Schnitzel holds a very special place in my heart (and stomach). My grandmother used to make it often, and she was the master of schnitzels of all kinds. It was such a favorite that used to call me her “little schnitzel,” which I think spoke to how special this preparation was to her. If you like fried chicken, schnitzel is for you.
Schnitzel is a German-Austrian term which translates roughly to “slice” or “shave,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It’s described as a slice or “scallop” of veal or other light meat that is pounded, then dusted with flour, egg and bread crumbs and fried. Not a particularly evocative description, but most would agree it’s damned delicious and easy to do.
In Germany, there are many variations that you’ll find in restaurants and homes. Wiener-Schnitzel is usually made with veal. The “Wiener” designation refers to its supposed origin in Vienna in Austria (though there is some dispute about this). Schweine-Schnitzel is made with pork or pork tenderloin, Puten-Schnitzel uses turkey breast and Hähnchen-Schnitzel is made from boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs.
In addition to different types of meat, a schnitzel can also be served with a topping or filling.
Some of the more traditional combinations include Jäger-Schnitzel, veal or pork schnitzel topped with a mushroom sauce; Zigeuner-Schnitzel, schnitzel with a “gypsy sauce” topping of paprika/bell peppers/onions; Käse -Schnitzel, any of the meat schnitzels topped with melted cheese; Schnitzel Holstein, a schnitzel topped with fried egg, onions and capers (a specialty of Berlin); and Cordon Bleu, a meat schnitzel from Switzerland that is stuffed with ham and Gruyère.
The schnitzel approach is not uniquely German. Other cuisines have developed their own variations on the theme, including the Italians, who call it scallopini, picatta or Milanese; the Japanese, who make the deep-fried pork cutlet known as tonkatsu; and the American Southwest, where German immigrants developed chicken fried steak in the mid-1800s because veal was too expensive.
This may be way more than you want to know, but I find recipe similarities fascinating as they morph and move around the world.
The method for making schnitzel is straightforward.
First, the meat is gently pounded between sheets of plastic wrap. This is done to achieve an even thickness (usually 1/4 inch or so) for even cooking and to tenderize the meat.
Use the flat side of your meat pounder to avoid tearing. If you don’t have a meat pounder, a rolling pin or even a heavy bottomed sauce pan works just fine.
The schnitzel then uses the classic 3-step breading process taught to every culinary student. It’s dusted in seasoned flour, takes a quick swim in beaten eggs and then gets coated with fine bread crumbs. Remember not to press the bread crumbs onto the meat, which can make for a clunky coating. You want the coating to be light and fluffy.
You can use either dried or fresh bread crumbs. Panko works fine, but I find it can be a little coarse. A quick roll under a rolling pin solves this. You’ll need 3 flat bowls for the breading ingredients.
Schnitzel can be made ready for frying a couple of hours ahead. Coat it according to the instructions above and then place on a rack uncovered and refrigerate.