It’s hard not to get excited about a crispy piece of chicken. Maybe that’s because most of the time, crispy chicken means fried, and fried chicken is a thing of beauty. It’s also something few home cooks enjoy making in their own kitchens.
Who can blame them? Frying anything is a big commitment. You need to be OK with the expense (it takes a lot of oil), with the mess and — here’s what gets me every time — the smell. “Eau de deep-fried” can linger for days and, for me, it’s rarely worth it.
Still, a piece of crispy chicken, preferably topped with a creamy, slightly vinegary slaw and tucked into a toasted bun, must happen from time to time. Since I’ve already taken frying off the table, oven-baked breaded chicken seems like the logical alternative, but the standard process of dredging a boneless, skinless breast in flour, egg and panko crumbs renders a less than awe-inspiring result. The meat is usually dry, and the breading typically remains unevenly browned and not particularly crispy.
It’s time to re-examine the process.
Let’s start with the chicken. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts simply lack the flavor, moisture and texture necessary for a good crispy chicken sandwich. They are usually too thick and dry to make a palatable sandwich filling, which is why I opt for boneless, skinless chicken thighs. They’re moist, flavorful and just the right thickness for a sandwich.
For breading, I like a combination of panko crumbs and nuts or even crushed pretzels to give it added flavor and crunch. For this week’s Peanut-Crusted Chicken Sandwich With Red Chile Slaw, I’ve used peanuts as the extra ingredient in my breading.
Not willing to let the peanuts do all the work of making this breaded chicken crave-worthy, I take the additional step of browning the panko crumbs in a skillet with a little oil before using them to coat the chicken. Browning panko crumbs is a game-changer and I recommend you do it whenever you use panko crumbs for something going in the oven.
Panko crumbs don’t brown well in the oven, even on casseroles. They either come out too pale or, at best, unevenly browned. Toasting them in a skillet gives them a deeper flavor, a crisper texture and an evenly browned appearance, just like deep frying.
Since I like my crispy chicken sandwiches with some extra heat, I top mine with a Southeast Asian-inspired slaw, made with lime juice, mint, cilantro and a red hot chile pepper. If you like yours less hot, make sure you remove the seeds and veins from the pepper before you chop it.
The result is a flavorful, satisfyingly crunchy chicken sandwich that, like fried chicken, is just as good cold the next day, assuming it lasts that long. Odds are it won’t.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @meredithdeeds.