Loosely defined, schnitzel is a piece of meat that’s been pounded thin, breaded, and fried—but frankly, that undersells it. This Austrian classic is more delicate than thicker, crunchier Japanese tonkatsu and more distinct than workaday Italian breaded cutlets such as Milanese and scaloppine. There’s an elegance to its svelte profile, and even more so to its unique crust: The crumb is particularly fine and closely packed, and instead of hugging the meat the way most breadings do, it puffs away from the cutlet as it fries, forming an airy, wrinkly shell that’s not at all greasy. Serving it with a squeeze of lemon and a bright-tasting salad accentuates its lightness. Done well, it manages to be both casual comfort food and dinner party fare.
Austrians typically prepare schnitzel with veal or pork, but plenty of recipes swap in other proteins that are comparably tender and mild, especially chicken breast. The switch sounded appealing to me—who doesn’t need more ideas for preparing boneless, skinless breasts?—and I figured it would be as easy as slipping chicken into our existing recipe for pork schnitzel.
Making schnitzel is a lot like breading and frying any other cutlet: Pound the meat, dredge it in flour, dip it in egg wash, coat it in bread crumbs, and fry it. But in this case, you’re making a few targeted changes that all work together to create thinner cutlets coated in a delicate, puffy crust. First, the bread crumbs are fine, not coarse, so they sit very close together and form a compact coating that can trap steam. Second, there is a little oil in the egg wash, which makes the crust slightly flexible and therefore capable of expanding. Third, the cutlets are fried in just a couple of cups of oil in a deep pot, which is gently agitated during cooking so that the hot oil washes over the meat and quickly sets the crust. When this happens, that compact, stretchable breading traps steam and inflates, puffing away from the meat. (For more information, see “What Makes It Puff?”)
I began to go through the motions, pounding four chicken breasts to the same 1⁄8-inch thickness that I would have with pork. But the amount of pounding required to flatten a plump chicken breast caused the meat to tear and become ragged. I tried halving the breasts horizontally, hoping that would minimize the number of strokes needed to thin them out, but the meat still tore. Eventually, I learned that chicken is actually more tender than pork (among other reasons, most chickens are much younger than pigs when they’re processed, so their meat has less time to build up tough connective tissue), which meant I didn’t need to pound the meat quite as thin to make delicate cutlets. Instead, I halved the breasts and pounded them to a more modest 1⁄4-inch thickness.
I seasoned the cutlets with salt and pepper and coated them one at a time in flour, followed by egg wash and homemade bread crumbs. After each step, I made sure to shake off excess flour and allow some of the egg wash to drip back into the dish so that the coating would be sheer. Next I heated 2 cups of oil to 350 degrees in a Dutch oven and laid two or three cutlets at a time in the oil, being careful not to overlap them. Then I continuously agitated the pot—which had just enough oil to wash over the cutlets but not enough to splatter over the sides—for the minute or so that it took the crust to turn puffy, wrinkly, and golden brown.
After fishing the cutlets out of the oil, I blotted them dry and took a quick taste before frying the sec- ond batch. They were great: tender, crisp, and delicate in a way fried chicken never is. My only grievance was the homemade bread crumbs, which had taken longer to make than the schnitzel itself. Fine, even crumbs were a must, but was it really necessary to cube, dry, and process sandwich bread to make my own?
Coarse, crunchy panko bread crumbs were exactly what I didn’t want for schnitzel, but since I always keep a container on hand, I tried blitzing them in the food processer to see if they would work as a coating. They were a disappointment, frying up hard and crunchy. But there was some good—and surprising—news: When I tried regular store-bought bread crumbs, they produced a coating that was even more delicate, puffy, and golden than one made from homemade crumbs.
With the time I saved, I put together two bright salads: one with cucumbers and lots of dill, made creamy and tangy with Greek yogurt, and a rémoulade of fennel, celery, and apple. Either one turns the schnitzel into a complete package that’s easy and quick—and more refined than your everyday cutlet dinner.