Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
You Can Thank an Englishman
The history of chicken marsala begins as the result of a near shipwreck. If not for a storm-tossed sailor the world might never have learned of marsala.
Our story begins with the aborted voyage of a merchant named John Woodhouse. In 1773, Mr. Woodhouse set sail from Liverpool, England; his destination was the port of Mazara del Vallo where he hoped to load his brig with soda ash (an industrial compound used for cleaning). Fortunately for us, a storm forced an unscheduled landing at the port of Marsala.
At that time, Marsala was famous for its many inns. Mr. Woodhouse took advantage of this happy misfortune and sampled the best that the tavern owners had to offer. It was heady, rich, nutty, and reminiscent of fine sherry and port. No longer interested in shipping soda ash, he purchased 50 barrels of the beverage (each one was 400 liters). He feared that the wine might not endure the long voyage so further fortified each barrel with wine brandy. And by that one simple act, the drink we know as marsala was born.
There are times when buying a value-sized package of chicken parts (let's say that you are making fried or barbecued chicken for a large backyard gathering) is perfectly acceptable.
This is not one of those times.
If you are making chicken marsala, you are creating a meaningful meal for someone you love—the expense for perfect, blemish-free mushrooms and a bottle of dry marsala wine demands an organic, hand-trimmed lovely chicken breast. Spend the few dollars more.
You won't be cooking those breasts as is; they need to be split horizontally into thin cutlets so that they will cook quickly without drying out. If you've never done this before, don't fret. My friend Kenji has produced a video to show you exactly how to do it.
Cremini mushrooms (sometimes labeled as baby bellas) are the mushroom of choice for this dish. You don't want to use an exotic (such as oyster or chanterelle) because they have their own unique flavors and textures and, as such, should be allowed to take center stage.
If you cannot find cremini, white button mushrooms will work, but I prefer the earthy flavor of the cremini.
Today, this is the star of the show, the shining light. Please, I beg you, do not purchase a bottle of "cooking marsala." You will find this abomination on the same shelf as apple cider vinegar and canola oil. Cooking wines are cheap, full of preservatives, and riddled with salt. Nasty stuff!
However, you don't have to spend a day's wages either. I drinkable marsala can be had for around $10. (By the way, choose the bottle that is labeled "dry," not "sweet.")
I made this dish for my husband's birthday. Because I wanted an over-the-top meal, of course, I scoured the internet for the absolute best chicken marsala. The video by Tasty caught my eye—it seemed amazing, and just the way I wanted my hubby's birthday meal to look.
But, when I watched it a second time I noticed a few steps or techniques that could be improved upon to make this even better. I tweaked the instructions for my own use, but then I read the comments. Here is a sampling:
- The flavor of alcohol from the marsala wine was too strong in this dish for me. If I made it again I would use half of the wine the recipe called for. I also agree with another reviewer that recommended corn starch to thicken the sauce. Mine can out very watery and thin. The dish was okay but the recipe needs adjustments.
- I added cornstarch to thicken the sauce and would use a little less lemon juice.
- Do not add more marsala wine if you are doubling this recipe! Mine came out sour and odd tasting. There's nothing like cooking and then hating the taste of your own food.
- I tripled the recipe and only added 1 1/2 cups of the wine and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. I also added red bell peppers and onion to the mushrooms. To thicken, I added a can of cream of chicken soup after the wine cooked off and seasoned my linguine with garlic powder, pepper, a little butter, and olive oil. It turned out great.
I recognize that some of the problems stem from a lack of cooking skill; you need to let that wine reduce really well (patience is a virtue), but cream of chicken soup? It was then that I sighed, hit the "delete" button, and set out to totally revamp the recipe.
Here are the changes and why I made them:
- Two cups of marsala were changed to part marsala and part broth so that there would be enough cooking liquid without the dish tasting too "boozy."
- Reconstituted porcini mushrooms were added for extra umami flavor.
- Unflavored gelatin added to the simmering liquid to substitute for the bone-rich stocks that are typically available in a restaurant (but not home) kitchen.
- I reduced the amount of sliced mushrooms because of the added porcini.
- The amount of garlic increased (because garlic is amazing).
- Added dry thyme for flavor.
- Reduced the amount of lemon (you only need a tiny splash if you use dry marsala).
- Increased the amount of butter and added it off-heat so that it would emulsify, not melt.
The following recipe is my adaptation of the Tasty presentation. I relied on the good advice of the website Serious Eats for much of my inspiration.
- 3/4 cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms
- 1 packet (2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
- 1 1/4 cups dry marsala wine
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 chicken cutlets (1 chicken breast, split in half horizontally and pounded thin, see above video)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
Yield: 2 servings
- Place the chicken stock in a microwave-safe container (a liquid measuring cup is perfect for this) and heat for 1 minute in the microwave.
- Stir the dried mushrooms into the warmed stock and set aside for 30 minutes to steep and cool. Strain the stock, and add it to the marsala. Squeeze as much liquid as possible from the mushrooms (it contains so much yummy umami flavor). Finely chop the now reconstituted mushrooms and set aside.
- Combine marsala and stock in a liquid measuring cup. Sprinkle the gelatin on top and set aside.
- Place olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.
- Season prepared chicken with salt and pepper and then dredge with flour, shaking off excess.
- Add chicken to pan and cook, turning once, until browned, about 3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and set aside. At this point, the chicken should be cooked through because it is only 1/4-inch thick.
- Add the fresh mushrooms to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until they have released their juices and are well browned, about 10 minutes.
- Add garlic, thyme, and porcini mushrooms to the pan and cook for about 1 minute more. Add more oil if needed and don't let the garlic burn!
- Give the marsala/stock/gelatin mixture a gentle whisk to combine and then pour into the pan with the mushrooms. Bring to a boil, whisking to loosen any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.
- Allow the liquid in the pan to reduce by to about 3/4 cup (yes, that's a lot).
- Remove from heat and whisk in butter. Taste sauce for seasoning; add lemon juice as needed.
- Return chicken to pan and return pan to heat. Simmer over low until chicken is heated through. Garnish with parsley and serve.
© 2019 Linda Lum