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The British deserve at least partial credit for the creation of chicken Marsala, even if that might make more than a few Italians cringe. The dish, which has its roots in Sicily and is a staple of Italian-American restaurants and homes, cannot be made without Marsala wine, which refers to wine produced specifically around the city of Marsala in Sicily. And yet that's where the British influence comes in—they were instrumental in spreading fortified wines like Port and Marsala around the world to their various colonial outposts. Because of its higher alcohol content (thanks to a good dose of hard liquor), fortified wine was able to withstand, and to even be improved by, weeks and months on the open sea.
In the case of Marsala specifically, an Englishman named John Woodhouse was responsible for deciding to sell a fortified version of the local Sicilian wine abroad. Eventually that wine found its way into the kitchen, and chicken Marsala was born. The dish itself features pounded chicken cutlets in a glaze-like sauce flavored with mushrooms and Marsala wine. At its heart, though, it's just a basic chicken-with-pan-sauce dish, and so the fundamental rules of making a good pan sauce apply here. Master those rules, and chicken Marsala will quickly become one of those weeknight staples you can whip up in no time.
Rule 1: Brown Well
A good pan sauce is built on a solid foundation, and that foundation is called the fond, which is a French word that describes the browned bits that form on the bottom of a pan after searing meats and vegetables. Once the fond is scraped up and whisked into the pan sauce, it'll take on a deeper, more complex flavor.
With chicken Marsala, we start by preparing the chicken cutlets and browning them well. Most supermarkets and butchers sell cutlets already prepared, but if you have trouble finding them, you can easily make your own from skinless, boneless chicken breasts by following our instructions here.
In most chicken Marsala dishes, it's also customary to lightly dredge the cutlets in flour before browning them. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this: The flour can help act subtly to thicken the final pan sauce, but it can also slightly dull the sauce's flavor. The flour also speeds browning by providing a drier (and therefore more browning-prone) surface than the chicken itself, but it's the flour that's browning, not the chicken. That's a mixed blessing. Faster browning is good, since chicken cutlets are thin and cook through rapidly—the quicker you can brown the exterior and get them out of the pan, the better. But since the flour is browning more than the chicken itself, your fond won't be as flavorful as it would be if it was just the plain chicken protein making contact with the pan.
That being said, I still prefer the flour step. If the cutlet is dredged lightly, the flour doesn't affect the sauce's flavor enough to sacrifice the insurance it gives against overcooking, especially with a lean protein like chicken breast, which can quickly take on the consistency of cardboard. On top of that, the flour coating changes the texture of the cutlets themselves, giving them a silkier exterior, not unlike the effect of velveting meat in Chinese cooking. To me, that silky exterior is an essential quality of chicken Marsala.
The good news is that right after browning the chicken and removing it from the pan, it's time to brown the mushrooms, which offers ample opportunity to build up a fond. Mushrooms, it's important to remember, do not brown quickly: They're loaded with moisture and have to dump it first before any real browning can begin. Being patient and waiting until all that mushroom liquid has cooked off and the slices turn a deeper chestnut color is essential to getting a good, rich flavor in the final dish. Otherwise it'll taste like steamed mushrooms, and that's not a good thing.
As soon as the mushrooms are browned, I add minced shallots and cook them just until translucent.
Rule 2: Add Gelatin to the Stock and Marsala, Then Deglaze
Now it's time to deglaze the pan. Deglazing means adding liquid (to stop the browning) and scraping up the fond (to enrich the liquid with flavor). But before we do that, we want to make sure our liquid component is just right. In the case of chicken Marsala, the liquid is made up of chicken stock and Marsala wine.
If you've ever eaten a good pan sauce in a restaurant, you've probably noticed that it has a viscosity similar to heavy cream. Bad versions, meanwhile, are thin and watery. The secret is gelatin. See, good restaurants make stock from scratch, and when they do, they make sure it's loaded with plenty of natural gelatin from the chicken's connective tissues. As the pan sauce reduces, that gelatin concentrates, thickening the liquids to a perfect, glaze-like consistency. Unfortunately, store-bought stock, which home cooks often rely on, has no gelatin.
If you use store-bought stock at home, you can open up a packet or two of unflavored gelatin and sprinkle it on top of the stock and Marsala; after a few minutes it will bloom, absorbing the liquid. Once heated, it will melt into the sauce, thickening it. Even if you use homemade stock, it can still be a good idea to add some gelatin, since the Marsala doesn't have any of its own and it makes up a good portion of the liquid added to the pan.
Speaking of the Marsala, here's one more rule: Don't use those bottles of "cooking" Marsala that are seasoned with salt and spiked with preservatives. They don't taste nearly as good as the real thing. And while you can certainly drop plenty of cash on a top-notch Marsala, it's easy to find bottles that are good enough to drink and still cost a song. I bought mine—a real-deal, very drinkable Marsala—for five bucks. There's just no reason to buy that "cooking" crap.
With the gelatin bloomed in your mixture of stock and real Marsala wine, dump the liquid into the pan when the mushrooms and shallots are ready, making sure to scrape the bloomed gelatin in with it. Then bring it all to a simmer and whisk to scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pan. Keep simmering until it's reduced enough to take on a slightly viscous consistency.
Rule 3: Finish With Fat and Extra Flavorings
To finish the sauce, I like to whisk in butter, which will give it a beautiful sheen and richness. I also add a splash of soy sauce, which, while untraditional, has an earthy savoriness that rounds out the sauce perfectly and plays well with the mushrooms; any overt flavor of soy sauce won't be noticeable, so there's no need to worry about that.
Because Marsala can be slightly sweet, especially when reduced, you'll want to taste the sauce at this point, and then add white wine vinegar (or sherry vinegar, or even fresh lemon juice) until the sauce is properly balanced—it should have a brightness that keeps those sweet and savory flavors in check.
All that's left is to add the chicken back to the pan and warm it through in the simmering sauce, then serve.
Rooted in Italy, indebted to the British, popular in the United States, and boosted with a key Asian ingredient...this chicken Marsala truly is a global dish.
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