If there's one dish that I would say defines me most, it isn't grilled at all: it's chicken schnitzel. As a child, my mother cooked it regularly, and, like most kids, breaded and fried boneless chicken was something I looked forward to with immense eagerness. When I left for college, schnitzel was one of the first things I learned to cook really well, making it from time to time for friends and filling the dormitory halls with the unmistakeable scent of frying chicken.
After we graduated, my old classmates and I started a semi-regular Shabbat tradition. We'd get together on Friday nights and I'd find myself in the kitchen cooking chicken schnitzel for crowds of twelve or more. As I slowly creep up toward middle age, I've found schnitzel is really the only food that has remained a constant over the years. It's something I will likely carry with me forever.
Over all that time of cooking and eating schnitzel, I've refined my method to what I think is perfect—I still order schnitzel at restaurants, but it's rarely as satisfying as the version I make at home. There's nothing revolutionary in my recipe, but a great schnitzel comes down to some small details that make all the difference.
To Brine or Not to Brine
For the uninitiated, chicken schnitzel is merely a chicken breast pounded thin, breaded, and fried. It's one of those foods that you can't help but love, which is probably why it's so prolific—versions of the recipe can be found in cultures around the world.
It all starts with a lowly chicken breast around half a pound in weight; much larger than that, and the schnitzel can be hard to manage. Skinless, boneless chicken breast suffers from a lack of fat, which is why it often ends up so dry. But in the case of schnitzel, frying it just right is generally enough to make sure it stays juicy. For most of my schnitzel-making career, I never brined the breasts because I thought the results were already good enough.
Then one day I decided to host a family Shabbat, and I wanted to prove that I was worthy of passing down our schnitzel tradition. To ensure everything was perfect, I took out moisture insurance by brining my chicken breasts for thirty minutes beforehand.
The result was remarkable: Not only did I satisfy a clan that knows its schnitzel, but I one-upped every schnitzel I had ever made beforehand. My prior schnitzels had been juicy, but these were juicier. My old schnitzels were tender, but these were more plump with an even better, finer texture.
From that day forth, I've always brined my chicken for the absolute best schnitzel, and since brining takes about the same amount of time as prepping the rest of the ingredients, it hasn't really added time to the process at all.
Flat is Beautiful
After the chicken is brined, it's time to get it into the right shape. This requires pounding the breasts to a uniform thickness, which guarantees that the chicken cooks evenly and provides a lot of surface area for the breading, maximizing the flavor and crunch that makes schnitzel so good.
Most recipes will call for pounding the chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap, parchment, or wax paper. I've suffered too many chicken splatters using that method, so I've employed what seems to be a more fail-safe method—a Ziploc bag. A thicker, sealed bag won't break like plastic wrap or wax paper sometimes do, and the juices won't go flying all around your kitchen, which, in my book, is definitely worth the slightly higher cost.
To get started, I remove the tender (if there is one)—the tender will often dangle and make breading and cooking a pain, so I just fry it separately—and seal a chicken breast in a bag. Then I take my trusty rolling pin and go to town on the cutlet, smacking it until it's about 1/4-inch thick, making sure to work my way around the breast so that it's evenly flattened. I've yet to invest in a meat pounder since my rolling pin, or one of my pans, perform this task just fine.
The one schnitzel factor I've experimented most is the breadcrumbs. I quickly ditched store-bought crumbs, which often taste stale or cardboard-like, and switched to homemade. This opened a pandora's box of options, though, so finding the one that would deliver the proper amount of coating—you don't want it too thick or too thin—and the right flavor required a lot of trial and error.
I've made breadcrumbs with fresh bread, but it doesn't stick well and can coat unevenly. Super stale bread quickly turns into a powder in the food processor; darkly toasted bread can taste burnt once fried; and fancy bread doesn't add enough flavor to justify the cost. What I've settled on is decent-quality white bread (something I almost always have on-hand), which I toast to a medium-golden brown, and then grind in a food processor into medium-fine crumbs.
The toasting dries out the bread just enough for it to break down in a food processor, but leaves enough moisture that the breadcrumbs retain some heft. (A blender can work too, but a food processor produces more uniform crumbs.) The result are breadcrumbs that stick well and produce a coating that isn't too skimpy or thick.
With the chicken brined and pounded and the crumbs ready, it's time for the breading process. I start with a coating of flour, giving the chicken a dry surface allows the beaten egg to adhere to the meat. I let the excess egg wash drain off by holding the chicken over the bowl and then transfer the cutlet to the breadcrumbs.
Here, I pat down the breadcrumbs to make sure that they stick well. Then I let the chicken rest on a wire rack set on a sheet pan—this allows the breading to dry out a bit, ensuring that the coating remains on the chicken during frying.
In an ideal world, I'd deep-fry my schnitzel because it browns the most evenly that way, but that would mean a large Dutch oven with about two quarts of oil—such a big undertaking, I'd probably never go to the trouble. So I've become proficient at pan-frying, which actually has some advantages over deep-frying.
The most obvious is that it requires a lot less oil: I fill a 12-inch cast iron skillet with about 2 cups of canola or peanut oil, both of which have a neutral flavor and can withstand high heat. Plus, the shallow oil means the schnitzel comes in direct contact with the bottom of the pan, which browns the breadcrumbs faster and helps ensure that the thin chicken cutlet and coating are done at the same time.
Contact with the pan, though, can be a bit of a curse as well: Since the slightly uneven surface of the chicken may not touch the bottom of the pan evenly, some portions of the schnitzel can brown faster than others. To combat uneven browning, I regularly look under the cutlet and flip it every time I notice the breading browning too much or too fast. This means it's not just one flip halfway through cooking, but multiple flips based on appearance.
I fry the chicken in 375°F oil until it reaches a deep golden brown. At this cooking temperature, I've never had the chicken come out undercooked once the coating is properly browned, but if you're a stickler for temperature, you can test the doneness using an instant-read thermometer, which should register between 150 and 160°F when inserted into the middle of the meat.
Once the chicken is done, it's time to drain the excess oil so the schnitzel is beautifully crunchy, without any greasiness or sogginess. A paper towel-lined plate does this best, with a flip of the schnitzel after a minute or two to get the oil wicked away from both sides.
If I'm cooking more than three or four schnitzels, I'll set a wire rack on a sheet pan in a warm oven, and I'll transfer the cutlets to it after they've drained. This not only keeps the chicken warm while I continue cooking the rest, but the rack allows air to flow around the entire schnitzel so that the bottom side doesn't become soggy.
This may sound like a lot of work, but I can usually churn out a batch of four schnitzels in about an hour, which works well for me as a weeknight meal. Once you have the process down, it's not that much of a hassle, and the results are glorious—juicy, tender chicken with a golden, crunchy exterior that is almost impossible to resist.
With schnitzel this good, it's no mystery that it has stood the test of time and has also remained the most-cooked dish in my home. A Friday dinner just doesn't feel complete without a plate loaded with schnitzel, a wedge of lemon and light salad by its side.