick: Fresh Chicken Marinated With: Salt, Sodium Phosphate and Monosodium Glutamate. Breaded With: Wheat Flour, Salt, Nonfat Milk, Whey, Potato Starch, Egg Whites, Maltodextrin, Triglycerides, Food Starch- Modified, Natural Flavor, Colonel's Secret Original Recipe Seasoning., Original Recipe® Chicken Whole Wing: Fresh Chicken Marinated With: Salt, Sodium Phosphate and Monosodium Glutamate. Breaded With: Wheat Flour, Salt, Nonfat Milk, Whey, Potato Starch, Egg Whites, Maltodextrin, Triglycerides, Food Starch- Modified, Natural Flavor, Colonel's Secret Original Recipe Seasoning.)

There Was More To Colonel Sanders Than His Secret Recipe

Back To AnyCalculator.com

Just leave out the MSG and eat the chicken.    The "secret" chicken recipe has flew out of the coop again.  The Colonel also had it posted over the door entrance of his original store. This means many people in Kentucky and elswhere have known what the "secret" recipe is for years. I doubt the Colonel listed MSG.


JunkYardRescues.com     AnyCalculator.com      Paula Deen News And Recipes

ExactWeather.com     FineTunedUniverse.com     HeartAttackCentral.com

There Was More To Colonel Sanders Than His Secret Recipe


A KFC spokesperson said, "In the 1940's, Colonel Sanders developed the original recipe chicken to be sold at his gas station diner. At the time, the recipe was written above the door so anyone could have read it."

Colonel Sanders Secret Recipe was no secret in the 1940's Recipe written above sanders cafe that was no secret in the 1940's according to KFC spokesperson.

Click above the sanders cafe door entrance to see the colonel's recipe that was written above the door so anyone could have read it.

Claudia Ledington, who became Harland Sanders' second wife had this hand written note on the back of her last will and testament according to Joe Ledington. Claudia Ledington was his aunt. He worked for colonel sanders for years and says, "That is the original 11 herbs and spices that were supposed to be so secretive," he says with conviction."

Editor Note:  I can't say for sure its 100% true but suspect its about 99.999% true. What do you think?



Colonel Harland Sanders Story

There Was More To Colonel Sanders Than His Secret Recipe