A Global Love Affair with Crispy Cutlets
From schnitzel to katsu, who can resist?
While walking back and forth between the Kitchen Stories test kitchen and the so-called “Mustard” kitchen where the photos for this article were shot, I was in a meditative cutlet-consumed state of mind. Arms laden with all the tools of the breaded and fried cutlet trade—eggs, flour, chicken breasts, vegetable oil, a big bowl of lemons, and the biggest bag, that’s over 2 lbs (1 kg) of panko breadcrumbs I had ever seen—I wondered why I don’t make cutlets more often.
Then, as I butterflied and pounded the chicken breasts and moved them through my small production line from flour to egg, egg to breadcrumbs, I could smell the warm vegetable oil and that’s when it hit me—this oily cutlet perfume would surely seep into my clothes, hair, and soul, and making them in my current apartment, where ventilation is nil to none (even the relatively mild scent of a pot of rice permeates the air for hours), frying cutlets is, well, not an option. As the crispy golden cutlets spattered away in front of me, nearly ready to be lifted out of their hot oil bath, I shrugged off my cutlet-less far future and took comfort in my very cutlet-filled near future.
Whether you’re a restaurant-only sort of cutlet fanatic, crave that “freshly fried” smell, or are simply cutlet curious, let’s explore the global love affair we humans seem to have with pounded, breaded, and fried meats, and gather up great tips for pursuing the practice at home—maybe there’s hope for me yet!
What makes a cutlet a cutlet
Cutlets are, in the simplest of words: pounded, breaded, and shallow-fried meats (anything from beef to chicken, pork to veal.) Depending on where you’re from, breaded cutlets can bring up a wide variety of different images, from the (dare I say) crispiest-of-them-all panko-crusted Japanese curry katsu to plates of giant red-sauce joint chicken parmigiana swimming in marinara and crowned with a layer of bubbling Parmesan cheese, but chances are the first cutlets to come to mind are Austrian (Wiener) Schnitzel or Italian Milanese.
The prevailing name in all things breaded and fried might just be the schnitzel. Found on all five continents, schnitzel is well-known and loved in Africa, the Levant, Oceania, and throughout Eastern Europe—in part due to its simplicity and universally irresistible taste, but perhaps principally attributable to the history of Austro-Hungarian and German colonization.
Italian Milanese follows closely behind schnitzel in global spread and popularity and is found throughout Latin America—primarily in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico where it’s called Milanesa. But what is it really that separates the Milanese from Wiener schnitzel?
Cutlets around the world
The globally-shared fondness for breaded and fried cutlets first led me to try and investigate the differences, but I realized along the way that, in fact, there are many more similarities. While many countries simply refer to them as schnitzels, others call them something different, and although they are perhaps unrecognizable by name, rest-assured that—no matter where you’re from—they are most certainly more than familiar in appearance and taste. Here are the many names of the cutlet so you can proceed to seek them out at every opportunity.
How to make a crispy cutlet
While quality, tenderness, and overall crisp factor will differ from cutlet to cutlet, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be hard pressed to come across a cutlet that you wouldn’t eat. The process transforms tough cuts of meat into something succulent, and even if it’s slightly burned, a tad soggy, or a bit cold, chances are you’d rather stuff your face through any half-hearted complaint than not.
That being said, there are plenty of tips and techniques you can (and should) follow to get the crispiest cutlets!
Pounding and butterflying a cutlet
The hardest thing to master when it comes to cutlets is the butterflying and pounding out of the meat itself. A sharp knife, plastic wrap (parchment paper or even a resealable plastic freezer bag could also work here), and a meat tenderizer are the tools of the trade. If you don’t have a meat tenderizer, you can use a heavy frying pan or rolling pin. The key to butterflying is to place the meat flat against the cutting board and use the palm of your non-knife hand to hold the meat in place. Then use a sharp knife to slowly slice the meat in half horizontally and open it like a book—practice makes perfect, so take your time and don’t get discouraged if your first few tries don’t turn out 100%.
Once you have your two halves, place a layer of plastic wrap under and over one half in preparation for pounding it out. Different recipes and personal preferences will determine how thin you want your cutlet, but it’s generally accepted to aim for an even ¼-in. (6-mm)—just keep in mind, the thinner your cutlet, the less time it takes to cook. If you’re using a meat tenderizer, use the flat side, and try to pound with a slight lateral motion instead of merely straight up and down; this will help the meat to spread and flatten out evenly.
How to butterfly
Breading a cutlet
The most fun part of the process, in my opinion, is when the time comes to bread your cutlets. The first thing you need to do is set up your stations: flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. I like to use deep plates, small baking sheets, or baking dishes for my stations, but large bowls would also work—the key here is to try and find something with a rim so the flour, egg, and breadcrumbs won’t fly all over the counter when you’re moving the cutlets through the assembly line.
Flour: Season your cutlets on both sides, then dredge or coat them in a thin layer of flour, shaking off any excess. The flour simply creates a bond between the cutlet and the egg, so you don’t want (or need) too much flour to make this work. The best way to shake off the excess without too much flour-flinging is to lift the cutlet straight up from one end so it’s perpendicular to the plate then lightly shake. You can use any kind of flour you have on hand, from all-purpose to rye.
Egg: After dredging and shaking, move the cutlet to the egg station. The eggs should be raw—of course—and scrambled up. Some recipes will call for thinning them out with water or milk, but this isn’t necessary, just preference. For 4 cutlets, start with two large eggs. If you need more, crack one in! You’ll want to lift the cutlet straight up from one end again and let any extra eggy bits drip off.
Breadcrumbs: After the egg comes the breadcrumbs—a crucial cutlet ingredient. You can use dried, fresh, or panko and season them with dried herbs, paprika, or even shreds of coconut. You can crush up pretzels or corn flakes and use them in lieu of it all—when it comes to the breading there aren’t really any hard and fast rules, it’s all about preference. No matter what you’re breading the cutlets in, it’s important to press them onto the cutlet the best you can. I always place the cutlet down, grab a handful of breadcrumbs from the dish to sprinkle on the “top” and press them in before flipping and repeating. Before frying, lift the cutlet straight up once more and let any loose breadcrumbs fall away before frying them.
Frying a cutlet
The main point of contention when it comes to frying a cutlet is, unsurprisingly, which fat to use. While clarified butter is a favorite, many recipes call for neutral oils like canola, rapeseed, or even coconut, some call for lard, and then there are the ones that call for straight up olive oil. All will work and impart their own flavor to the cutlets you’re frying, so feel free to experiment and see what works best for you.
After you’ve decided which fat to use, you’ll probably wonder how much you need, which depends on the size of your frying pan. Cutlets are shallow-fried, which means they’re not free-floating in a whole vat of fat—that, my friends, would be deep frying. For a shallow fry, you need just enough oil to cover the bottom of your pan in a layer about 1/8-in. (3-mm) thick.
Heat your fat over medium or medium-high heat. Only add the cutlets once the oil is hot—test it with a small pinch of breadcrumbs, they should sizzle and start to brown directly upon hitting the hot oil. I like to use tongs to handle my cutlets, as I find them the most adept ato carefully placing and flipping. Once you have a cutlet or two in the pan (don’t overcrowd your pan and work in batches), it’s time to flip when the edges of the cutlet are visibly golden. This should only take about 3 min.
Once the cutlets are perfectly golden brown on both sides, transfer them directly to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. This way the excess oil will drip off and the cutlets won’t get soggy. You can keep them warm in a preheated oven or simply enjoy them in the best way possible: immediately!
A couple cutlet questions, answered
Can I bake my cutlets instead of frying them? Of course. Will they taste as delicious? No, probably not. Either way, here’s what you can do to get crispy, oven baked cutlets: Prepare the cutlets as you would (butterfly, pound, flour, egg, and breadcrumbs) then transfer them to a baking sheet. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and bake at 400°F (200°C) until crisp and cooked through, approx. 15 min.
What are the vegetarian or vegan cutlet alternatives? If you are vegetarian or vegan or have friends and family that are, don’t worry, you can still make and enjoy schnitzel! Hearty vegetables like kohlrabi and cauliflower can easily be sliced into “steaks” then breaded and fried (or baked.) Try our kohlrabi schnitzel with green sauce or eggplant cordon bleu for instance—the ham in both recipes can simply be left out. For vegans, simply swap out eggs with soy or your favorite plant-based milk.
Published on April 20, 2019