Digging into the cluckin' awesome world of our favorite fried food.
Several months ago while working on a fried chicken cutlet recipe, I stumbled on the single most important factor in elevating those cutlets from mere greatness to brain-melting splendor. It's butter. I had some clarified butter kicking around in the fridge, and on a whim decided to fry my chicken in that instead of the more economical neutral-flavored cooking oil I normally use. The results were so amazing I couldn't believe I hadn't been frying in butter all along.
In retrospect, it's not much of a shock that butter would taste so much better. But it's sort of like the difference between knowing that it'd be awesome to get daily massages and actually getting a massage every single day—understanding that something is great in theory isn't the same as making it a reality. The fact is, cost and convenience are often the things that stand between the ultimate version of something and just a really good version of it. And so it is with frying chicken in ample amounts of clarified butter.
Luckily, there's a pretty freaking delicious workaround, and it's chicken piccata—fried chicken cutlets bathed in a lemon-butter pan sauce.
Technically, chicken piccata doesn't have to be made with breaded fried cutlets. Some people just sauté plain chicken cutlets and then make a buttery pan sauce for them. It's quick and easy, but can be a little bit boring. In all honesty, if I'm going to eat an unadorned sautéed cutlet, it will almost never be made from chicken; skinless white breast meat really needs a profoundly crisp and flavorful golden crust to be interesting.
Making incredibly crispy chicken piccata starts with the same basic procedure as my basic fried chicken cutlet recipe: Take chicken cutlets that are about 1/4 inch thick (you can prepare the cutlets yourself from whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts following the instructions here), season them with salt and pepper, dredge them lightly in flour, then dip them in beaten eggs, and finally coat them in a mixture of panko bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese.
Panko, a Japanese style of bread crumb, is light and chunky, and when fried, it forms an incredibly crisp and crunchy crust, one that manages to be delicate without a trace of toughness. I'll take them any day over the Italian-style bread crumbs sold in tubes at the supermarket.
I fry the cutlets in oil until golden on both sides. There's no need to worry about trying to judge the doneness of the chicken—when the coating is fully browned on both sides, the 1/4 inch thick cutlets are guaranteed to be cooked through as well. That's the beauty of thin cutlets: They're always done inside when they're browned on the outside.
To make the pan sauce, drain off all but one tablespoon of frying oil from the skillet, then add a good dose of dry white wine and simmer until the raw alcohol smell has cooked off (it takes a couple of minutes). Toss in some capers for a salty, briny punch, and then add the butter, whisking until it's fully melted.
The trick with the sauce is to simmer it down until it takes on a cream-like consistency, that perfect moment where enough of the wine has cooked down to form a tight emulsion with the butter and the mixture transforms from watery to creamy, but not so much that the emulsion breaks into a something resembling an oil spill (if it does break, though, you can always bring it back together by whisking in a couple tablespoons of water).
Some lemon juice and parsley at the end brighten the sauce up, giving a fresh flavor and an acidic counterpoint to all that butter, much the same way one balances oil and vinegar for a vinaigrette. Pour the sauce all over the cutlets and you're done.