KFC recipe revealed? Tribune shown family scrapbook with 11 herbs and spices. (2024)

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, and the man who’s arguably the original celebrity chef.

These days, the late Colonel has been resurrected on TV commercials as a caricature played by the likes of George Hamilton and Jim Gaffigan. But, as many of us remember, 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.

Attempts to unearth the Colonel’s Original Recipe, or replicate it, have been made too many times to count. 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.

Feeding into the mystique, the recently revamped KFC website, www.colonelsanders.com, features a Colonel Sanders character saying he’s finally ready to tell the world what’s in the recipe. Just as he’s about to spill the beans, the sound malfunctions and an “out of order” sign pops up on the screen.

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.

KFC recipe revealed? Tribune shown family scrapbook with 11 herbs and spices. (1)

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

Ledington tells me, yep, this is it.

“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 secret ingredient. 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. (Bottom line: It was finger lickin’ good. See the accompanying story for specifics.)

The Colonel’s nephew isn’t the first person to claim he may hold the secret to KFC’s success.

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.

Probably the most famous previous find occurred more than 15 years ago, when a couple in Shelbyville, Ky., said they stumbled upon what could be the secret recipe in the basem*nt of the home they bought from Harland and Claudia Sanders in the ’70s. Tommy and Cherry Settle reportedly found the recipe written on a piece of paper tucked inside a 1964 datebook.

KFC’s parent company responded by suing the Settles. The case was dropped after corporate officials concluded the recipe wasn’t even close to the original.

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.

Jay Jones is a freelance writer.


Putting the KFC recipe of 11 herbs and spices to the test

KFC answers questions about ‘secret recipe’

KFC’s hometown of Corbin has plenty to crow about


KFC recipe revealed? Tribune shown family scrapbook with 11 herbs and spices. (2024)
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