Why It Works
- Japanese panko bread crumbs form a coating that becomes shatteringly crisp but still light and tender, not dense and tough.
- The pan sauce whips up quickly after frying, so the cutlets don't have to wait long.
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, 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 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.
1 cup all-purpose flour (5 ounces; 140g)
3 large eggs, beaten
2 cups panko bread crumbs (4 ounces; 115g), roughly crushed by hand if very large
2 ounces (60g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
8 boneless, skinless chicken cutlets (3 or 4 ounces each), pounded to about 1/4 inch thick
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
1/2 cup dry white wine (120ml)
1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers (15g)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (70g)
2 tablespoons fresh juice from 1 lemon (30ml)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Set 3 wide, shallow bowls on a work surface. Add flour to the first one, beaten eggs to the second, and panko and Parmesan cheese to the third. Mix panko and Parmesan thoroughly.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Season chicken cutlets all over with salt and pepper. Working with one at a time, dredge a cutlet in flour with your left hand, shaking off excess. Transfer to egg dish, then turn cutlet with your right hand to coat both sides. Lift and allow excess egg to drain off, then transfer to bread crumb mixture. With your left hand, scoop bread crumbs on top of chicken, then gently press, turning chicken to ensure a good layer of crumbs on both sides. Transfer cutlet to prepared baking sheet and repeat with remaining cutlets.
Fill a large skillet with 1/4 inch oil. Heat over high heat until shimmering and just shy of smoking, about 375°F (191°C) on an instant-read thermometer.
Working in batches and using tongs or your fingers, gently lower cutlets into the pan, laying them down away from you to prevent hot fat from splashing toward you. Fry, gently swirling pan and rotating cutlets for even browning, and adjusting heat as necessary for a steady, vigorous bubble, until bottom side is browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Flip cutlets and fry until other side is browned and crisp, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to paper towels to drain and season with salt right away. Repeat with remaining cutlets, topping up oil if necessary.
Drain all but one tablespoon oil from skillet. Add wine and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cooking until raw alcohol smell has mostly cooked off, about 2 minutes. Add capers and butter, whisking constantly, until butter has melted. Lower heat to medium and continue whisking and reducing until a creamy, emulsified sauce forms (the time this takes will depend on your burner power and the size of your pan). If sauce over-reduces and breaks at any point, add 1 tablespoon cold water and whisk to emulsify it again. Whisk in lemon juice and parsley, season with salt and pepper, and remove from heat.
Arrange cutlets on a platter and drizzle warm butter sauce all over. Serve right away.
You can prepare the cutlets yourself from whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts following the instructions here.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 45g||57%|
|Saturated Fat 14g||72%|
|Total Carbohydrate 23g||8%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||4%|
|Total Sugars 2g|
|Vitamin C 5mg||25%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|