Chicken Marsala has many cross-cultural roots. It is very easy to make and simply delicious,
Chicken Marsala, a simple-to-prepare dish of chicken and mushrooms, gets its name from the wine that is the base for the sauce. The wine comes from the region surrounding the town of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily. It is a fortified wine meaning its alcohol content is raised to 15 to 20 percent by addition of brandy or some other distilled spirit. Typically, the wine is made from white grapes grown in western Sicily. The color of the wine (golden to darker amber) is created by a unique process. After the initial pressing of the wine, the remaining pulp, skins, seed and stems are ground and cooked for a day or more to create Mosto Cotto which is then also added to the wine, making the color darker and adding more complexity to the taste. When strained, Mosto Cotto is a sweet amber syrup that is used in a variety of ways by Italians. It can be spooned onto desserts or sharp cheeses, it's an ingredient in some cookie recipes, used for cooking meats, added to plain water for a refreshing drink, and last but not least, fermented and aged, it magically transforms into balsamic vinegar.
Marsala wine ranges from dry to sweet. Its quality is mostly determined by how long it is aged; the very finest (labeled virgin stravecchio) is aged 10 or more years. The sweeter ones are enjoyed as apéritif or dessert wines while the dryer ones are more favored for cooking (but either can be consumed directly or cooked with). Other cross-cultural influences have contributed to both the wine itself and the dish. The English trader John Woodhouse visited Sicily in 1773 and became so enamored with the wine, both for its unique taste but also because its fortification ensured its taste was preserved even after months at sea. Woodhouse found liquid gold in the English market, and some twenty three years later he moved to Sicily and started consolidation of the wine production with an eye towards mass-production. Supposedly, he enjoyed the wine to such excess that he would get drunk, strip off his clothes and run naked through vineyards. Another Englishman, Benjamin Ingham opened up sizable markets for the wine in the Americas and Europe in the early 1800s. However, in 1833 a wealthy Sicilian from Palermo, Vincenzo Florio, who made his fortune in tuna fishing and canning (and many other entrepreneurial projects including banking, insurance and sulfur) started buying up as many of the Marsala wineries as he could, eventually purchasing the Woodhouse holdings. In the late 1880s a Sicilian notary and lover of Marsala wine established winery operations that grew ever larger. Today, the Florio and Pelligrino families are the leading producers of Marsala wine.
There is a French connection as well. The daughter of the empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Maria Carolina (Marie Antoinette's sister) married Ferdinand IV, the king of Naples and Sicily in 1768. Although in most matter she was decidedly anti-French and pro-English, the exception was French cooking, and she hired many French chefs prompting many local elites to follow suit. These French chefs, who came to be known as Monzu (A Sicilian transformation of the French monsieur), brought with them a penchant for cooking with wine, butter and mushrooms and also creating a wide variety non-tomato base sauces.
Although several websites claim (without citing sources) that Chicken Marsala is an Italian-America creation, it is basically the same dish (albeit using chicken) as Veal Marsala, which is ubiquitous in Italy. Both dishes are variations of a wider category of dishes known as scallopini which translates to "small scallop" and refers to meats such beef, chicken or veal that is thinly sliced, dredged in flour, fried and then served with a some sort of "reduction" (in other words, boiled down) sauce using a variety of ingredients such as lemon juice, capers, wine, mushrooms, or tomatoes (and seemingly every combination of these ingredients possible).
- Chicken Marsala is most typically made with chicken breasts that are sliced thin and slightly pounded to be around 1/4" thick. Nearly all recipes call for lightly (shake the cutlets off after dredging in flour) breaded chicken that is then lightly fried. A few recipes call for frying the breasts without breading. So I experimented. I took three cutlets of similar size and thickness. I breaded one, and one I fried without breading. Borrowing a technique from Chinese cooking, I "velveted" the third piece. Velveting is accomplished by mixing cornstarch with either water or oil and then coating the meat you are using before frying. It's the reason the meats in Chinese cooking are so tender. It does not impart any new flavor; the secret is not using too much cornstarch. I used 2 teaspoons of corn starch in 1/4 cup of water. After I moistened the cutlets in the cornstarch and water bath (you have to frequently stir the mix as the cornstarch will separate and settle), I dredged them in flour. The results of my experiment were that the unfloured cutlets were firm but not entirely dried-out (ok), the cutlet that was only breaded and fried were more tender and juicer (good) and the velveted and floured cutlets were absolutely delicious, tender and juicy. It is possible that velveting will also allow you to cook chicken that is uneven in thickness without some sections being overcooked or others under-cooked .
- The sauce should be somewhat thick. All recipes call for reducing the wine-chicken stock to concentrate the flavors and thicken it. I believe (again after some experimentation) that this would only work if you used an enormous amount of wine and chicken stock. If you used the amounts suggested in these recipes, it will not thicken. Other recipes call for the use of gelatin, some suggest heavy cream (the Olive Garden) and others more heavily flour their cutlets so that the flour acts as a thickener. I'm not much a fan of any of these methods. You have to use a lot of gelatin which means forget about re-heating leftovers. I used 1 tablespoon of gelatin to the reduction, and the sauce was not very thick or appealing. Cream not only gives the dish a different flavor and color to the dish, it also is not very good at thickening the sauce. Using flour creates a gravy that not only thickens but tastes "thick". On the 2nd attempt at making the sauce, I used cornstarch, and it worked just fine. The flavors of the sauce remained bright, and the sauce was properly thick and had a good mouth feel.
- Choice of wine. Most recipes call for using dry Marsala wine. I tried sweet, and the sweetness was, according to my tastes, overpowering. No one recommends using "cooking Marsala" which is heavily salted (so kids don't drink it) and apparently is much lower quality. I used Colombo Dry Marsala wine; it was perfectly fine.
- Aromatics. Many recipes call for only salt and pepper. Others variously call for the addition of fresh thyme, dried or fresh oregano, dried or fresh sage or some combination of these. I used fresh chopped oregano, which in the amounts I used, did not make the sauce bitter. It is wise to use Italian (flat leaf), not French (curly leaf), as the latter can be overpowering.
- In some recipes, fried prosciutto or small-cubed pancetta are used. I didn't try this, but it sounds good!
- 4 chicken breasts, sliced and pounded to 1/4" thin
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 pound Cremini or button mushrooms sliced thick
- 2 garlic cloves crushed (pressed)
- 2 medium size shallots chopped fine(optional)
- 12 ounces dry Marsala wine
- 14 ounces chicken stock (divided)
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano(Optional)
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped Italian leaf parsley
- cooking oil (for this recipe high-temp oil; peanut, avocado, canola, light olive oil might work better)
- half stick of butter (slice cold into pats)
- Begin by slicing the chicken breasts. The size of chicken breasts varies widely, so no specific directions are useful. I purchased rather large breasts, and I cut the "tail" off which I sliced in half with a knife parallel to the cutting board. I cut the larger part into three using the same procedure.
- One at a time, place the sliced chicken in a zip-lock bag (you can use plastic wrap, but I find that messier). Pound each piece until it is 1/4 inch thick.
- Spread 1 cup of flour on a plate. Employing a tried-and-true method, I add salt and pepper to the flour.
- In a shallow vessel wider than the biggest chicken cutlet, add 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in 3/4 cup of water and mix.
- Add cooking oil to a frying pan (cast iron works best), enough to generously cover the bottom of the pan. You may have to add more later as you will be cooking the chicken in batches.
- Heat the oil on medium until the oil begins to simmer. Too high a heat, the flour will eventually burn, and too low, browning will take too long and dry out the chicken.
- Re-mix the cornstarch and water and then thoroughly wet both sides of the cutlet.
- Dredge the wet cutlet in the flour, shaking off any excess.
- Lightly brown the cutlets on both sides, adding additional oil if needed.
- Work in batches, setting aside cooked piece on a plate (note for this, you don't need a cooking rack as you are going for "crispy."
- After the chicken is all cooked, add the shallots to the pan and cook for 1 minute (constantly turning).
- Add the garlic and fry for 1 additional minute, then scoop out the garlic and shallots and place on a small plate (or on top of the chicken)
- Add more oil to the pan and turn to medium high.
- When the oil begins to shimmer, add all the sliced mushrooms.
- Stir the mushrooms constantly. Using a higher heat, you should be able to brown the mushrooms and not lose all their moisture.
- When all the mushrooms are lightly browned, add 12 ounces of wine and 12 ounces of chicken stock to the pan.
- Adjust the heat so you get a good simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
- Toward the end of this time, add the fresh oregano.
- Mix 2 ounces of chicken stock to 1 tablespoon of cornstarch and stir the mixture into the sauce.
- Stir in the chopped parsley.
- Add the chicken, making sure all the pieces are covered with sauce and cook for another 2 minutes to bring the chicken up to temperature.
Serve over wide egg noodles (we prefer German egg noodles).
Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photos by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill
Keep informed about San Diego Events!
Sign-up for our weekly Eblast by clicking here: Sign Me Up!