Dinner in 20: For the Best Fried Chicken Cutlets, Use Clarified Butter

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[Photographs and video: Vicky Wasik]

I'm in the habit of keeping a tub of clarified butter in my fridge at all times. I don't use it often, because it's easy to forget it back there behind the eggs and the olives, but when I do, it can make a world of difference in even the simplest dishes. Sautéed vegetables and seared meats, for instance, take on a dimension of rich, nutty flavor with clarified butter that most vegetable oils just don't offer. So recently, when I was about to fry some chicken cutlets for dinner, I decided to be lavish and add the clarified butter to the pan instead of a more standard frying oil. And just like that, I made the most delicious fried chicken cutlets ever.

Clarified butter, for those needing a quick refresher, is butter that has had its water content and milk solids removed, which turns it into a great frying and high-heat cooking fat. Removing the water improves butter's shelf life, while removing the milk solids gets rid of the part that burns when melted butter gets too hot (you know, when it moves past the brown-butter stage to acridly black butter). I make it by melting the butter, cooking it until foaming has subsided and the milk solids have browned, and then straining it through cheesecloth. You can follow the directions in my article on clarified butter here.

I tend to not think of anything that involves breading and frying as "quick," but with the clarified butter on hand (or with frying oil, which is still totally fine to use), these cutlets come together in just a few minutes. That's the big benefit of cooking thinly pounded boneless meat in hot fat—it's done really fast. Of course, you can buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts and prepare the cutlets yourself, but if you want to save time, the speediest option is to have someone at the meat counter do it for you.

Then, as soon as you're ready to start cooking, set out three wide, shallow bowls, and pour flour into one, beaten eggs into the next, and a mixture of panko bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese into the third. The cheese is there for more flavor.

Season the cutlets all over with salt and pepper, then dredge them in the flour, followed by the egg, and finally the bread crumbs. You always hear that the key to making the breading process quick and easy is to minimize the mess that can build up on your fingers by using one hand for the dry ingredients and the other for the wet, egg-wash one. This is true, but the real trick is to make sure that you transfer the cutlets from the eggs to the bread crumbs with your wet hand, then use your dry hand to pile bread crumbs on top of the egged chicken cutlets before attempting to pick them up and turn them. This will prevent your dry hand from picking up any egg, and save you from breading yourself.

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When all the cutlets are breaded, lower them into a large skillet filled with about a quarter inch of very hot clarified butter or frying oil. It should sizzle and foam as soon as they hit it. For even browning, you'll need to sometimes gently swirl the pan as the cutlets cook, to continuously redistribute the hot cooking fat, and rotate the cutlets so that the parts closest to the edge of the skillet don't under-brown. This depends largely on your burner size; the bigger it is, the less of an issue you'll have with browning things evenly.

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Once the bottom sides are browned and crisp, carefully flip each cutlet and brown the other sides.

A lot of people ask me how I know when the chicken is done. The answer is easy: By the time the breading on both sides is browned and crisp, a quarter-inch-thick piece of chicken breast will always be cooked through to the center. Set them down on clean paper towels to drain, season them with salt right away, and the hard work is done.

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While they rest for a few minutes, I take the time to quickly put together a simple salad; here, I use torn radicchio leaves and either watercress or arugula, tossed with lemon juice and olive oil.

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If you do end up using clarified butter for the chicken, don't be surprised when the person you serve takes their first bite, then looks from their plate to you in total amazement. Have your answer ready when they ask for your secret to the tastiest fried chicken cutlets imaginable. "Oh, these simple things? I don't know, I just threw them together in 20 minutes."

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