Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lessons Learned: Chicken Parmesan

Was hoping to have some good shots of making chicken parmesan  but fate interceded (in a few ways, actually). Hopefully, I've learned a few things.

Some background:

As one or two of you may be aware, the new issue of Cooks Illustrated hit mailboxes (and newsstands, I'd imagine) a few days ago. There were a number of recipes inside that seemed specially-made for us, but one that really stuck out was their recipe for chicken parmesan (they dubbed it "The Best", but I'm with Alton Brown: Why not let me make it and see how much I like it before we call anything the best?). The crux of their technique is in three parts:

  1. Cut the breasts in half to make for thinner cutlets, rather than full breasts, so that you can
  2. Coat them in a 50/50 (or so) mixture of panko bread crumbs and parmesan, which will help keep a crunchy exterior when you
  3. Pan-fry them in vegetable oil
There's more to the recipe, including how you should blend the mozzarella on top with fontina to get a better texture before putting them under the broiler and only then finishing with the (rather dull, I thought) tomato sauce that they include in the recipe. We made them two nights ago and they were fantastic: doing them again tonight for family over for Sunday dinner should be a snap, no?


Let's just jump ahead to the mistakes that were made, rather than a play-by-play of what happened. 

First of all was the chicken. On our first excursion, I went with air-chilled organic chicken from Wegman's, which obviously is a little pricey, but turned out great. Some of the cutlets came out a little thinner than intended (since a few of them came with the tenders intact), but ultimately it made for tender, perfectly-cooked cutlets, without needing to pound anything flat. 

Tonight, we were running a little late for a variety of reasons, so I did my shopping... well, not at Wegman's. Somewhere closer and somewhere that I don't think carries anything organic. For a long time, I've always tried to buy organic when it comes to meat and dairy (anything at the top of the food chain), and occasionally I forget why I do it, and then have to get reminded. It's much the same experience I have when I drive something other than a late-model Honda--Oh, not every car made in the past decade is good, eh?

The big drawback was flavor--or, really, the lack thereof. I know I sound like some commune-loving hippie here, but there really is a difference between organic and factory-farmed meat, especially when you're looking at something like white meat chicken. I put back the first piece I had tonight because it was undercooked, only to discover that it wasn't--this was just the flavor and texture of the meat. What should have been juicy and tender was overly firm. Not dry, just too firm to chew on. One or two of the cutlets had some tendons going through them, but I made it all the way through mine and it was all like this. 

Another problem we had was the thickness. The organic breasts were individually a little thinner, and so cutting them down the middle made them the perfect thickness. Today's chicken was much thicker (one of them I actually cut into thirds, it was so big). Again, we were running a little late (amazingly, the constant pestering of a certain guest had little effect on the laws of physics running the kitchen), and so I figured we would just have to cook some of them a little longer. 

Ok, no. 


This is me having watched too much Doctor Who lately--I'm trying to psychically project back in time to myself a few hours ago and make clear that this isn't going to work. 

Hmm... yeah, I'm not a fictional character, so that didn't work. 

For those of you who don't know: drastically changing the thickness of the food that you're going to pan-fry can't be offset by changing other cooking settings in the pan. The whole point of pan frying is that it works on relatively thin cuts of meat, hitting it hard with dry heat (yes, frying is a dry heat--you're using fat, so there's no water) to quickly heat the inside of what you're cooking and brown the outside. The point of it is to reach that balance of the inside (the chicken) with the outside (the breading) so that they're both perfectly done at the same time. If you go changing the thickness of one, then it's going to be underdone when the outside is done (hello, salmonella), or the inside will be done but the outside will be overdone (at best, say goodbye to all the flavor you've worked to put in there). 

So cut down on the temperature of the oil, you say? That way the breading won't be overdone and you'll have time for the chicken to properly cook? You poor, naive fool. 

If the oil isn't hot enough, it's not going to bring the moisture inside the food to a boil and try to escape. If the moisture doesn't try to escape, it's not going to exert pressure on the oil in the pan, which means that the oil can seep into the food and you have greasy cutlets (which is the whole thing you're trying to avoid by using parmesan instead of more bread crumbs). 

I know all of this. I didn't just do all this research before now, either: I knew all of it before making dinner tonight. Somehow, it didn't trickle down all the way into my hands when I was making dinner, and definitely not when I was shopping and planning for the meal. If it had, we might have had a chance at replicating the incredible success we had when we first made these on Friday. 

Instead, we had cutlets that were all over the place in terms of (over) doneness, both on the inside and outside. Plus, the thicker cutlets also meant that the breading-to-meat ratio was all wrong, and when combined with the fact that the chicken itself was so bland made for quite a lead balloon of a dinner. 

Hopefully, this burns itself into my brain on a number of levels, and we won't have it happen again. 

Fingers crossed. 

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