By Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D.
I know there is no substitute for real, deep-fried chicken. But if you’re in a healthy, guilty, or conscientious-parent mood and you want to save time and the hot, oily mess, try this. The dish uses panko, rough-cut bread crumbs from crustless bread. It can be found at your supermarket alongside the boxes of regular bread crumbs. You could make your own as I have, but homemade doesn’t work as well. Why? Because the dry, rough cut of panko makes for a more crispy, crunchy
I know there is no substitute for real, deep-fried chicken. But if you’re in a healthy, guilty, or conscientious-parent mood and you want to save time and the hot, oily mess, try this. The dish uses panko, rough-cut bread crumbs from crustless bread. It can be found at your supermarket alongside the boxes of regular bread crumbs. You could make your own as I have, but homemade doesn’t work as well. Why? Because the dry, rough cut of panko makes for a more crispy, crunchychicken. Panko is no more expensive than a comparable box of, say, Italian crumbs. So don’t try to make this dish substituting regular bread crumbs. It won’t be the same.
The difficult part in breading anything is getting the crumbs to stick. I’ve found a secret that works not just for this dish but for any breaded meat. It’s letting the breaded chicken or chops air-dry on a rack for 20 to 30 minutes before cooking. This is the difference between losing half of the crumbs and keeping them locked on the meat. The other trick is the egg wash. The usual recipe calls for dipping the poultry or chops in beaten egg plus water. This one uses only egg whites and cornstarch, which helps the breading adhere. I save leftover egg whites in a glass jar in my freezer, since I often make recipes such as custards that call only for egg yolks. Whenever I need whites, I just defrost the amount needed–about 1/8 cup per white.
A digression: a recent survey claims that Americans waste nearly half of their food. One reason is undoubtedly the over-large portions served in restaurants. But the main reason, let’s face it, is that we are wasteful. In part this is because of prepackaging in grocery stores, in part because we hate leftovers, and in part because we may not know how to cut down recipes. But if the final “in part” is that we just toss it, then there’s no excuse. We are stewards of God’s bounty, after all. (Those of you who compost the tossed leftovers are forgiven.)
Now you may be thinking, yes, but I don’t know what to do with the green beans that are getting old, the sauce or gravy left over from last night’s beef, the fruit going soft, or the egg whites I don’t need. My cooking teacher knew. She saved everything—the gravy, sauce, vegetables, fruit, even left-over pasta. And I learned from her. I save what I can by putting the leftover whatever in a small plastic container, labeling it, and popping it in the freezer. An old gravy can be the basis of a new one; an old sauce can transform something sauceless; the old veggies can be pureed and turned into soup. My teacher called hers “Pot luck” and served it in her exclusive French restaurant!
I can’t bear to waste food, and I even save the juice from cans of cherries to make a luscious dessert sauce or add flavor to pies, cakes, or pastries. Believe it or not, you can even freeze left-over cheese for a cooked sauce.
OK, digression ended: back to the chicken.
Unfried, Fried Chicken Two Ways
2 chicken legs with thighs, and 2 breasts
1 cup Panko
3 egg whites, beaten with 3 t. cornstarch
4-5 T. unsalted butter melted
½ t. cayenne pepper
½ t. salt
½ t. pepper
Dip chicken pieces in egg white-cornstarch mixture and sprinkle panko on both sides, pressing extra panko into chicken if necessary. Mix salt, pepper, and cayenne with melted unsalted butter and drizzle carefully over top and bottom of chicken pieces. Dry on a rack for 30 minutes. Bake in a shallow pan at 450 degrees till well-browned and cooked through (about 30 minutes). Let stand 5 minutes to crisp. Serves 4. You can serve the unfried chicken unadorned or add the following.
Maryland Unfried Chicken Gravy
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
¾ c. milk
¾ c. heavy cream or half-and-half
Melt butter in small, heavy-bottomed pan. Stir in flour and cook until bubbly. Continue to cook until flour-butter mixture begins to turn brown. (Watch carefully. It can burn very quickly). Slowly whisk in milk and cream until thick and smooth. Season to taste and add any unburned drippings and crust from baking pan. Serves 4 over rice.
What makes this chicken so delicious is the crunchy taste of the panko, the spicy taste of the cayenne, the addition of drippings in the gravy, and…cooking the flour-butter mixture until it turns brown. By the way, I didn’t say that the flour-butter mixture is what the French call a roux. Now, if you managed to make it, aren’t you proud of yourself?
Joanne’s Quick Tip
Ever wondered how to get the bread crumbs to stick to the meat? I’ve found a secret: letting the breaded chicken or chops air-dry on a rack for 20 to 30 minutes before cooking. This is the difference between losing half of the crumbs and keeping them locked on the meat.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.