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Whether you call them milanese, schnitzel or “they’re just big chicken tenders and you like chicken tenders, please try them!”, I absolutely love perfectly seasoned, craggy bread-crumbed, deeply golden, crispy chicken cutlets but I absolutely hate making them. Which, as you can imagine, leads to a bit of an impasse. We’ve bought them at our local grocery store, but I disagree with the store on seasoning, in that I believe in it and they do not. Maybe it’s just that my kitchen counter is small, or maybe I’m just kind of lazy, but I find the whole process interminable: pounding the cutlets if you want them thin, dredging them in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, then frying them, then draining them on endless paper towels or paper bags, then trying to either reuse or dispose of the oil properly, and somehow, after all of this, dinner isn’t made. We still need salad and/or another vegetable. That is me, throwing my hands in the air, 370 days into a global pandemic, wondering why anyone bothers cooking at home.
Early in our inside days, my mother in-law, saint that she is, made the kids some breaded crispy cutlets and I expressed this to her — that I love them but there’s step 1, 2, 3… — and she said “flour? No, I don’t use flour.” My MIL jumps right to the egg, then the crumbs, and somehow they’re ever better. Less heavy. Absolutely crunchy. Crumbs never fall off in soft-sided chunks. And if you’ve either gotten into breadmaking or into supporting friends that like to make bread (score!) and have leftover bread around, the crumbs you can make from it make all of the difference — I mean, do you want to coat your chicken in tangy rye sourdough crumbs or even, as seen here, grocery store country loaf crumbs or crumbs manufactured with the least flavor in mind? Somehow, removing a single step in the usual three-part dredgery was the semi-shortcut I needed to start making crispy chicken on the regular again and nobody is upset about this. I hope it does the same for you.
A few questions, preemptively answered:
- Can I bake these? Yes, but it’s the difference between buttered toast and stale bread.
- That’s not very helpful, Deb. I have tested baking, instead of frying, breaded chicken cutlets three ways: 1. Prepared as below but drizzled in oil and baked on a rack over a baking sheet in the oven at 450°F for 15 minutes. Result: Dry toast. 2. Toasting the dry crumbs on a sheet pan the oven until golden, coating the chicken with the toasted it, drizzling it in a little oil, and then baking. Result: The color is good but the flavor is no different from untoasted. 3. Frying breadcrumbs in oil in a pan and using these oil-crisped crumbs coat the chicken. Result: Not bad, but still not as great as pan fried. Plus, I still had to fry them in oil, leading me to question which part of the process I’m saving on. And, I needed two or more times as much crumbs because they clump once they’re oiled. In short: You can bake these, but my preference here is clear.
- Can I use less oil? In general, I like to use enough oil that the chicken isn’t sitting fully at the bottom of the pan. I find that when I use a thinner puddle of oil to fry, I’m plagued by burnt crumbs that linger in the oil (unless you start with fresh oil between each panful) and the sides of the chicken, when thicker, remain pale. I find that the deeper puddle of oil is correctly heated, I have most of it left when I’m done. In short: Yes, but for me the negatives outweigh the positives.
- Can I use breasts? Yes. I think they’re best when butterflied (cut into two thinner cutlets) first.
- Can I turn these into tenders or nuggets? Yes, please. Just cut your cutlets into 1-inch strips for tenders, and then in shorter pieces for nuggets.
- How do I turn bread into breadcrumbs? First, I remove the crust only if it’s very thick, dark, or hard and therefore won’t taste great fried a few shades darker. Then, tear leftover bread into bite-sized pieces and spread on a large baking sheet. Bake at 300°F for 15 to 30 (yes it can range that much) until dry and firm but not browned. Cool the bread then blend it in a blender or food processor until couscous-ish in size.
- Can I use gluten-free breadcrumbs? I am almost certain you can, but didn’t test the recipe with them.
- What oils do you fry in? I’ve used vegetable, canola, peanut, safflower, sunflower, and grapeseed in the past and all work. Check the label to make sure it’s specified for high heat or frying, i.e. doesn’t burn at higher temperatures.
- How do I reuse frying oil? Strain the oil to remove any crumbs and let it cool completely. Pour in a bottle or jar and chill or freeze until you need it again. It can be kept in the freezer for months. Discard if it no longer smells fresh or neutral.
- How do I dispose of frying oil? You’ll want to check with your locality, but here’s what NYC wants me to do.
- Where have you been, Deb? Nowhere interesting, sadly. I was under the weather — not Covid, thankfully — and had very little appetite, which turns out to be a key piece of this whole operation. All better now, hooray, and cooking up a storm.
Crispiest Chicken Cutlets
- 1 1/4 to 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Additional seasoning (optional) such as garlic or onion powder or a spice blend
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 cups plain breadcrumbs, either homemade (see above for instructions) or panko-style
- Oil for frying (see above for suggestions)
Prepare your chicken: Pat your chicken dry. If you’d like thinner cutlets, you can pound them flatter. I find the neatest way to do it is either in a large freezer bag or between two pieces of plastic; I do about half at a time. Arrange chicken on a large tray and season on both sides well with salt, pepper, and another spice or seasoning blend you wish.
Coat the chicken: In one wide, shallow bowl, beat egg with a fork or whisk until very loose. Fill a second wide, shallow bowl, with your breadcrumbs. Dip each piece of chicken in the egg, let all excess drip off, and dip in the crumbs, pressing them on. Repeat with remaining pieces of chicken.
Fry the cutlets: Pour just under 1/2-inch of oil into a large frying pan and heat over medium-high until a droplet of water flicked into the pan hisses dramatically or until the temperature is 350°F. Place your first few breaded cutlets in the oil — don’t crowd them or it will lower the temperature a lot, leading to heavier and greasier chicken. Cook chicken, flipping once, until it’s a deep golden brown on both sides, about 4 to 5 minutes on the first side and 3 to 4 on the second. Remove from oil, letting excess drip off for 10 to 20 seconds, and drain on paper towels or paper bags. Season right away, while still sizzling hot, with salt. Repeat with remaining cutlets.
Serve: Eat right away — I love these with some chopped herbs on top and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Shown here is also a quick dip of mayo, whole-grain mustard, a dash of hot sauce, and squeeze of lemon juice, plus salt and pepper, which also makes a great sandwich spread for these cutlets.
Do ahead: Breaded, uncooked cutlets keep in the fridge for up to a day before frying. Fried, cooled cutlets keep in the fridge for 3 days and in the freezer, if well-wrapped, for months. Rewarm in a 350°F oven until hot and crisp.