In a previous post about Mexican sandwiches, I mentioned one of my favourite dishes, a nice milanesa, a breaded cutlet, which in Mexico may refer to different kinds of meat (chicken, beef, etc.), although the original was veal. The name means “from Milan”, and recently I learned that the probable origin dish is the Italian cotoletta alla Milanese which is also a breaded veal cut, but thick and bone-in. The fettina panata is the boneless and thinner beef version of it . I found some fettine (Italian plurals are hard!) at a local butcher’s, so I decided to try and make some Mexican milanesa de res empanizada (beef breaded cutlet). I avoid deep frying as much as I can; I checked several recipes for breaded cutlets: thin or thick cuts; deep-fried, pan-fried or baked. There are many, but for the ones not deep-fried, the results looked either pale or they called for generous additions of oil, which defeats the purpose of not deep-frying. I did some testing of my own to optimize the breading and baking process to achieve a golden-brown, and crispy, baked milanesa with no oil involved.
From the recipes, a few observations: the oil temperatures for deep-frying breaded foods typically mentioned, were between 350-390°F; most recipes I checked for baked breaded cutlets used 350-375°F for the oven temperature; fettina is a very thin cut, so the total cooking times for baking were usually around 10-12 minutes, sometimes flipping halfway. Some recipes insisted on specific breadcrumbs, and the ones with coarse texture seemed to achieve better results. I also read an interesting article [2, reference below] which mentions a standard restaurant technique of pre-frying food and then finish cooking in the oven right before serving, a little like the double stage frying of French fries. That gave me the idea of pre-toasting some breadcrumbs before breading, to give the colour of the coating a head-start towards golden perfection.
Armed with all this information, I chose generic breadcrumbs from the bakery section at my local supermarket, and panko (Japanese style) to start with regular crumbs, and a coarser texture, respectively. To avoid drying the meat, I stayed on the low side of the temperature ranges cited for frying and baking, which is 350°F, and used the same temperature for toasting the crumbs, to be able to compare as-bought and pre-toasted crumb coatings. I used no oil during preparation and there was no oil applied to any surfaces either.
The photo below, on the left, shows the crumbs before and after baking a batch of each separately on cookie sheets lined with ungreased parchment paper, at 350°F for 10 minutes. The panko crumbs showed a more rapid and darker browning. The difference in crumb size can be appreciated. These four different batches of crumbs were used to coat four beef cutlets, by coating the meat with flour, then an egg wash and finally pressing the bread crumbs on both sides (photo right).
The toasted panko cutlet looked almost done (above photo, bottom right), so I was hoping not to end up burning it after baking the cutlets. I baked all four cutlets on the same baking sheet, lined with ungreased parchment paper, for 10 minutes at 350°F. I was surprised that the colour of all four had barely changed (photo below left, after flipping cutlets). The meat was cooked at this point, but in the name of science, I continued baking the cutlets to see how long it would take to brown the coatings. After another 10 minutes (photo below right, cutlets flipped again), the pre-toasted panko looked beautifully golden, and was very crisp, so I stopped the process, although the other three cutlets still looked pale.
In terms of flavour, the darker the coating, the crispier and tastier; it was surprising that the meat was not completely ruined, just a little on the dry side; my husband said it was almost like eating a juicy piece of breaded jerky – “you might be on to something good here” was his comment.
In conclusion: pre-toasting the crumbs results in a darker, crispier coating after baking the cutlets. Both the toasted generic and panko crumbs changed just slightly during the first 10 minutes of baking, and the cutlets were fully cooked, so for thin cuts, the crumbs may be pre-toasted until completely golden-brown before breading, without risk of burning during baking. It is nice to have full control of the final crumb texture and colour before even breading the cutlets, just by choosing either fine or coarse crumb, and toasting accordingly to the desired final colour. Last, but certainly not least, absolutely no oil was used during the prepping or baking steps.
For the rest of my cutlets, I chose panko crumbs (although I reserve the right to revisit this recipe in a future post, with regular crumbs, and also explore the breaded jerky idea), pre-toasted at 350°F for 12 minutes. I used the three-stage flour/egg/breadcrumbs technique for breading, and baked the cutlets at 350°F for 10 minutes. The cutlets were very tasty, and – as announced in the title – golden-brown, crispy, and oil-free. The traditional way to serve Mexican milanesa is with a side of tomato and onion slices on a lettuce bed. Another nice side is Russian salad, which is actually a Mexican classic, that I will explain in my next post. Leftovers might be reheated on the grill or oven, and used for other dishes.
 “Playing with Sound” by Varela, P. & Fiszman, S.; The Kitchen as Laboratory, Ch. 21; Vega, C. et al, editors; Columbia University Press, New York, 2012.