Lemony, Buttery Francese: Chicken Breasts Never Had it So Good

Eggy and elegantly lavished with lemony beurre blanc, this take on chicken scaloppine has long been one of the great Italian American cutlet traditions. Et voilà, my modern update.

Published May 17, 2022.

"Frenching” in the Italian American culinary tradition means to dip a piece of food in flour and beaten egg; shallow-fry it; and sauce it with a lemony, beurre blanc–like reduction that saturates the plush, golden-brown coating. This retro technique, originally devised for veal but popularized with chicken cutlets, found fame at the Brown Derby restaurant just outside Rochester, New York. Chef James Cianciola’s “Chicken French” (or “Francese” in Italian) drew such crowds that the restaurant reportedly switched off its lit sign to discourage the arrival of more patrons. In fact, the dish sold so well that Cianciola started “Frenching” artichokes, eggplant, and seafood, too. Restaurants all over the region, and eventually the country, mimicked the preparation, elevating it to what would become one of Red Sauce America’s all-time favorite takes on the sautéed cutlet tradition known as scaloppine. 

Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter

The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.

Francese is timeless with home cooks, too. (In 2018, the New York Times food reporter Julia Moskin’s version ranked as the paper’s most popular recipe of the year.) That bright, satiny sauce and rich, savory egg coating make it feel luxurious, but the everyday ingredients and straightforward method keep it just as grounded as any other cutlet. And like other simple sautés, this dish is flexible and has evolved over time.

How to Make Thin, Even Cutlets

My approach starts with pounding: I like very thin cutlets that cook through by the time the coating is golden brown, so I cut and flatten each breast into three ¼-inch-thick pieces and then briefly salt (and pepper) them for flavor and to help them retain moisture during cooking. I also like a relatively thin and tender egg coating—just sturdy enough to hug the meat without tearing—so I shake off extra flour to avoid excess egg from clinging. And I whisk water into the eggs to dilute their proteins; that way, the proteins won’t bond too tightly and toughen as they cook.

Francese Gets A Makeover

Francese, or “French,” is arguably the most luxurious of the Italian American cutlet treatments, with thin swaths of chicken (or veal) shrouded in a plush, eggy coating that soaks up the lemony butter sauce. These refinements modernize the classic with complex flavor and a simpler, more economical method.

Quick-Cooking Cutlets 

Cutting and pounding each breast into three ¼-inch-thick cutlets ensures that they cook through evenly in minutes.

More-Tender coating

Diluting the eggs with 2 tablespoons of water prevents their proteins from coagulating tightly and cooking up tough and rubbery.

Economical Frying Oil 

Frying the cutlets in a 50/50 blend of extra-virgin olive and vegetable oils reduces cost while adding just enough of the olive oil’s grassy bitterness.

More Lemon flavor 

Browning sliced lemon in butter adds tangy, faintly bitter depth, and the bronzed slices make a visually striking garnish. 

Simple Sauce Thickener

Tossing cubed butter in flour is easier than mashing butter and flour into a beurre manié, and the dredged fat thickens the sauce just as nicely.  

Ample Oil Helps the Coating Set

The tricky thing about chicken Francese’s egg‑on‑the-outside coating is that it can slip off if the eggs don’t set quickly enough. After a few tries, I discovered that oil volume is key: You need enough of it in the pan (⅔ cup for a 12-inch skillet) that the oil just crests the sides of each cutlet, creating a dam of sorts that supports the coating until it’s cooked enough to stay put. And given that extra-virgin olive oil (the classic Francese cooking medium) is pricey, I use a 50/50 blend of olive and vegetable oils. The cost of the dish goes down, and the cutlets still benefit from some of the olive oil’s fruity bitterness.

Use Every Part of the Lemon

As for the sauce, I invest a little extra effort in mine to make the lemon flavor more than just tangy. In fact, I put the whole fruit to work: juice for acid to balance the rich butter; zest for its floral, spicy-sweet fragrance; and skin-on slices that I brown in butter and use as a complex-tasting garnish.

The Lemoniest Pan Sauce

Bright-tasting lemon juice balances Francese’s rich butter sauce, but the fruit has a lot more to offer the dish than just acidity—namely spicy-sweet, floral fragrance from the zest’s aromatic oils, and the distinct bitterness that develops in citrus when acid and enzymes in the zest and cottony pith react with one another. 

To capture all those flavors, grate the zest from half a lemon; halve the fruit crosswise and juice the zested half; and slice the lemon’s unzested half into thin rounds. Wait to add the zest and juice to the sauce until after it has reduced to avoid cooking off their volatile aromatic compounds. And brown the slices in butter: Moderate heat will enhance the fruit’s fragrance by forcing oil out of the skin (intact peel can take more heat than grated zest); mellow some of its bitter-tasting limonin by destroying the enzyme that helps create it; and coax out sweet, round nuttiness that will make for an exceptionally complex-tasting garnish.

After sautéing garlic, I pour white wine and chicken broth into the pan and substantially reduce the liquid to concentrate its flavor. Then I add the lemon zest and juice (delayed additions to preserve their volatile flavors), followed by 3 tablespoons of cubed butter that I dredge in flour—a shortcut to the classic French beurre manié butter-flour paste that thickens the sauce just as effectively, enriching it to the consistency of heavy cream.

Spooned over the cutlets, the sauce seeps into the coating so that every bite is bright and aromatic. And thanks to the chemical interplay between the lemon’s zest and cottony pith, the browned slices offer a hint of bitter citrus bite that’s tempered by the heat into something round, beautifully balanced, and, well, timeless.

Chicken Francese

Eggy and elegantly lavished with lemony beurre blanc, Francese has long been one of the great Italian American cutlet traditions. Et voilà, my modern update.
Get the Recipe


This is a members' feature.