Tricks of the Trade
Wiener schnitzel has no peers when it comes to Austria’s favorite dish. Its fans all know that its preparation involves several golden rules. Here’s how the pros do it.
I’m a schnitzel-maker. In Austria we have a special word for that profession: souffleur. Not to be confused with the “theater whisperer!” There have been times when I’ve breaded so many Wiener schnitzels that I began to believe I’d invented the dish myself. Back then, my young neighbors were not vegan yet; nor was the meat industry subjected to today’s level of critical scrutiny. Veal was a staple of people’s diets, and if you suggested cooking up some schnitzel for dinner, everyone was happy – and no discussions on climate change ensued. Have I ever actually needed a recipe for Wiener schnitzel? I don’t think so, at least not during the phase when I had personally invented it! Maybe in the beginning I consulted the standard Austrian work by
Plachutta-Wagner with the modest title Good Cooking (Die gute Küche), which became my trusted companion for every eventuality in the galley over the years. But the recipes in Good Cooking are so shamelessly straightforward that you quickly internalize the moves and promptly forget who wrote the text. That said, even the obvious sometimes needs to be questioned. It’s certainly worth the effort to revisit outdated ways of doing things – and, for example, liberate the Wiener schnitzel from its Viennese confines; after all, it’s become a popular export item. Metaphysically speaking, it embodies the essence of all things Austrian. Only recently a schnitzel shaped like a map of Austria graced the cover of a MONOCLE issue showcasing the alpine country. Which means that even the ubercool dudes in the lifestyle labs did not find the cliché too tasteless to feature, so they gave our country a proper pounding just to symbolize alleged national traits. It was nowhere near a sugar coating, and it was a coating that certainly did not follow the schnitzel rules. There are misunderstandings galore when it comes to those. For instance, some famous restaurants in Central Europe claim to serve not just a good Wiener schnitzel, but “the best”; that superlative alone leaves a bad aftertaste, which obviously detracts from the desired outcome. Well then, what defines “the best” Wiener schnitzel? What makes it so unique? The pubs in its immediate vicinity? In the street, the city, the world (including or excluding Vienna)? Is it the basic ingredients, the cook’s skills, the presentation of the finished product?
But hey, when it comes to schnitzels, do we really need superlatives? It’s good enough if that cutlet, our favorite go-to standard along with pizza and hamburgers, isn’t simply dumped into the deep fryer and sent out to be served with a few pitiful fries that have undergone the same brusque handling. Because a real schnitzel, even if it is treated here and there like some fast-food product, is at bottom a wonderfully delicious Austrian specialty that whets appetites at first sight – and whose flavorful accessibility is responsible for its huge culinary success. That, however, is only the case if you follow a few basic rules. First of all: A true Wiener schnitzel is made with veal, not pork. The most important reason for this is the texture of the meat. A thinly sliced and carefully pounded loin of veal will remain tender and juicy when cooked. The same preparation process will often give a pork cutlet the consistency of a roofi ng shingle. This we have ascertained in innumerable experiments in our never-ending and overarching schnitzel field trials. What is more, a too-strong taste of pork tends to interfere with that elegant yet down-home schnitzel experience we know and love.
Secondly: The breading is not just designed to envelope the meat; it has to be thin enough so as not to attract unnecessary attention. This, in turn, is a question of the breadcrumbs used and their caliber. In Switzerland, for example, the breadcrumbs are often too coarse. If the individual crumbs exceed one millimeter in diameter, the coating tends to morph into something akin to a concrete slab. So it’s back to the food processor until the crumbs look more like sand than gravel. Thirdly: The schnitzel must never be too large. Even if Figlmüller, the self-proclaimed world champion schnitzel-maker from Vienna, allows the “crumb carpet” (as it is referred to in deferentially disparaging terms) to hang out over the edge of the plate, the ideal size corresponds to that of the loin itself, i.e. no larger than 10 × 15 centimeters. Fourthly: Schnitzel is prepared on a stovetop, not in the deep fryer. Choosing the right fat for frying is paramount. The original recipe calls for lard at a depth of some three centimeters in the pan. Using lard gives the breading mixture (fl our, egg and breadcrumbs) a good crunch and ensures the obligatory creases. Your mission is only accomplished when the surface of the schnitzel looks like the forehead of a worried pug. The taste of the lard (setting aside the smell in the kitchen) has no appreciable impact on the final product. If this method sounds too archaic, clarified butter works as well, but don’t skimp! The schnitzel needs to float.
Fifth: Never serve a schnitzel that’s dripping with fat. Every single specimen needs to be meticulously patted dry with paper towels before it hits the plate. A rule of thumb: If you can sit down on a schnitzel in white pants without getting a grease stain, you’re good to go! Which brings us to the side dishes. It ultimately took a certifi ed Michelin-starred chef to adequately defi ne what belongs around and on the authentic Wiener schnitzel. In their book “East of Paris – The New Cuisines of Austria and the Danube Ecco”, Mario Lohninger and David Bouley (of legendary fame for their New York restaurant “Danube”) attempt a respectful, tradition-minded reprise of the schnitzel legacy that includes paying attention to the right details.They start with the marinated side dishes: cucumber salad dressed with sour cream, champagne vinegar, caraway seed and dill; potato salad prepared with “Ratte” potatoes (known for their nutty flavor and smooth, buttery texture), caraway seed, Dijon mustard, champagne vinegar, canola oil and a light veal stock. And their recipe for the schnitzel itself highlights a local culinary technique. The key points are summarized in chef David Bouley’s comments. He writes that the most important part of schnitzel-making lies in understanding the mechanics of pan-frying. You need enough oil to ensure that, the moment you start moving the pan, a tidal wave will engulf the schnitzel. Its ripples can later be seen in the texture of the breading. And then Bouley uses that cathartic word: the breading needs to puff up like a soufflé. In other words, the right method for preparing a schnitzel is more like a gentle bath than a brutal fry. That’s the beauty of it. There are a million wrong ways to make a schnitzel, but only one right way. Bouley whispers that one, single way, and I echo him softly. He is my souffleur, in the whispering sense, and I’m going to keep the faith forever, as though I had invented the dish.
Christian Seiler is an Austrian journalist and author. For years he traveled the world, testing food and collecting recipes. He enjoys writing about his experiences, as he does in his 2019 book “Alles Gute – Die Welt als Speisekarte” (All the Best – The World as a Menu).