Breaded and pan fried food seems overly complicated. Who hasn't been frustrated by black on the outside, undercooked on the inside chicken? Or soggy, oily breading? Do I sound like I've been there? I'm here to tell you it can definitely turn you off to attempting this culinary adventure. Yes, it is easy to mess this up, but let's walk through the process together and highlight the things that lead to these cooking mishaps.
So to start with, you set up what the culinary industry calls a standard breading station. That's a fancy name for three shallow containers. Into container number one (which doesn't actually have to be a "container" but can be a piece of wax paper or a large dinner plate) goes a sufficient amount of regular all purpose flour to coat all your meat pieces. Now add a shake of coarse black pepper and several pinches of kosher salt. Mix it all thoroughly and give it a taste. I know, it's flour, but just a tiny taste will help you ensure your seasoning is actually noticeable. I'm not talking a spoonful here.
Moving on to shallow container number two....for this one you do actually need a container. I suggest a pie plate. Or if you are making a really big batch, a small casserole dish. Whisk up a couple eggs until they are a little frothy. You can stretch the eggs a little by adding some cold water or milk if you feel like you need more liquid.
Shallow container number three can also be a piece of wax paper or a plate but it will be much easier if you use something with sides, like a small casserole dish. Into container number three goes a large amount of breadcrumbs. For "breadcrumbs" you can use the pre-made kind from the supermarket, plain panko (which is my favorite), or even crushed crackers or cornflakes (toss them in a plastic bag and bash them with a rolling pin or give them a whirl in your food processor). I add some minced parsley (because its pretty) and sometimes some finely grated parmesan (this adds saltiness and ensures your breading is going to be delightfully crunchy). Other times I shake in a good amount of paprika or pepper. You can get creative with your add ins. Just give it a taste before you start using it on something. Mix it all up so the add ins are distributed evenly.
And there you have it! An honest-to-goodness "breading station". Aren't you feeling "chef-y" now? Have a clean baking sheet or plate ready at the end of your station so you have a place to put your breaded beauties.
Let's talk a few minutes about what you are breading. You can use this process with chicken, fish, pork, veal, vegetables, the list goes on. Each of these behaves a little differently when pan fried. Some cook faster, some cook slower, some are unevenly sized. I suggest you use thin boneless cuts of chicken today and see how they are done, then move on to other choices next time. I used some chicken tenders my daughter brought home from college when social isolation began and some boneless, skinless thighs because my hubby prefers dark meat. For greater chance of success, it is important to get the pieces uniformly thin. I put them in a plastic bag, sealed them up, and pounded them with a smooth meat mallet. Before my mother-in-law gave me the mallet, I used a rolling pin. I definitely like the mallet -- thanks, mom!
Now it's time to get breading. To make your breading life easier, you are going to now designate one of your hands "Dry Hand" and the other will henceforth be known as "Wet Hand". Trust me, this makes life easier.
Here's the game plan:
1) Wet Hand - picks up a piece of chicken and drags it through the flour.
2) Dry Hand - tosses a little flour on the spots where it doesn't stick. The chicken should be completely but lightly coated. Shake off any excess.
3) Wet Hand - transfers the chicken to the egg station and Dry Hand socially distances and stays the heck away. Get both sides of the piece wet and allow the excess to drip off.
4) Wet hand - brings the chicken over to the breadcrumb dish.
5) Dry Hand - springs into action making sure that puppy is nicely and thoroughly coated with a good layer of breadcrumbs.
5) Wet Hand's last act is to transfer the breaded piece to the waiting tray/plate.
Wash your hands thoroughly as you have been touching raw poultry, and get out a deep frying pan and some canola, corn, or vegetable oil. These oils have a higher smoke point than the ever popular extra virgin olive oil and will heat to a higher temperature before burning. You'll want to heat your pan over medium heat and then add a layer of oil. You will need enough oil to come halfway up the sides of your chicken pieces when they are in the pan.
When you can feel the heat coming off the pan as your hand is held over it, it is ready. Not letting the oil heat first is where you will see soggy breading in your results. On the other hand, you don't want to see smoke. If you see smoke, the oil is too hot (this is where you get black outside/undercooked inside). Using tongs, carefully place the chicken pieces in the pan. They should not be touching. You've probably heard people say "don't crowd the pan". This just means make sure there is ample space around your breaded pieces. When you add too many pieces at once, the temperature of the oil goes down and your food doesn't cook quickly enough. You may have to adjust your burner temperature to keep the oil sizzling around that cold chicken.
Once you have a few pieces frying, leave them be. When you see the breading begin to brown around the sides, you can test one and see if it lifts up from the bottom. You may need to use a metal spatula to help it release a little (especially if you used parmesan in your breading) but you shouldn't have to pry it off the bottom. If the breading is a nice brown color, you can flip all the pieces over. Let them fry a little longer and then check the temperature with a meat thermometer. You want your chicken to reach 165 degrees. Remove it from the oil and place it on a rack or a layer of paper towel, then fry up your next batch.
And that's it. You have crispy, crunchy chicken fingers. And you know what, it gets easier each time you do it.