Chicken Parmesan only needs a few things to go from great to excellent — perfectly golden and still juicy chicken is chief among them. Master pounding chicken breast into even pieces, coating them well, and then frying until crisp and cooked through first. The other steps — covering with sauce and cheese — will come easily and only improve the already stand-out chicken. So if you're looking to master this classic, this recipe will show you how, and it starts with the chicken.
For Better Frying, Start with Thinner Chicken
Chicken parm requires thin, crispy cutlets of chicken, so our first step is to make sure they're of even thickness so they cook at a similar time. If you're starting with chicken breasts that are on the larger side, cut the breast in half widthwise before pounding.
Gently pound the chicken to a thickness of 1/2 inch so the cutlet is thick enough to stay juicy but thin enough to get crisp. Some folks butterfly the chicken breast and cook the resulting two thin slices, but I find that the chicken's juiciness suffers. Others cut the breast partway through, lengthwise like a book and open it up to butterfly it and then pound it, but you can end up with a chicken breast that is bigger than a dinner plate and won't fit in a pan. No matter how you cut the chicken, a gentle pounding is critical for even cooking and tenderizing.
How do you pound chicken?
Cut two pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper that are big enough to cover your work surface or cutting board. Put one piece on it and place a breast half on top. Place the second piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper on top. To pound, you can use the bottom of a small saucepan or the flat side of a meat mallet.
The technique? Just firmly tap the breasts until they are a uniform thickness of 1/2 inch. Start at the middle and work your way out, nudging the chicken down and slightly out, being careful not to tear the meat. The thinner outer edges will need very little pounding. Note that the plastic may suffer a puncture here and there, so once you're done with the raw chicken, don't use the work surface for anything else until you've washed it with hot water and plenty of soap.
How to Pan-Fry Chicken for Chicken Parmesan
- Use plenty of oil. Crispy chicken has to be fried in enough oil so that it floats over the cutlet. For a 1/2-inch-thick cutlet, the oil should be 3/4-inch deep. Oil amount is dependent on surface area, so if you have a bigger pan, you'll need more oil.
- No thermometer? No problem. If you don't have a deep-frying thermometer, you can heat the oil over medium heat and carefully drop in a small piece (about 1-inch square) of bread; it should brown in about 40 seconds at the right temperature.
- Skim the oil between batches. Make sure to scoop out any little pieces of chicken or breading that fall off between batches to prevent them from burning.
- Keep that cutlet crisp until the last second. Since the goal is to keep the chicken crisp until the last moment, make sure to top with sauce and cheese just before baking and broiling.
For the Best Chicken Parmesan, Use Three Cheeses
Before we talk cheese, a word on the sauce. You can use any marinara you'd like. A favorite jarred variety, the one you make by heart week after week, or the simple version we're a fan of here. Just make sure you like it. Now, let's talk cheese.
Your chicken Parmesan doesn't just need Parmesan for topping. Up the cheese-pull factor by using fresh and part-skim mozzarella along with the grated Parmesan. Thankfully, fresh mozzarella can be found at every grocery store. It tastes milky and fresh, but for melty stretch, nothing works as well as the low-moisture packaged variety, so I use both. Pair them with the rich and salty flavors of real-deal freshly grated or shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you've got a formula that can't be beat.
How To Make Chicken Parmesan
What You Need
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more for seasoning
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 cups Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs
1 1/2 cups marinara sauce
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
4 ounces part-skim mozzarella, sliced
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Wide, deep saucepan or pot
Deep-fry or candy thermometer
3 shallow bowls or 8-inch square dishes
Plastic wrap or wax paper
Meat mallet or small saucepan
Roasting pan or large casserole dish
- Heat the oven and prepare for frying: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 375°F. Add enough oil to a wide, deep saucepan or pot so that it is 3/4-inch deep. If you have a deep-fry or candy thermometer, place it near the stove or attach it to the pan. Line a large platter with a few sheets of paper towels and set near the stove.
- Set up a breading station: Line up 3 shallow bowls or 8-inch square rimmed dishes side by side. Place the flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of the black pepper in the first dish and mix to combine. Place the eggs, water, and remaining 1 teaspoon of the salt to the second dish and beat lightly with a fork to combine. Pour the breadcrumbs into the third dish.
- Pound the chicken: Place a large sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper on a work surface or cutting board and place 1 breast on it. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap or wax paper. Using the flat side of a meat mallet or the bottom of a small saucepan, gently pound the chicken, starting in the middle and working outward, until about 1/2-inch thick all over. Be careful not to tear the meat. Season with salt and pepper on both sides, and transfer to a large plate. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
- Heat the oil: Heat the pan of oil over medium-high heat until it registers 365°F to 370°F. If you don't have a deep-fry or candy thermometer, a 1-inch square of bread dropped in the oil should brown in about 40 seconds.
- Bread the chicken: Dip a chicken breast into the flour, turn to coat, and pat off any excess. Dip into the eggs and turn to coat. Place in the breadcrumbs, patting well on both sides so the crumbs stick. The chicken should be completely coated. Place on a baking sheet or large plate.
- Fry the chicken: When the oil is ready, carefully place 2 of the chicken breasts in the pan, making sure to place the part closest to you in first so if it splatters the hot oil will not hit you. Fry until golden-brown and crisp on the bottom, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip and cook until the second side is golden-brown and the chicken is cooked through, about 6 minutes more. Transfer to the paper towel-plated to drain. Repeat with frying the remaining 2 pieces of chicken.
- Cover with sauce and cheese and bake: Place the chicken in a large roasting pan or a large casserole dish in a single layer. Just before serving, spoon the marinara sauce over the cutlets and top with the mozzarella cheeses. Sprinkle with Parmesan and red pepper flakes if using. Bake until the cheeses are fully melted and the Parmesan is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
- Food safety: Clean the work surface and the pounder with hot, soapy water after pounding the chicken. Discard the plastic wrap or wax paper.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Rewarm in low-temperature oven.