When I first noticed that we didn’t have a recipe for BA’s Best Chicken Parm, I nearly flipped. Sweating, sputtering, shocked, and confused, I immediately texted Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief of Bon Appétit (yes, my boss) to express my dismay at this gross absence in our repertoire. Developing this recipe was a matter of utmost urgency, I told him. Within seconds he was onboard, ready to tackle this beast with me. And thus, our long, arduous, chicken parm journey began.
Six weeks, 20 pounds of chicken (don’t worry, ALLLL of them were eaten), a bazillion micro-tests of different components, and no shortage of arguments later, we finally struck the perfect balance of crunchy fried chicken cutlet, rich tomato sauce, and ooey gooey cheese, and turned out what we think is a pretty flippin’ delish, home cook–friendly version of the classic.
Here’s how it all went down:
Naturally, it made sense to start here. We tested chicken breasts and thighs, pounding them to all sorts of precisely measured thicknesses. To each of those we applied a myriad of marinades (white wine, lemon juice, vinegar) and seasonings (garlic powder, onion powder, lemon zest, freshly grated garlic…) until we landed on the winning combination: Chicken breasts that get butterflied and pounded to ⅓-inch thick, before being bathed in a mixture of freshly grated garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. The lemon juice was clutch in tenderizing the chicken and keeping it from getting tough when cooked, all the while bringing some brightness and zippy, zingy flavor to a dish typically associated with anything but. As for the breasts, I’ll admit I was pretty into the thighs at first—dark meat is obviously superior! But Adam was right to stick with the classic. Just don’t tell him I said so.
In search of the crispiest crunchiest cutlet out there, we tested plain breadcrumbs, panko breadcrumbs, a mix of plain and panko breadcrumbs, and panko breadcrumbs that had been blitzed in a food processor until fine. We even tested a double dredge, for goodness sake! Ultimately, we landed on a classic three-part breading process of flour (salted, of course), beaten egg (doctored with garlic powder and onion powder for some extra Italian-American flava), and panko breadcrumbs, which held up the best under all the sauce and cheese. Just remember: You must take the time to really pat them on to the cutlet before frying or you’ll end up with some bare spots and nobody likes those!
This is when things got tense. The goal was to create a simple but bold sauce using canned tomatoes, but the number of routes we could take to get there felt limitless: Chunky and juicy or smooth and velvety? Crushed tomatoes or tomato puree? Both onions and garlic or just garlic alone? Fresh basil or dried oregano? Olive oil or butter? Etc. Etc. Etc. After 10 or so different sauces (a few of which featured “rustic chopped onions,” in Adam’s word) we went with a super smooth sauce made from pureed tomatoes (for texture), very finely minced onions (for natural sweetness and vegetal flavor), crushed garlic (for ease), a few tablespoons of tomato paste (for extra tomato-eyness), and a pinch of salt and sugar (for flavor!). We think it turned out quite nice.
Can you even call it chicken parm if you don’t get a good cheese pull? And for that, we knew we needed mozzarella on top of the already obvious parm. But then came the questions: Should we use low moisture or fresh mozz? Grate the cheeses or slice the cheeses? Combine and sprinkle the cheeses together, or add them separately for more of a layering effect? And most importantly, how much is too much? After many iterations we landed on a mixture of 2 parts mozzarella to 1 part Parmesan, both grated, and mixed together, before being generously, and I mean generously, showered over the crispy-crunchy cutlet. With one caveat: There MUST be some entirely un-sauced, un-cheesed edges of cutlet peaking out in order to maintain the proper ratio of crisp to soggy.