Easier cutlet prep
Tender, juicy meat
Silky, browned exterior
Complex but balanced sauce
Chicken piccata needs little introduction, for better or for worse. A good version—chicken breasts pounded thin, lightly dusted with flour, pan-seared, and bathed in a rich lemon-butter pan sauce, perhaps with scatterings of capers, garlic, shallot, and parsley—deserves nothing but praise. Yet piccata can also be punishingly bad, featuring dry, tough chicken drowning in sauce that's either boring or brash.
I looked first at the preparation of the cutlets themselves. A common approach is to flatten a whole breast with a meat pounder, which can tear the flesh. In the test kitchen, we have a better way: Halve the breast crosswise and then split the thick side horizontally to create three similar-size pieces that require only minimal pounding. To season the meat and help it retain moisture, I tossed the cutlets with salt and pepper and set them aside for 15 minutes.
At this point, the cutlets are normally dredged in flour and seared in batches. The flour helps with browning by absorbing surface moisture; the proteins and starch in the flour also brown. The problem is that in the short time the cutlets are in the pan, the flour doesn't cook through, so the cutlets turn gummy on the surface once the sauce is poured on.
I tried a different approach—I floured the cutlets, pan-seared them, and then transferred them to a placeholder sauce to simmer. Problem solved: Any uncooked flour sloughed off into the sauce, thickening it and leaving the coating thin and silky. Because I had salted the chicken, the additional cooking didn't dry it out.
For the sauce, I sautéed garlic and shallot and then stirred in chicken broth and a few tablespoons of lemon juice. After simmering the cutlets in the sauce, I finished it with capers and butter.
The sauce had nice body, but its lemon flavor was one-dimensional. Zest contributed depth, but something was still missing. I thought about eastern Mediterranean cuisines, in which whole lemons are preserved in salt and then sliced or chopped and incorporated into stews and tagines for incredible complexity. Preserved lemons weren't appropriate here, but what about adding whole lemon pieces to piccata? I quartered thin slices of lemon and simmered them in the sauce until they softened. Bingo: My twist on this classic recipe resulted in a truly complex sauce featuring tartness from the juice, fruity aroma from the zest, and a subtle bitterness from the pith.
Lemon Law: For Complexity, Use Every Part
We add lemon slices to our piccata to take advantage of the unique flavor that each part of the fruit provides.
Keys to Success
Easier cutlet prepSplitting each breast into three similarly shaped pieces makes it easy to pound the meat into cutlets.
Tender, juicy meatSalting the meat for 15 minutes seasons it and helps it stay moist.
Silky, browned exteriorDredging the cutlets in flour before searing creates a golden crust, and simmering the browned cutlets in the sauce for a few minutes prevents any gumminess in the coating.
Complex but balanced sauceUsing every part of the lemon creates a complex, bright, deeply lemony flavor.