The Problem: With a short ingredient list of only chicken breasts and Parmesan cheese plus one or two adhesives such as eggs or flour, this recipe should be straightforward. But we found pale, wet, and gummy baked versions as well as bitter and burnt pan-fried versions.
The Goal: We wanted moist and tender chicken coated with a thin, crispy-yet-chewy, wafer-like sheath of Parmesan cheese.
The Solution: We found that we needed to use a pan-frying method to achieve a crisp crust, with a nonstick skillet to keep the crust from fusing to the bottom. To keep the cheese from burning, we used fairly thin (1/4-inch-thick) chicken cutlets that cook quickly. To create a substantial crust, we required both a base layer of equal parts flour and grated cheese and a top layer of just cheese. But the cheese in the base layer needed to be grated to a fine, powdery consistency to successfully combine with the flour, while the cheese for the bulkier outside layer needed to be a thicker, coarser shred. And just a tablespoon of flour added to the shredded cheese ensured a gap-free surface. The final challenge was timing—when the chicken was cooked to a deep, dark brown, it tasted burnt. But turning the heat down to medium once the cutlets were in the pan allowed the chicken and cheese to cook through without becoming bitter.
Two Ways to Cut the Parmesan: An ideal crust requires cheeses of two different textures. A base layer of finely grated Parmesan cut on the smallest holes of a box or Microplane grater is paired with an exterior layer of coarsely shredded Parmesan cut on the largest holes of a box grater.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (8 ounces each), tenderloins removed, breast trimmed of excess fat and halved horizontally
Table salt and ground black pepper
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (about ¼ cup) [see note above]
3 large egg whites
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives (optional)
6 ounce Parmesan cheese, shredded (about 2 cups) [see note above]
4 teaspoon olive oil
1 lemon, cut into wedges
1. Adjust over rack to middle position and heat oven to 200°F. Place chicken between sheets of plastic wrap and pound to even ¼-inch thickness. Pat dry with paper towels and season both sides with salt and pepper.
2. Set wire rack on rimmed baking sheet. Whisk together ¼ cup flour and grated Parmesan cheese in pie plate. In medium bowl, whisk egg whites and chives together until slightly foamy. In second pie plate, combine 2 cups shredded Parmesan and remaining tablespoon flour.
3. Using tongs and working with 1 cutlet at a time, coat chicken in flour mixture, shaking off excess. Transfer chicken to egg-white mixture; coat evenly and let excess run off. Coat chicken with shredded Parmesan mixture, pressing gently so that cheese adheres. Place on wire rack.
4. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Place 2 cutlets in skillet and reduce heat to medium. Cook until cheese is pale golden brown, about 3 minutes. While chicken is cooking, use thin nonstick spatula to gently separate any cheesy cutlets and continue to cook until cheese is pale golden brown on second side and meat is no longer pink in center, about 3 minutes. Transfer chicken to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet and keep warm in oven. Wipe out skillet with paper towel and return to medium heat. Add remaining 2 teaspoons oil and cook remaining 2 cutlets. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.