Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
What Is a "Piccata"?
What does "piccata" mean? Many people assume it's a derivative of piquant, a sharp, tangy flavor, a reference to the briny capers that give the dish its signature flavor. Actually, piccata is not the name of the dish—it's the method of preparing the food. Piccata means to "pound flat," and that's how the meat is prepared so that it cooks quickly.
Chicken piccata is an Italian dish, but you probably won't find it in Italy (unless you happen to find a restaurant that caters to American tastes). The piccata of Italia is made with veal.
The Story of Chicken Piccata
Between 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States; more than two million arrived in the decade between 1900 and 1910. The issues driving this exodus were poverty and political hardship.
Of course, there were social and cultural adjustments to be made, including adapting treasured family recipes. Veal is one of Italy's most popular meats—scallopini, saltimbocca, ossobuco, parmigiana, piccata—all of these are made with veal, the fork-tender, delicate meat of a calf less than one-year-old. But when Italians came to the United States, veal was unavailable, so savvy cooks substituted lean chicken breasts. The traditional veal piccata became chicken piccata.
The Main Ingredients
- Butter: For some of you, this might be a frightening word. Please don't be afraid; the chicken is heart-healthy, and you won't be using that much butter. Please use unsalted, especially since the capers come with a sizeable salty punch. Since you are using such a small amount, why not splurge and use European butter? It has so much more depth of flavor.
- Chicken: As I mentioned above, in Italy veal was readily available and incredibly inexpensive. When Italian immigrants came to this country, they found that veal was a rarity and an expensive one at that. So, they adapted their recipe for piccata to use chicken. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts cook as quickly as veal. Boneless thighs can be substituted; they take a few more minutes of cooking, but (in my humble opinion) they have more flavor and are not as likely to dry out if overcooked.
- Capers: What are those little green things? They're the size of peas, but that's where the similarity ends. Capers are flower buds—the immature, unripened, green flower buds of the Capparis spinosa or Capparis inermis. They grow in Italy, Spain, and Morocco. They are picked, dried in the sun, and then cured in vinegar, wine, or salt-and-water brine.
Carb Diva's Chicken Piccata
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
- Flour, for dredging (see note below for explanation)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
- 1/3 cup fresh parsley, minced
- Butterfly each chicken breast and then cut each piece in half. (Don't know how to butterfly—or even what that means? Don't worry; there's an easy-peasy video below.)
- Season chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge with flour and shake off the excess. You don't know how to dredge? Go to "What is Dredging?" below.
- Place 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Melt over medium-high heat. When butter and oil start to sizzle, add 2 pieces of chicken and cook for 3 minutes. When the chicken is browned, flip and cook the other side for 3 minutes. Remove and transfer to plate.
- Melt 2 more tablespoons of butter and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the butter and oil start to sizzle, add the other 2 pieces of chicken and brown both sides in the same manner as described above. Remove your pan from the heat and place the chicken on the plate.
- In the same pan add the lemon juice, broth, and capers. Return to the stove and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Taste for seasoning.
- Return all chicken to the pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove chicken to a platter. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to the sauce and whisk vigorously. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with parsley.
What Is Dredging?
Dredging means lightly coating a piece of food (in this case, a boneless, skinless chicken breast) with flour.
- Do not dredge the chicken and let it sit—the flour will become sticky and pasty. Dredge only when you are ready to cook.
- Do not allow a heavy coating of flour—gently pat the chicken pieces to remove the excess flour. You want a very light dusting of flour.
- And please throw away the flour that does not adhere to the chicken. Do not return it to your container of flour.
Creamy Lemon Chicken Piccata
Creamy chicken piccata is very much like the original recipe, but with a dash of heavy cream. Be sure to have some noodles, rice, or steamed potatoes on the side to capture every drop of that luscious sauce.
Instant Pot Chicken Piccata
Here's a piccata for busy weeknights or if you are looking for a slimmed-down version. Instant pot chicken piccata uses no butter, heavy cream, or cheese. The rapid cooking infuses the chicken with maximum flavor, but without the guilty calories. From start to finish, it takes only 15 minutes!
Provencal Piccata Roast Chicken Thighs
This roast chicken dish is a fusion of French and Italian flavors. Our piccata flavors of garlic and lemon are enhanced with French Dijon mustard and a splash of cognac. Chicken thighs are the best-tasting part of the bird; they roast in the oven, becoming fall-apart tender but remaining moist. Provencal piccata roast chicken thighs take just under an hour from start to finish.
Chicken Piccata Pasta
This meal makes six generous servings and is kid-friendly. Chicken piccata pasta marries the flavors of piccata with something all children love to eat—pasta. After cooking, the chicken is chopped into bite-sized pieces and mixed with the cooked pasta and simmered sauce. It's ready to eat in just 40 minutes.
Chicken Piccata Meatballs
Chicken piccata meatballs are a fun alternative to chicken cutlets. Tender, seared chicken meatballs roll around in a creamy, buttery lemon-garlic sauce speckled with capers and sprinkled with parsley to finish. The meatballs are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Vegan (Tofu) Un-Chicken Piccata
I have several dear friends (and an even more dear daughter) who are vegetarian or vegan. Whenever possible I find a compassionate version of the feature dish. This tofu un-chicken piccata looks amazing and has all of the signature flavors of our original dish. (And, the story that accompanies this recipe is incredibly touching.)
© 2021 Linda Lum