Chicken Champions

We Tried Serious Eats’ “Best” Chicken Parmesan Recipe and Did Not Expect These Results

updated Mar 9, 2020
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serious eats' chicken parm on a plate
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones; Design: Kitchn

It’s no secret that Serious Eats has some of the best recipes on the web. They’ve won a few of our recipe showdowns, including our popular French Onion Soup Showdown and our ultra-competitive Pancake Showdown. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that their recipe for chicken Parmesan is among the most popular on the Internet.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the brains behind the site’s Food Lab, where he brings a scientific approach to recipes. I couldn’t wait to see how he would apply that knowledge to classic Italian-American chicken Parmesan. Here’s what happened when I gave it a try.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones; Design: Kitchn
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

How to Make Serious Eats’ Chicken Parmesan

You’ll begin by making the tomato sauce. I prepared the Quick and Easy Red Sauce suggested in the recipe headnotes, as it was the most similar to the other three sauce recipes I tested for the showdown. You’ll cook crushed garlic in olive oil, add red pepper flakes and dried oregano, then stir in tomato paste. Add canned whole tomatoes (I used San Marzano), and bring to a simmer. Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce until smooth, then add a sprig of fresh basil and simmer for about 30 minutes. When the sauce is done, adjust the salt and stir in butter.

You’ll prepare the chicken portion of the dish by splitting boneless, skinless chicken breasts in half horizontally, then pounding them 1/4-inch thick inside a zip-top bag. Transfer the chicken to a bowl, coat in a mixture of buttermilk, garlic, salt, and pepper, then transfer the chicken and marinade back to the bag to marinate for four hours or overnight. Before cleaning the kitchen for the night, remove the crust from a loaf of Italian bread, slice the bread, and arrange in a single layer on a rack to dry out.

The next day, you’ll use your food processor to grind the bread into crumbs along with Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Spread into a shallow plate and toss with buttermilk. Add flour to a second plate. Combine eggs, buttermilk, and a small amount of flour in a third plate. Remove the chicken from the marinade and dredge in the flour, then the egg mixture, then the breadcrumbs. Reheat the sauce in a saucepan until simmering.

It’s finally time to fry. Heat vegetable oil in a cast iron pan, then pan-fry the cutlets until brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Transfer some of the warmed sauce to the bottom of a baking dish, add the chicken in a single layer, and top with more sauce down the center of the chicken. Toss together cubed fresh mozzarella cheese and grated Parmesan, then arrange down the center of the dish. Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes until the sauce bubbles and cheese melts. Finish with more Parmesan and fresh herbs.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

My Honest Review of Serious Eats’ Chicken Parmesan

After two days of prep and a pile of dishes, this dish was beyond disappointing. The chicken breasts were moist and tender even after being both pan-fried and baked, but there was a lingering acidic tang from the buttermilk which tasted entirely out of place in a plate of chicken Parmesan.

This was also the only recipe of the four I tested that called for making homemade breadcrumbs. The bread is dried, ground, and mixed with buttermilk to make a mealy mixture that’s meant to crisp when fried. Instead, it created a very thick breading — more akin to chicken fried steak than chicken Parmesan — and while it did brown, it never developed the classic crunchy crust I was expecting, and even separated from the chicken breasts.

The soft breading was made even mushier after 20 minutes in the oven, resulting in a soggy, strangely-flavored cutlet smothered in tomato sauce. And while the Parmesan-coated cubed fresh mozzarella scattered over the top of the chicken melted more evenly than shingled slices, it turned rubbery as soon as it cooled.

The one thing I really liked about this recipe was the the sauce, which had good flavor from the San Marzano tomatoes — an example of why it’s so important to use quality ingredients for a simple sauce. The addition of tomato paste gives this speedy sauce a rich, slow-cooked flavor, which made it stand out from the other recipes.

Credit: Patty Catalano

If You’re Making Serious Eats’ Chicken Parmesan, a Few Tips

Despite obvious efforts to employ scientifically-based strategies, the individual elements of the dish failed to combine harmoniously. That being said, it has potential if the following changes are made:

  1. Skip the buttermilk brine. Reserve buttermilk brines for recipes like fried chicken or chicken fried steak where you’re looking for a tangy flavor. Instead, stick to kosher salt for seasoning the chicken breasts.
  2. Don’t bother making your own breadcrumbs. This is one of those occasions where store-bought is better than homemade. The crackly, airy texture of panko breadcrumbs gives the chicken a much crispier crust than the buttermilk-laden breadcrumbs used here.
  3. Broil, don’t bake. The only reason to combine the pan-fried chicken and tomato sauce in a casserole dish is to melt the cheese cubes. After all, the chicken is already cooked and the sauce is simmering! Unfortunately, nestling the chicken into sauce for a 20-minute bake in the oven eliminates any chance for a crispy Parmesan breading and increases the opportunity for the chicken to dry out. Instead, arrange the chicken on a baking sheet, top with the cheese, and broil, waiting until it’s time to serve to add the tomato sauce.

Rating: 4/10

Have you ever made Serious Eats’ chicken Parmesan? Tell us what you thought!

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Pearl Jones; Design: Kitchn