Dori’s favorite meal from growing up.
A chicken cutlet is a crisp crust with a succulent, tender interior, the fresh herbs in the breading slowly ebbing from the bite until there’s nothing but a clean, ricotta-like finish. A cook who can make a proper cutlet knows he doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It shows that control isn’t about minimalism.
In a world of chicken dishes that want to be Guy Fieri, the cutlet is still Julia Child.
There’s a subtle harmony to a chicken cutlet; you first taste the fried herbs in the breading before the chicken falls apart in your mouth, leaving a mild warmth that encourages you to have another bite.
Just like last week’s brodo with meatballs, cutlets were a favorite both at home and when Dori and I visited our grandparents. We didn’t really understand the process of their creation–we simply took it as an article of faith that this magnificent arrangement of golden-brown, melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness had its origin as a chicken at one point in its history.
Chickens aren’t born mild-tasting and rich. Actually, to be frank, a fresh chicken tends to taste a bit like the barnyard it came from–something that classical recipes treated with tannins and acidity or exploited with umami in recipes that, today, call for a pullet or capon, something with an intense, overwhelming chicken flavor that must be dealt with because it can’t be ignored.
While the modern chicken has been engineered to obscure that game-y undertone, it’s still present. But it can be removed with milk and time. The calcium and lactic acid act on the flesh in ways that may or may not tenderize the meat (depending on who you believe), but which certainly draw out substances that convert the flavor from its fowl origins into something closer to milk-fed veal.
In fact, it’s likely that chicken cutlets in Italy started as an alternative to veal, but trying to determine the origin of the veal cutlet in Italy is like chasing a ghost. Many of the supposed origins don’t seem to pan out when you look for the documentary evidence.
For example, some sources say that it started as a poor man’s iteration of what was considered a treatment for heart ailments in the Middle Ages–covering food in gold dust. While it does look like eating gold was viewed as having some kind of medicinal benefits (ranging from generalized longevity to treating seizures), the only mentions of dusting food with gold are ones used to justify cutlets.
Those are spiedini. Delicious, to be sure, and a grandparent to involtini, but a distant cousin to the cutlet we’re talking about today.
The earliest actual mention of something we could say resembled a breaded cutlet is in a document from the mid-12th century nitpicking details of the feast of Saint Ambrose of Milan. Some sources describe the dish, lumbolos com panicio (little chops with breading), as being the third of nine courses, but if you actually look at the Latin, I’m pretty sure the whole meal is nine plates served in three courses, meaning that this was actually close to the end of the meal, rather than toward the beginning.
Sigh. Okay, fine. I’ll take a crack at translating this, but it’s been a long time since Latin classes.
My Guess at Translation
In primis pullos frigidos et gambas de vino et carnem porcinam frigidam; in secundo pullos plenos et carem vaccinam cum piperata et turtellam de lavezolo; in tercio loco pullos rostidos et lumbolos cum panicio atque porcellos plenos. Porcellos vero plenos quandoque in prima appositione et carnem porcinam frigidam in tercia apositione haebant, et e converso.
— From Vestimentia Saecularia, & Precisa in Clericis reprobavit, & talbus uri interdixit, Lib. IV, Cap. 33, Cronica Casinense, describing a feast in 1149, as copied in Dissertazioni sopra le antichità italiane by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, 1751.
First, cold young meat, animal legs in wine, and cold pork meat; in second, stuffed young animal, beef with peppers, and young turtle soup; in third place, young [roasts?]1 and little loins with breading, and stuffed piglets. Piglets were actually stuffed when in the first course when the cold pork used to be the third course, and the reverse.
1 Not honestly sure what rostidos means. The word roast has a Germanic origin. It’s possible it was borrowed into ecclesiastical Latin by this time. While all of this is a guess, consider that word a very questionable guess.
(If you’re a Latin guru and can correct me, please comment and do so.) From this evolved the cotoletta alla milanese, the fried, breaded, bone-in veal cutlet. With veal, leaving the bone in was a quintessentially Italian thing to do–it helped prevent the meat from drying out.
It’s likely that at some point during Hapsburg occupation of Milan, the breading used in the milanese overtook the original flour-coated schnitzel recipes. While the Germanic cuisine enthusiasts (I can’t believe that’s a thing) occasionally dispute that, the timeline seems pretty clear.
By the time veal cutlet recipes started to appear in American cookbooks, they were in much the same forms we’d expect to find them today. Consider this recipe for veal cutlets from 1837’s Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches by Eliza Leslie (image from the 1840 edition):
The best cutlets are those taken from the leg or fillet. Cut them about half an inch thick, and as large as the palm of your hand. Season them with pepper and salt. Grate some stale bread, and rub it through a colander, adding to it chopped sweet marjoram, grated lemon-peel, and some powdered mace or nutmeg. Spread the mixture on a large flat dish. Have ready in a pan some beaten egg. First dip each cutlet into the egg, and then into the seasoning on the dish, seeing that a sufficient quantity adheres to both sides of the meat. Melt in your frying pan, over a quick fire, some beef-dripping, lard, or fresh butter, and when it boils lay your cutlets in it, and fry them thoroughly; turning them on both sides, and taking care that they do not burn. Place them in a covered dish near the fire, while you finish the gravy in the pan, by first skimming it, and then shaking in a little flour and stirring it round. Pour the gravy hot round the cutlets, and garnish with little bunches of curled parsley.
You may mix with the bread crumbs a little saffron.
Of course, what really popularized this style of cutlet in the United States was the recipe for veal and/or chicken Parmigiana, explained in this blurb from the September 9, 1927 edition of the New Castle (Pennsylvania) News:
Caesare Moneta, the Mulberry street restaurateur, serves boiled tongue with champagne sauce, a most delectable dish. Along with this comes spinach, ground and creamed, and those who throw up their eyes and sigh for Paris may well try the Moneta dish. Another of his specialties is cutlet Parmigiana, veal breaded and sautéed in a cheese and tomato sauce. And as for his onion soup! My friends, it is truly lyrical in quality.
There’s really no Italian antecedent that uses meat, but there are two influences in Italy. The obvious one is the eggplant parmigiana, which was properly a casserole in the style of a greek moussaka. The other was something called something like peche d’ovo, a wartime meat substitution of egg mixed with bread crumbs and fried, then allowed to cook in a tomato sauce to finish.
But cutlets? Not particularly.
While it’s true that Italians describe anything (other than a pizza) with tomato sauce and mozzarella on top as alla parmigiana in the same way spinach makes something “florentine,” they don’t generally do it to cutlets. Eggplant, gnocchi, zucchini, polenta–absolutely. But as a general principle of Italian cuisine, you don’t often see vegetarian sauces on top of meat dishes. That’s a dead giveaway that the origin is external to Italy, just as it is with spaghetti with meatballs in a tomato sauce.
I don’t think these need to be parmigiana’d.
A truly great chicken cutlet, like the ones we grew up with, is a memory you never quite shake. There’s a subtle harmony to a chicken cutlet; you first taste the fried herbs in the breading before the chicken falls apart in your mouth, leaving a mild warmth that encourages you to have another bite.
And you should.
From Yesterdish’s recipe box.
Yesterdish’s Chicken Cutlets
4 chicken breasts, butterflied and pounded thin
Marinate for two hours in:
- 1.5 Tbsp. sugar
- 1.5 Tbsp. seasoned salt
- 2 cups milk (or to cover)
- 1.5 c. flour
- 1/2 c. cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp. kosher salt
- 2 c. buttermilk (or 1-3/4 c. milk and 1 egg)
- 1 Tbsp. Cajun salt
- 1/2 loaf Italian bread, crust removed;
- 2 Tbsp. each [fresh] rosemary and thyme
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/3 c. Parmesan [shredded or grated]
- 1 Tbsp. each salt and pepper
- After pounding chicken, placing in marinade, and returning to refrigerator, chop all ingredients for breadcrumbs in food processor except salt and Parmesan until coarse crumbs. Add Parmesan and salt to mixture and set aside.
- Heat about 1.5 cups extra virgin olive oil and 1 cup vegetable oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Test oil by frying herbs or a piece of bread crust.
- Whisk together dredge ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together dip ingredients.
- After marinating, remove cutlets from marinade; toss in dredge and rest for two minutes.
- Shake off excess flour. Dip briefly in milk dip, then place cutlet in breadcrumb mixture, pat, flip, and repeat until evenly coated.
- Fry until golden, turning once or twice as needed. Remove to wire rack over paper towels and rest two minutes before serving.