Chicken parmesan is classic comfort food. The decadent mix of crispy crumbs, tender chicken, savoury sauce and creamy cheese is a favourite of kids and adults alike. And it’s surprisingly easy to make at home.
Because it’s so popular, there are several different ways to make it, and hundred of recipes to show you how. To help you choose a recipe or an approach that suits you the best, I’ve gone through nineteen recipes for chicken parmesan. I’ve figured out what’s popular, and what’s not, to capture the essence of this weeknight favourite.
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What is chicken parmesan?
If you haven’t come across chicken parm before, you’re about to make a joyous discovery!
Chicken parmesan, also known as chicken parmigiana, chicken parm, or simply parmi or parma, is a dish of breaded/crumbed chicken topped with marinara tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. And if you are now drooling, I completely understand.
Is it Italian?
At the risk of starting a fervent debate in the comments, I’ll touch on this only because I know it’s a common question.
Is chicken parmesan Italian? It depends.
If by Italian you mean is it an authentic Italian dish, served in homes or restaurants in Italy, then the answer is no. You won’t find a chicken parmesan in Italy. And if you don’t believe me, have a scroll through the comments on the recipes below. More than one Italian strenuously objects to the idea this is an Italian dish. The Italians are very passionate about their food. Justifiably so too.
If however by Italian you mean it’s based on Italian flavours, or is a New World take on traditional Italian cooking, then yes, it’s Italian. Marinara sauce, parmesan cheese and mozzarella are definitively Italian. Chicken parmesan is likely based on a few true Italian dishes, like melanzane alla parmigiana (an eggplant/aubergine, marinara/tomato sauce and cheese dish) and cotoletta di pollo (breaded/crumbed fried chicken).
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter! It’s delicious, and straightforward to make at home.
What do you need?
The main ingredients in chicken parmesan are relatively simple:
- Chicken breast
- Parmesan and mozzarella cheese
- Marinara sauce
All nineteen recipes are made with boneless chicken breasts.
Most of the authors recommend either choosing thin breasts, or cutting thicker ones in half lengthwise into two thin slices. This way the chicken cooks more quickly, which is great when the aromas from the pan or oven are calling to you. It also means you’re less likely to overcook your crumbs while waiting for the chicken to cook through. This will be especially true if you are frying it.
A number of the authors also recommend tenderising your chicken by pounding it with a meat mallet or other heavy object. Tenderising the meat doesn’t only break down the muscle fibres, making the meat more tender to eat. It also helps ensure the breasts are a consistent thickness and therefore cook more evenly. If you don’t have a meat mallet, I find an empty wine bottle can work very well. Plus it doesn’t need to be washed up. Not that I need any incentive to empty a wine bottle…
What about chicken thighs?
A few authors advise their recipes could be made with chicken thighs, but recommend pounding them to an even thickness and allowing a little more time to cook.
The breading/crumbing is what gives chicken parmesan its trademark crispiness. And for this dish it’s almost unanimously a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated parmesan cheese.
Panko breadcrumbs are the favourite, used on their own in nine recipes and together with Italian breadcrumbs (regular breadcrumbs pre-mixed with Italian seasoning) in another two.
Panko are popular because they stay drier than traditional breadcrumbs, absorbing less oil or moisture. This gives a crispier finish whether you bake or fry your chicken.
Not everyone agrees though. Tammy from Organize Yourself Skinny stays away from them because she finds they don’t coat the chicken as thoroughly and tend to fall off during cooking. With their large grain size it’s easy to see how this could be a problem, but as mentioned above, the majority of the authors don’t find this to be a problem.
Low carb options
If you’re looking to cut back on carbs, two of the recipes, from Taryn at Joy Filled Eats and Maike at Cheerful Cook, don’t use any breadcrumbs, instead simply coating the chicken in grated parmesan. A third, from Kay at Curbing Carbs, replaces the breadcrumbs with almond flour.
As Nagi at Recipe Tin Eats mentions, cooked parmesan becomes beautifully crispy, so including some in your crumb mixture will help achieve a great texture.
The recipes vary quite a bit in how much parmesan is in the breading mix. They range from no parmesan (only breadcrumbs), to no breadcrumbs (only parmesan) and everything in between. On average though, two to three parts breadcrumbs to one part parmesan is the most popular. A common mix is one or one-and-a-half cups of breadcrumbs plus half-a-cup of grated parmesan.
To help it stick to the chicken, your best bet is finely grated parmesan rather than shredded or coarsely grated.
Seventeen recipes include herbs and spices or pre-bought Italian seasoning, either added separately or included in Italian breadcrumbs. This seasoning typically includes dried herbs such as oregano, basil and thyme, and possibly dried garlic, onion and/or red pepper.
If you haven’t come across the term before, marinara sauce is a simple cooked tomato sauce flavoured with garlic, onion and herbs. It’s the base for many dishes, but is also used alone as a simple pasta sauce.
The marinara sauce is the most important flavour ingredient in a chicken parmesan. And for this reason, it’s important to use a really tasty one, rather than a basic or simple one. Taryn from Joy Filled Eats agrees:
“Use a delicious marinara sauce. Marinara sauce is not all the same. In a simple dish like this, you can really taste the difference between homemade and store-bought and between cheap store-bought sauce and quality sauce. Since you only need a little bit this is a time to splurge on the good stuff.”
Nine of the recipes either include directions for or links to homemade marinara sauce. If you have the time this is definitely worth the effort. But for a quick and easy meal, pick a good bottle of sauce.
Eighteen of the recipes use mozzarella on top of their chicken parmesan, with one recipe, from Valentina at Valentina’s Corner, instead using provolone. And amongst those using mozzarella, six include some parmesan in the topping mix as well.
Most of the authors advise you to use whole milk rather than lighter cheeses. This will ensure a rich, creamy finish to your topping.
While most recipes use grated cheese for the topping, several recommend slices, either store-bought or cut from a whole piece of cheese.
Preparing your chicken
Breading or crumbing chicken may seem like a fairly straightforward process, but there’s a surprising amount of variation in how the authors tackle it.
Ten of the recipes use a typical three-step process:
- Dredge the chicken in flour.
- Dunk the floured chicken in beaten egg.
- Dip/press the chicken into the breadcrumb mixture.
If you don’t want to use flour, that’s no problem, because the other nine authors don’t find the flour necessary. And amongst them, Sara from Dinner at the Zoo uses melted butter instead of egg, and Tammy from Organize Yourself Skinny doesn’t use egg or flour. So if you need to avoid eggs, you have a couple of options to try.
If you are using an egg dip, there are a few interesting variations to consider here too:
- Three authors add a bit of powdered or crushed garlic to their beaten eggs for an additional layer of flavour.
- Two add a bit of milk (one plain milk and one buttermilk).
- Two authors allow their chicken to marinate in the egg mixture for at least fifteen minutes but up to overnight. If you’re interested in giving this a try, check out Karina’s recipe on Café Delites or Karen’s on The Food Charlatan. The links to all the recipes are included at the bottom of the page.
Cooking your chicken parmesan
For a relatively simple dish, summarising the different approaches the authors take was harder than I expected. Amongst the nineteen recipes, there are many different cooking methods used:
- Oven bake the chicken until it is fully cooked, then add the toppings and bake again briefly.
- Oven bake the chicken until it is mostly cooked, then add the toppings and bake again for a bit longer than the previous method.
- Fry the chicken to brown it, the add the toppings and bake until it is fully cooked.
- Fry the chicken to brown it, then bake it until it’s fully cooked, then add the toppings and bake it again briefly.
- Oven bake the chicken until it is fully cooked, then add the toppings and broil/grill briefly.
- Fry the chicken until it is fully cooked, then add the toppings and broil/grill briefly.
Phew! And within these, there is a lot of variation in cooking times and oven temperatures.
Amongst all these options though there are two fundamental approaches.
Fried chicken parmesan
Thirteen of the nineteen authors fry their breaded/crumbed chicken before baking it in the oven or broiling/grilling it.
Most of these authors fry their chicken in a small amount of oil (two tablespoons to a quarter-cup) for an average of about two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minutes per side. This will not only brown the crumbs beautifully, but will go a long way towards cooking the chicken through. And if you pound your breasts until they’re really thin, it may even be enough to completely cook them.
Many of the authors advise a gentle touch when turning and generally handling your breaded/crumbed chicken, before, during and after frying. The coating is fragile and can tear or break off easily.
And after frying, several recommend draining the cooked chicken on an oven rack rather than sitting on paper towel. This allows the oil to drip away and air to circulate around the whole thing.
The oven temperatures vary from 350°F/175°C to 450°F/ 230°C, but the average is about 400°F/200°C. The recommended time in the oven varies dramatically, from as little as ten minutes to as much as half an hour. On average the recipes recommend about twenty minutes.
Broiling/grilling only works if you’ve completely cooked the chicken when you fried it. A couple of authors take this approach, but you’ll need to fry your chicken for a bit more time. If it’s still a little underdone, you’ll need to oven-bake it with the sauce and cheese on it to finish cooking it through.
Oven-baked chicken parmesan
The other six authors bake their chicken in the oven. Not only is this approach easier, done all on one tray or dish, it’s healthier too, completely avoiding the need for frying in oil. And with the right technique, these authors would certainly argue you can still get a nice crispy coating in the oven.
All of these recipes have two stages:
- The breaded/crumbed chicken is baked on it’s own first to brown the coating and begin to or fully cook the meat.
- Then the sauce and cheese are added, and the completed dish is either baked again, or broiled for a short period of time.
There’s very little variation in oven temperature amongst these recipes, with 400°F/200°C favoured on average.
Cooking times for the first stage vary from fifteen to thirty minutes. For the second stage, the oven-baked ones vary from two to fifteen minutes, while the others are broiled for between one and four minutes.
Like the fried approach, broiling/grilling only works if you’ve completely cooked the chicken before you add the sauce and cheese. If it’s still a little underdone, you’ll need to oven-bake it with the toppings on it.
Measuring internal temperature
All of the cooking times mentioned above should, as always, only be used as a guide for your planning. This is not just because there’s so much variation amongst the recipes. The thickness of your chicken, the heat of your frying pan, the accuracy of your oven and more will all change how long your chicken will take compared to the author’s. Your best bet is to start checking the chicken about ten or so minutes from the expected finish time, and the best way to do this is with a meat thermometer.
If you haven’t come across one before, I have a description of meat thermometers and how to use them in my glossary. They’re inexpensive, easy to use and helpful with many other dishes. Once you’ve used one you’ll never go back.
For a dish like this you want an instant-read thermometer, which will very quickly measure the temperature of the meat once the probe is inserted. I use this digital fast-reading meat thermometer, and it works brilliantly, giving me the exact internal temperature in about five seconds.
Three of the authors offer suggested internal temperatures, one at 160°F/71°C and two at 165°F/74°C. The latter is the same as the US Department of Agriculture recommendation for cooked poultry.
Avoiding a soggy crumb coating
There’s obviously an element of personal taste here, but I think most people would agree that a hallmark of a great chicken parm is a crispy, crunchy coating on the chicken. Amongst these recipes, and some comments from their readers, there are several tips to consider if you’re in pursuit of the crispiest possible coating:
- Panko breadcrumbs absorb less oil and moisture than normal breadcrumbs, meaning your coating is less likely to go soggy.
- It’s hard to ignore the benefit of the high, direct heat of frying your chicken in oil. Deep-frying may be the gold standard, but shallow-frying can still create a beautifully crisp coating with much less oil.
- If you’re keen on the healthier oven-baked approach, one reader goes a step further to ensure a crispy finish. After baking her chicken, she broils/grills it to thoroughly crisp and brown the crumbs, before adding the toppings and broiling again.
- While the marinara sauce is a key component, it is also the enemy of a crispy coating on your chicken. A number of authors caution against adding too much sauce to your chicken because wherever there’s sauce, the crumbs will quickly become soft and wet.
- If you’re not sitting your chicken in sauce, the edges of the meat have the opportunity to stay beautifully crisp. This effect can be further enhanced by baking it on a baking sheet/tray rather than in a casserole dish. This allows better dry air circulation around the edges, especially in a convection/fan-forced oven. Spacing the pieces out on the pan will help with this too.
- The consistency of your sauce is also important. Too runny and it will wet the crumbs more. And as Sabrina from Dinner then Dessert points out, time in the oven also allows the sauce to dry out a little.
The essence of chicken parmesan
If you’re looking to make a crispy-coated chicken parmesan, the following approach will have you on the right track:
- Cut your chicken breasts thin, or pound them thinner, or both
- When breading/crumbing your chicken, a dip in beaten egg is definitely recommended to help it bind, but a flour layer is up to you.
- Coat the chicken pieces in a mixture of two-to-three parts panko breadcrumbs to one part grated parmesan cheese. Shallow fry your breaded chicken for two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minutes, then drain it briefly on an oven rack.
- Place the chicken on a baking sheet/tray and top with homemade marinara/tomato sauce and grated mozzarella cheese. Your crumb coating will thank you if you go easy on the sauce too.
- Bake in a 400°F/200°C oven for about twenty minutes.
To make sure your chicken stays nice and tender, after frying and a couple of times during baking, check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. If you can, don’t let it go past 165°F/74°C.
And if you’re looking for an extra-decadent chicken parm, try Stephanie’s mozzarella-stuffed version on The Cozy Cook.
So there you have it – the essence of chicken parmesan. Hopefully this has helped you to choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.