Pan-frying is a handy technique for quickly cooking a thin chicken cutlet or fish fillet that, if cooked too long, might dry out. I call this a technique rather than an entree because usually, you will want to add something more to the dish. Making a pan sauce is a fast and proven finishing touch (and I include a classic recipe below), but other options abound. Relish, salsa and tomato sauce are also pretty tasty toppings. I use pan-fried chicken or fish in pasta dishes, tacos, sandwiches and salads, as well as the basis for more complex dishes like Chicken Parmesan.
To start, prepare the meat. If you have boneless chicken breasts instead of store-bought cutlets, trim off the fat and cut in half horizontally; then place each half between pieces of wax paper and pound flat with a rolling pin or similar implement. Two cutlets will make one serving. (Note: Turkey cutlets can also be prepared in this manner.)
For fish fillets, you only need to rinse them and then pat dry. Season well with salt and pepper, and let them sit a minute or two. This will help the coating adhere better to the fillets.
Now, dredge the cutlets or fillets in flour or some other coating. Bread crumbs, cornmeal and sesame seeds are interesting alternatives. If you want a crisper but higher fat crust, first dredge in flour, then in beaten egg, and finally in bread crumbs, and let the coating dry about 5 minutes before proceeding.
Depending on how many pieces you have, you may have to do the sauteing in batches. I’m assuming a 12-inch skillet and 4 smaller cutlets or 2 larger fillets. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium-high until shimmering but not smoking, turning the pan to coat.
Chef’s tip: If you want to cook in butter, use half olive oil and half butter. The addition of a little oil will keep the butter from browning too much over the high heat.
Add the cutlets or fillets and let cook, undisturbed, until browned on the bottom. Depending on what you’re cooking, this is how long it will take for the first side to brown:
- 3-4 minutes for chicken cutlets
- 1-2 minutes for thin fish fillets, about ¼ inch to ½ inch thick
- 3-4 minutes for thick fish fillets, about ½ inch to 1 inch thick
Tip: Do not use this method for fish fillets over 1 inch thick. The fish will not cook through in the center before the outside begins to dry out or burn.
Flip each piece carefully and cook until done. Chicken will have no pink in the middle. Fish will flake easily and be opaque in the middle. Both sides should be nicely browned. If you have more meat to cook or want to make a pan sauce, keep the finished pieces warm on a plate under a tent of aluminum foil.
Piccata-style Pan Sauce
This is a light, lemony pan sauce suitable for either chicken or fish.
Time to make: ~5 minutes
What you need:
- 1 shallot, minced
- olive oil as needed
- ½ cup white wine
- 2 tbsp. lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. capers
- 1 tbsp. parsley, minced
- 2 tbsp. cold butter
- After the meat has cooked, saute the shallot in the same pan, adding a little more olive oil, if necessary
- Add the wine and let bubble a couple of minutes
- Add the lemon juice, capers and parsley
- Whisk in the butter until it melts
- Pour over the chicken or fish and serve immediately