This classic, rustic Italian dish is one of my all-time favorites and a staple in the Girata Kitchen. Introduced to me by my wife, chicken piccata is an easy way to please the whole family. This dish is an excellent option for picky children and adults alike! Like many Italian dishes, the piccata sauce can be applied to any protein (Nicole’s favorite is veal). The preparation is the same, so just pick your favorite.
Total Time: 20 minutes Serves: 4
- 1 1/2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
- Juice from 2 lemons (plus the zest from one lemon)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 3 1/2 oz. capers
- All purpose flour for coating chicken
Begin this dish by prepping your chicken. I am a huge fan of tenderizing/pounding meat, especially chicken breasts. Any meat should (ideally) be the same thickness throughout so it will cook evenly. This is most important with poultry and pork because you can’t leave the center underdone, unless of course you don’t mind a little salmonella or trichinosis in your life. Blah.
Pounding any meat is completely simple. Just lay out the meat on a solid, non-porous surface (NOT a wood cutting board, please!!) with space between each piece to allow them to expand.
Although the classic preparation is to use full-size breasts, I opted for the chicken cutlets (the smaller sized pieces are great for the kids). I always use wax paper to pound the meat, although everyone else seems to use plastic wrap. I just have an issue with plastic being crushed into my food since who knows what’s being leached into the meat… blah, again. Just place a sheet of wax paper over the chicken and pound each piece with moderate pressure until the thick bits are as thin as the thin bits. TIP: Meat mallets often have two sides: one flat and one with small spikes. Always use the flat side with tender meats like chicken. The spikes are for tougher cuts like beef and lamb. After you pound them, you’ll get something like this:
Now sprinkle both sides of each piece with a healthy amount of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (yes, grind it fresh, it’s not that hard and tastes sooo much better!).
Now, leave them alone. Allowing them to come to room temperature (a few minutes, nothing unsanitary) will help them cook faster and keep them tender.
While the chicken is resting and soaking up all the good seasoning, time to prepare the ingredients for the piccata sauce. Begin by zesting one lemon. NOTE: This is not part of a classic piccata recipe, so feel free to leave it out if you’re (a) a cultural purist or (b) not in love with the tart bite of lemons.
Then juice two big, beautiful lemons. This is going to make your whole kitchen smell fantastic! TIP: Using a juicer for a couple little lemons is a lot of trouble. My method is to roll each lemon on the counter with a lot of pressure in order to break open the juice nodules inside. Them slice each lemon in half and squeeze them through your fingers directly into a measuring cup. The seeds will stay in your hand the juice will be ready and waiting for the other ingredients in the measuring cup. Less to clean!
Save a couple of the lemon halves to run through your sink’s disposal after you’ve done the dishes — the high acid content in the lemon rinds naturally clean and disinfect your disposal!
Add one cup of chicken stock to the lemon juice.
Now it’s time to add the best part of the whole dish — the capers! Capers could be considered the key component to transforming a lemon-butter sauce into a piccata sauce. If you’re not familiar with capers, this is your invitation to fall in love with them. Jarred capers are simply the berries of the caper bush that have been pickled. Their flavor is intense, with a salty, acidic punch that will make you want more and more and more…
Capers must be drained before adding them to your lemon juice and chick stock! The simplest way to drain them is to just pour out the pickling liquid through your fingers.
Pour those little gems right into the cup with the lemon juice and chicken stock. Yum!
At this point, get the biggest, heaviest saute pan you have and set it to medium-high heat. Add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and allow it to heat through.
After the oil has heated through, add 2 tablespoons of butter (save the other 2 tablespoons to be added after the chicken has been cooked). Here’s a picture of the butter, just because butter is beautiful…
Remember, you know the oil is hot when it “moves” across the pan quickly. TIP: Butter has a very low smoking point — which means it WILL burn if it get overheated. Once you’ve added the butter to the pan, be ready to add the chicken in just a couple minutes.
While the butter’s falling in love with the olive oil, the chicken needs a light coat of flour. I pour a bit of flour (a generous cup) onto a plate and lightly coat both sides of each piece of chicken.
This is a not a “dredge” like you would do for a deep-fry. This is simply to coat each piece of chicken. Why use flour at all, you ask? Because after the chicken has cooked through, we’ll make the piccata sauce with all the yummy brown bits left in the pan, and the flour plays a critical role in thickening the sauce. Without the light bit of flour, the sauce will remain too thin.
Gently place each piece into the pan and do not move them! When you first put them in the pan, they may stick, so leave them alone. After a couple minutes, they’ll brown on the bottom and won’t stick.
Allow the chicken to brown up for about 5 minutes, depending on their thickness. You want them to cook longer on the first side than the second. Once you think they’ve browned enough (check them with some tongs), give them a flip.
They should only need 2-3 minutes on the second side. If you’re like me, you’ve been raised to fear undercooked chicken to the point that most people cook the poor chicken to death. Don’t let fear lead you to such a disaster as dry, overcooked chicken! By giving them time to cook on the first side, you can be sure they’re cooked through without becoming dry.
After they’ve had a couple minutes on their second side, remove the chicken to a plate and allow them to rest (covering them with foil will keep them hot, but leaving them to sit is fine, too).
Once the chicken is removed, it’s time to the pan. Deglazing is simply adding any cool (or room temp) liquid to a hot pan. When the cool liquid hits the hot pan it immediately steams, allowing all the yummy brown bits on the bottom of the pan to release and mix into the sauce.
Pour the lemon juice-chicken stock-caper mixture into the pan. Be sure to have a spatula or wooden spoon ready to scrape all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan and to stir the sauce after you pour in the mixture.
Allow the sauce to come back to a boil and cook down for 3-5 minutes. Once the liquid has reduced and the sauce has thickened a bit, add the last 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan. Stir the butter to incorporate it into the sauce.
Once the butter has melted completely, the sauce is finished. I like to pour the sauce back into the measuring cup so I can pour it all over everything on my plate (like a Yankee gravy boat).
The classic presentation is to pour the finished sauce over the meat. I don’t care how it’s presented, so long as I have a ton of the yummy capers… mmm.
I typically serve this with a hearty vegetable and some kind of starch that you can use to mop up all the sauce. Tonight, we had some jasmine rice (the kids love it!) and the floral quality worked really well with the piccata sauce. Enjoy!
The only thing better than capers is more capers. I’ve always added them at the end, though. Next time I’ll put them in at the deglazing stage. Do you use a meat thermometer to check when the chicken is done or just eyeball it?
I agree — more capers! You may also try frying them separately in a bit of olive oil, rather than having them steam when you deglaze (I tried that and the flavor is different but wonderful!).
I don’t ever use a meat thermometer because I feel pretty comfortable reading the chicken itself. Although I do leave the breasts to cook on the first side almost twice as long as the second (about 6 min on the first, then 3-4 on the second). That seems to brown them well on both sides and cook them thoroughly without becoming too tough.
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