Like many other Italian American children in this country, I grew up eating Italian Chicken Cutlets... all the time. My mom made them often. She would sometimes pair them with vegetable soup, penne alla vodka, or a usual in her rotation: farfalle and zucchini in tomato sauce.
They were always so tender and satisfying, just lightly crispy, and would reheat very well in the toaster oven. Therefore, they almost always made it to our "picnic dinner nights." That's when we ate all the leftovers from the week in one delicious eclectic meal.
Chicken cutlets are a staple among Italian parents everywhere, and for good reason. They were "meal prep" before meal prep was meal prep, if that makes sense. A few pounds of chicken could feed 4 people and still provide leftovers for lunch the next day.
They're amazing on sandwiches and salads too. One of my favorite sandwiches is a chicken cutlet sandwich with fresh mozzarella and hot cherry peppers on Italian bread. In fact, they're just as good cold as they are hot.
So, what are Italian Chicken Cutlets?
In my opinion, really good Italian cutlets are thin, flat pieces of chicken, breaded in delicious freshly-seasoned breadcrumbs that contain grated cheese and other Italian seasonings, and fried until golden brown and lightly crispy.
The combination of tenderness, light crunch, and flavor are what make the cutlets what they are. They're unbeatable; an Italian culinary work of art.
What does an Italian chicken cutlet recipe HAVE to have?
I'm only one person, and I wanted to learn about other peoples' chicken cutlet opinions before writing my official recipe. So in order to write the best Italian Chicken Cutlet recipe possible, I surveyed 10 Italian-American home cooks for their opinions on this question.
Unsurprisingly, they all had similar answers with some degree of variation. Most responses revolved around how and with what to bread the chicken.
- They all stated that the defining characteristic of Italian fried chicken cutlets is the seasoned breadcrumbs. Most people specified the need to season the breadcrumbs with fresh parsley and either Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, but others said to use dried herbs and even pre-seasoned breadcrumbs.
- Almost all responders dredge their chicken in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs, however some skip the flour layer all together. The main purpose of this layer is to bind the egg to the chicken, but if you like a thinner layer of breading, you might leave this layer out. In fact, one person reported that she often leaves out the flour, and instead allows the chicken to tenderize for a few minutes in an egg and buttermilk mixture before coating them in breadcrumbs.
- A few of the individuals surveyed stated that the word cutlet implies being thin. However, no one specifically said to pound them; slicing them thinly was sufficient. Degree of thinness varied, but no one considered whole fried chicken breasts to be true chicken cutlets.
Now I invite you to read some of my personal favorite responses to the survey question: "What makes Italian Chicken Cutlets what they are?"
Easy: it’s the cheese. Specifically for me, the Pecorino Romano! Second place for most important ingredient in a good breading mixture is fresh chopped parsley. You really can’t beat a thinly sliced cutlet, slathered in that delicious mixture and fried to crispy gold perfection. Mouth is watering as I write this!Jaclene Forlano
As with all Italian cooking, you have to love and be thoughtful of the preparation.Carolyn Davis
Calling it a cutlet.Catherine Lomanto
MY Italian Chicken Cutlet Recipe
So to summarize, there are three aspects of Italian chicken cutlets that make them what they are, according to my survey: seasoned breadcrumbs, a slightly crunchy outer layer made of at least egg and breadcrumbs, and thinly-sliced chicken.
Here's my process, which is based on the survey results and my own preferences:
Slice each breast into 3 pieces. First cut off the "finger", then slice the breast into two thinner pieces. (As if you're going to butterfly the chicken, but cut all the way through.
Note, my official opinion on washing chicken: there's no need to wash chicken before cooking it. Doing so only adds an extra step to your cooking that is unnoticeable in the end result. As long as you cook your chicken through, it's safe to eat.
Pound the breasts. I feel strongly about this step. Pounding chicken not only tenderizes it, but also evens out each cutlet's thickness, allowing it to cook evenly.
Dredge the seasoned breasts in seasoned flour, egg, and seasoned breadcrumbs. I stand by the use of flour, by the way. I appreciate the way flour creates a more cohesive and adhesive layer of breading, meaning it binds to itself and to the chicken without flaking off.
My breadcrumb seasoning calls for fresh parsley, dry oregano, grated Parmesan cheese (or Pecorino or a blend), salt, pepper, and cayenne. My chicken and flour seasonings call for just salt and pepper (and cayenne if you wish).
The egg-milk mixture doesn't call for any seasoning because I find salt sometimes does weird things to raw eggs. J.Kenji Lopez Alt found that salt does NOT alter raw eggs in a way that affects their taste or texture once cooked. Having said that, I don't like that the eggs darken in color and appear to separate after adding salt.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes. This step is not 100% necessary, but I recommend it as it gives the breading time to bind and adhere to both itself and the chicken. A colder exterior also crisps better than a room temperature one when it hits the frying pan.
Fry the cutlets. Use olive oil! It may seem unusual, but it works wonders. Chicken cutlets take very little time to cook through (2-3 minutes per side), so the olive oil's low smoke point works to our advantage. It can achieve a slightly darker, crispier texture in 2 minutes than canola oil can.
Plus, it's quite easy to keep the olive oil from burning. I suggest using an instant read thermometer to make sure the oil stays under 300F. Or simply lower the heat if you notice burning.
What you'll need to make the cutlets
The tools above are excellent for making chicken cutlets. I highly recommend having both a frying pan and a sauté pan in your kitchen, but if you only buy one, buy the sauté pan. It can double as a frying pan.
A meat mallet is an inexpensive, very useful tool for making chicken cutlets. Just cover the raw chicken in a sheet of plastic wrap and pound until the thick and thin parts of the chicken are even.
I love using pasta bowls for dredging. They're the perfect shape. Not too flat or too deep.
Have fun making these Italian cutlets! Here are the most interesting chicken cutlet variations I learned after talking with my survey participants:
- Use a combination of fats when frying. One person reported using three fats: olive oil, butter, and duck fat for a more complex flavor.
- Fresh herbs, dry herbs, cheese, oh my! It's important to use what you have on hand. Don't not make these chicken cutlets just because you're out of fresh parsley, for example. Season the breadcrumbs well, but don't worry if you don't have every seasoning on hand. Chicken cutlets aren't supposed to be worrisome!
- Introduce other Italian flavors: two people surveyed said they first fry onion and garlic in the oil to flavor it. Then they remove the resulting caramelized onion and garlic to use as toppings later. Brilliant!
- Make them gluten free: Traditional Italian cutlets are obviously very gluten full. To accommodate gluten allergies, make the recipe using a different flour, like almond or chick pea flour, and gluten free breadcrumbs.
- Make them dairy free: Use water in your egg mixture instead of milk- just enough to thin it out. You'll have to leave out the cheese too. Try using nutritional yeast instead.
- Try using panko: This decision comes down to how crunchy you want your cutlets. I argue that "traditional" Italian cutlets should use fine breadcrumbs because they're not meant to be ultra crispy. But some people are constant crunch chasers, and honestly, I get it! If this sounds like you, use Panko. Or if you're like my mother-in-law, make your own breadcrumbs.
- You can read about how to make breadcrumbs in my recipe for Pumpernickel Chicken Cutlets.
- Serve with lemon. One person told me they love lemon on their chicken cutlets. I had never even heard of such a thing, but learned that it's quite common in Italy to serve Italian Chicken Cutlets with fresh lemon slices.
Italian fried chicken cutlets are deliciously seasoned chicken cutlets, fried in olive oil until lightly crisp and tender.
- 3 large chicken breasts, each cut into three pieces: the finger, and two thin cutlets.
- 2 large eggs
- ⅛ cup of milk
- 1 cup of flour
- 1.5 cups of fine, plain breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon of dry oregano
- salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper
- Olive oil, enough to make a ½ inch layer in the frying pan, plus more if needed
- Prepare the chicken breasts as stated above, then cover them in plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet until each piece is about uniform in thinness. Lightly season chicken with a pinch of salt and pepper on both sides.
- In 3 separate bowls, prepare the dredging mixtures. Place flour in the first bowl and lightly season it with pinches of salt, pepper, and cayenne, if using. Scramble 2 eggs and milk in the second bowl. Finally, place the breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and oregano in the third bowl and lightly season it with pinches of salt, pepper, and cayenne if using.
- Dredge the chicken, first coating it in the flour mixture, then the egg mixture, then the breadcrumb mixture.
- Arrange breaded cutlets on a plate or wire rack and place them in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes so the breading can set.
- In a frying pan set over a medium flame, heat the olive oil. (see note 1) When the oil reaches 290F (see note 2), add the first batch of chicken: 2-3 pieces max. Fry the chicken for 2-3 minutes per side, or until the chicken reaches a medium brown color. If using a thermometer, check for an internal temperature of 150F.
- Remove chicken onto a plate lined with a paper towel. To keep the chicken hot while frying the other batches, you can optionally place the plate in a low oven, as low as your oven will go. (see note 3)
Note 1: The amount of olive oil will vary depending on the type and side of the pan you use. Use enough olive to make a ½ inch layer of oil. You may need to add more oil as you go to make sure the oil reaches at least half way up the side of the chicken cutlet.
Note 2: If you don't have an instant read thermometer, check for other heat cues. The oil will start to shimmer and become a thinner consistency.
Note 3: The breading protects fried chicken from drying out, so you can place the chicken in a low oven without fear of them becoming dry or tough. I wouldn't leave them in there for more than 30 minutes though because you also don't want to overcook them.
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