Chicken Piccata needs little introduction, for better or for worse. A truly 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 mouth-watering praise. Yet piccata can also be excruciatingly bad, featuring dry, tough chicken drowning in a sauce that’s either boring or brash. Been there, right?
A common approach is to flatten a whole breast with a meat pounder, which can tear the flesh. In the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen, they take it to the next level. To mimic their success, halve each breast crosswise and then split the thick side horizontally to create three similar-size pieces that require only minimal pounding. Season the meat to help it retain moisture, toss 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. Yeah, definitely not appealing.
So try this different approach—flour the cutlets (we used gluten-free), pan-sear them, and then transfer to a placeholder sauce to simmer. Problem solved, any uncooked flour sloughs off into the sauce, thickening it and leaving the coating thin and silky. Because the chicken is salted, the additional cooking doesn’t dry it out.
For the sauce, sauté garlic and shallot and then stir in chicken broth and a few tablespoons of lemon juice. After simmering the cutlets in the sauce, finish it with capers and butter. At this point, the sauce has nice body, but is still missing something; so what about adding whole lemon pieces to piccata? Brilliant! Quarter thin slices of lemon and simmer them in the sauce until they soften.
This company-worthy 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. BINGO! Ideally, serve with buttered pasta, white rice, potatoes, or crusty bread and a simple steamed vegetable.
- 4 (6- to 8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
- Kosher salt and pepper
- 2 large lemons
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
- 2 tablespoons caper, drained
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
- Cut each chicken breast in half crosswise, then cut thick half in half again horizontally, creating 3 cutlets of similar thickness. Place cutlets between sheets of plastic wrap and gently pound to even ½-inch thickness.
Our 3 breasts were large and produced 9 big cutlets.
- Place cutlets in bowl and toss with 2 teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Halve 1 lemon lengthwise. Trim ends from 1 half, halve lengthwise again, then cut crosswise ¼-inch-thick slices; set aside. Juice remaining half and whole lemon and set aside 3 tablespoons juice.
- Spread flour in shallow dish. Working with 1 cutlet at a time, dredge cutlets in flour, shaking gently to remove excess. Place on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet.
- Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until smoking. Place 6 cutlets in skillet, reduce heat to medium, and cook until golden brown on 1 side, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook until golden brown on second side, 2 to 3 minutes. Return cutlets to wire rack. Repeat with 2 tablespoons oil and remaining 6 cutlets.
I could only do three cutlets at a time due to pan size and girth of chicken pieces.
- Add remaining 1 teaspoon oil and shallot to skillet and cook until softened, 1 minute. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.
- Add broth, reserved lemon juice, and reserved lemon slices and bring to simmer, scraping up any browned bits.
- Add cutlets to sauce and simmer for 4 minutes, flipping halfway through simmering.
- Transfer cutlets to platter. Sauce should be thickened to consistency of heavy cream; if not, simmer 1 minute longer.
- Off heat, whisk in butter. Stir in capers and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve.
We served our delicious piccata with a side of steamed broccolini seasoned with a Tuscan-herbed olive oil, lemon zest and a squeeze of fresh lemon; and pasta hit with a little grated parm and butter.
By Annie Petito from Cook’s Illustrated