Simplified breading process
Juicy interior and golden-brown exterior
Crisp, even crust
Chicken cutlets coated in bread crumbs and pan-fried are a quick-cooking crowd-pleaser. But I’ve always thought that the dish’s shortcomings—an uneven crust that’s often soggy, greasy, and insufficiently browned—get a bit of a hall pass. Plus, the three-step breading process of flour, egg, and bread crumbs is messy and fussy. I set out to make a version with a perfectly even, golden-brown crust. In the process, I hoped to streamline things.
I began by cutting four breasts in half horizontally, pounding the fatter ends when needed to create a uniform ¼-inch thickness. I seasoned both sides of the cutlets with salt; lined up three bowls with flour, egg, and homemade toasted bread crumbs; and proceeded with the process cooks have used for generations: Blot the cutlets dry to ensure that the flour adheres evenly, dip the cutlets one by one in each bowl, and shallow-fry them in oil. The results exhibited the same flaws I usually encounter with this dish, and the breading created dirty dishes and extra steps I’d rather not take.
I had one immediate idea for streamlining: Instead of salting, flipping, and salting each cutlet, I simply whisked salt into the eggs—1 teaspoon would provide sufficient seasoning. Next I considered the flour and egg. Theoretically, the flour helps the egg adhere to the chicken and the egg holds on to the bread crumbs. Egg was essential—when I tried dipping cutlets into bread crumbs without it, only a few clung—but what about the flour? When I left it out of the process, the egg and bread crumbs clung to the chicken just fine. Plus, after cooking a batch, I noticed that the coating’s texture had changed—for the better. The flourless batch had a more delicate coating that all my tasters preferred to the floured batch. As a bonus, without the flour in the mix, I realized I could also skip patting the chicken dry.
Finally, I focused on the bread crumbs. I knew one simple change would make a big difference: I swapped the homemade toasted bread crumbs for panko. We often turn to these Japanese-style store-bought bread crumbs in the test kitchen. Not only are they far superior to regular commercially made crumbs, which are typically sandy and tasteless, but they’re dry and airy and can make for ultracrunchy coatings and toppings that won’t turn as soggy as those made with wetter, heavier homemade crumbs.
But I noticed that, straight out of the box, the panko crumbs sometimes clung unevenly, and a close inspection of the coated cutlets revealed the reason. The size of the panko crumbs varied, and large pieces didn’t cling well. The ideal would be a mix of medium and largish—but not too large—crumbs. The larger crumbs would provide crunch while the medium bits would fill in the gaps to make a uniform but not dense coating. To achieve this, I poured the panko into a zipper-lock bag and ran over it with a rolling pin a few times until the larger pieces were broken down. I prepared another batch using these crumbs, and just as I’d hoped, the cutlets had a perfectly even coating. It was time to fine-tune the cooking method.
A Sizzling Finish
One of the main challenges of frying is making sure that the food cooks through and the exterior browns and crisps simultaneously. I knew that smoking oil would cause the exterior to overcook before the interior was done, so I heated ¼ cup of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, and as soon as shimmery whorls appeared, I slipped four cutlets into the pan. After 30 seconds or so, they began to sputter and sizzle. I let the cutlets cook undisturbed until the crumbs were golden brown, and then I flipped them to cook the second side. The exteriors were nicely browned, but the meat was overcooked. And I noticed that the second batch browned unevenly and was flecked with small pieces of burnt panko.
Clearly, the timing was off: To avoid overcooking the meat, I needed to use hotter oil to deliver faster browning. But how could I know that the oil temperature was just right? It’s too difficult to use a thermometer in oil this shallow; I needed another indicator. For my next batch, I added a pinch of panko to the skillet with the oil. Only when the bits of panko floating in the oil had turned golden brown did I place the chicken in the skillet. The immediate sizzle was a sure sign that I was on the right track. And to fix the spotty browning and burnt bits of panko in the second batch, I discarded the cooking oil after frying the first batch and started over with fresh oil. As soon as each cutlet was done, I transferred it to a paper towel–lined cooling rack. Most recipes just note to set aside the chicken, but that’s a mistake since steam on the underside will condense and turn the coating soggy. Elevating the cutlets on a rack would prevent this, and the paper towel would wick away any excess oil.
Test Oil Before Shallow-Frying
Shimmering can be an indicator that oil is hot enough to start sautéing, but shimmering can be deceptive when the oil is deep enough for shallow frying (it fully coats the pan bottom and can be swirled). The oil in contact with the pan bottom, where the heat is most intense, will shimmer before the oil on top. So how can you know the oil is heated from top to bottom? We add a pinch of panko. Once the crumbs turn brown, it’s time to fry.
The results were impressive. The chicken was tender and juicy, and the coating on both batches was a perfectly even golden brown. All that these cutlets required was a squeeze of lemon, but to go beyond the everyday, I turned east for inspiration. In Japan, breaded chicken cutlets (known as chicken katsu) are often served sliced over a bowl of rice with a tangy barbecue-style sauce. Known as tonkatsu sauce, it’s made with a handful of pantry staples: ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, and soy sauce. I also put together a creamy option featuring curry powder and garlic.
These cutlets are equally good served over a salad or even sandwiched in burger buns and topped with lettuce and sauce.