Chicken cacciatore may be one of the most perplexing dishes I've ever encountered. As far as I can tell, it doesn't really exist. I know that sounds nuts, because of course chicken cacciatore exists. But, after analyzing dozens upon dozens of recipes, what I've come to realize is that there is no single common thread from one version to the next that we can say clearly defines the dish. There are just a couple of vague givens—namely, the fact that there's always chicken, and it's always braised. But beyond that, there's not much that "cacciatore" means with any certainty.
In Italy, alla cacciatora, as it's called there, describes a dish prepared "hunter-style." It can be made with other meats, like rabbit and pheasant, though chicken is one of the most common choices today, especially in the United States. Most versions in the US include tomato, red bell pepper, and onions, but this doesn't hold true throughout Italy. Garlic and olive oil are in nearly every version I've seen, but then again, they're in almost all other Italian dishes, too, so that's not saying much.
Wine, red or white, is used often enough that one might argue that chicken all'oenologist would be a more appropriate name for the dish, especially given that there's nary a wild ingredient in most cacciatore recipes. After all, what kind of hunter returns from the woods with a chicken, onions, garlic, and tomatoes?
Marcella Hazan, in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, offers an explanation for the infinite variations on cacciatore. "Since there has always been a hunter in nearly every Italian household," she writes, "every Italian cook prepares a dish with a claim to that description." That makes sense to me, and it supports my conclusion—there are so many renditions of chicken cacciatore that the term borders on meaninglessness. We might as well call this chicken all'Average Joe...or...Giuseppe, because it's literally whatever the heck the cook wants it to be.
This kind of vagueness can be maddening to some, but I love it because it means I'm free to riff on the dish however I want, and no one can tell me otherwise. You should love it for the same reason, since, as long as it involves braised chicken, chicken cacciatore can be whatever you want, too.
In the end, I decided to give two recipes here: one more in line with a classic Italian-American style, using tomatoes and red peppers; the other with mushrooms. Think of them as two examples of a larger blueprint that you can adapt any way you like.
Let's take a look at that blueprint.
Step 1: Sear Your Chicken
The first step of any chicken cacciatore recipe is the same as for any braised meat dish: searing the meat. But before you do that, you need to pick your chicken. You can use a whole bird, as many recipes call for, but this is a case in which I prefer to stick with just the legs. With their higher fat and gelatin content, the legs end up tender and juicy even with prolonged cooking, unlike lean breast, which will just dry out.
You do have a critical choice when searing those legs, though: You can do it with or without a dredging of flour.
I tested it both ways, and the results were more or less as you might expect. Flour browns faster and reduces the chances of the chicken sticking to the pan. In addition, it thickens the braising liquid more later, but it also adds a hint of its own dull, starchy flavor. If I'm being completely honest, I'll admit to actually liking that flavor sometimes—there's just something comforting and homey about it.
I ended up going both ways in my recipes. In the brighter version with sweet bell peppers, I left out the flour because I didn't want it gumming up that summery vegetable flavor. But in the earthier mushroom one, I used it; it gives the dish an even heartier, rib-sticking quality that I crave in cold weather. Know, though, that you're free to use it or not, depending on your own priorities, in any cacciatore recipe.
And, of course, always work in batches instead of crowding the pan when you're trying to brown. Overload it with meat and there'll be too much moisture for good browning reactions to take place—they won't happen in the presence of water.
Step 2: Sauté Your Vegetables
Once the chicken is seared, set it off to the side. You should have some nice browned bits (a.k.a. fond) on the bottom of the pan at this point. The next step is to add vegetables to the pan and cook them until they're softened and, in some cases, browned.
For my red pepper version of the dish, I add thinly sliced onions, red peppers, and garlic to the pan and cook them, scraping up the browned bits as the vegetables release their juices, until everything is softened. I don't cook them much beyond that because I already have plenty of browned flavor from the chicken, and cooking the vegetables even more will lead to them over-softening later.
For the mushroom version, I add the mushrooms to the pan first, since they need to brown well for best flavor, and they can't do that if they're sharing space with onions and other aromatics. The mushrooms will initially release their liquid, which you can use to scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pan. Then, as the pan dries, they'll begin to brown.
Once they've taken on a nice color, I add sliced onions and garlic to the pan, which will, once again, release moisture, helping you to scrape up whatever new browned bits have formed from the mushrooms.
Step 3: Deglaze and Add Other Ingredients
At this point, I hit the pan with dry wine to stop things from browning any further. I use white wine in both recipes, but red wine could be used in either if you want that flavor. Remember: The wine does not need to be so good that you'd be willing to drink it. I just used cheap boxed wine for mine, which is an excellent choice for cooking wine.
This is also a good time to add moist ingredients, like tomato, fresh herb sprigs, and any additional things you'd like to put in the pan, like olives or capers. For both of my dishes, I went with canned whole tomatoes, which I crushed by hand for a chunky texture. I used only a portion of the juices from the can, since I didn't want either dish to feel like chicken stewed in tomato sauce (though that is a perfectly acceptable way to make cacciatore, as is tomato-free or, well, any other way you can think up).
I also worked in a couple of sprigs of rosemary and a bay leaf, which I discarded later. Thyme and sage are two other great options for the cacciatore multiverse.
This is also a good time to season the dish with salt and pepper, which gets much harder to stir in evenly once the chicken is back in the pot.
Step 4: Return Chicken to Pan and Cook
All that's left is to nestle the chicken, along with any of its accumulated juices, in the pan among the simmering liquid and vegetables, and let it cook. You can do that in the oven, as I did, since you benefit from some additional browning (and, therefore, flavor development) on the surface, thanks to the oven's dry heat. But you can also finish the dish on the stovetop if you don't want to fire up the oven.
The great thing is that this part doesn't take long. Thirty minutes at 350°F is plenty for chicken thighs. And yet, even in that short time, you'll end up with one of those dishes that taste like they've been slowly stewing all day in a low oven.
Maybe that's why it's called chicken cacciatore: Those hunters wanted to spend as much time as possible out in the field hunting, and very little time in the kitchen, but still end up with a meal that tasted otherwise.
I can get behind that.