Schnitzel: A Thin Slice Of Viennese Heaven

Echt Wiener Schnitzel.
Echt Wiener Schnitzel. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
By Nick Malgieri
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; Page F01

Every visit I have ever made to Vienna was mostly for the purpose of exploring the legendary cakes and pastries of the former imperial capital. But I have remembered to eat good Wiener schnitzel (literally, "Viennese slice") each time.

The almost-paper-thin slice of veal is passed through a standard flour-egg-bread-crumb breading and fried, which seems simple. Yet the result is a far cry from my mother's Monday dinner veal cutlets.

Both warming and satisfying, Wiener schnitzel is a natural for winter dinners. Over the years, it has spawned such variations as ham-and-cheese-stuffed veal cordon bleu, chicken Kiev (a thinly pounded chicken breast rolled around herb butter, breaded and fried) and perhaps even Texas's chicken-fried steak.

Determined to understand the differences between the glorious and the plain, I recently visited Siegfried Kroepfl, executive chef of the Hotel Imperial in Vienna and reputed to be the maker of the best schnitzel in town.

It is easy to see why. His recipe calls for a particular kind of butter; he chooses the best cuts of veal from the best-quality meats. And he uses a wide, flat meat pounder to make the meat as thin as can it be.

Kroepfl, 50, has been cooking for 35 years, first doing an apprenticeship at a hotel in the Vorarlberg ski-resort area in western Austria, not far from his native Tyrol. He reminisced that his mother sometimes made Wiener schnitzel for a special occasion Sunday dinner.

"Today," he added, "most people who prepare it at home use pork since top-quality veal has become so expensive.

"Of course, we Viennese have to admit that Wiener schnitzel originated in Italy with the costoletta alla Milanese," he said, referring to a dish that starts with a veal rib chop still on the bone, its meat pounded thinly, breaded and fried. "But our native chefs have added a few uniquely Viennese touches."

I saw what he meant when the chef reached into a refrigerated drawer under the counter and took out two paper-clad pieces of the palest pink veal. "These are cut from the rib-eye, which is tender to begin with, and pounded as thinly as possible" between sheets of wax paper, Kroepfl said. The five-ounce portions of veal were about seven inches in diameter and almost perfectly round. (You can try this at home or ask your butcher to pound the veal.)

Next, the chef spooned a big blob of what looked like custard cream into a nine-inch saute pan. I couldn't resist asking, since I had no idea what the stuff was. "Clarified butter," he answered, "the secret of a perfect schnitzel" (see accompanying note in this recipe). As the butter melted, I could see that it filled the pan to a depth of a little more than an inch, so our schnitzels (or schnitzeln, to use the German plural form) were going to be practically deep-fried in butter. What a way to go.

"Many high-quality kitchens like the Imperial's use fine veal for their schnitzeln, but not all fry them in butter," Kroepfl added. "Lesser-quality places which are still good restaurants always use oil as the frying medium."

(A quick Internet search of half a dozen menus from casual Vienna restaurants showed that some offer a veal schnitzel for about $21 to $28, pork schnitzel for less. It costs about $33 at the Cafe Imperial and about $45 for two schnitzels at the Restaurant Imperial.)

Kroepfel lightly salted the pieces of veal on both sides, then passed them one at a time through flour, well-beaten egg (with nothing added) and fine dried bread crumbs. In Vienna, they use a delicate white roll called a semmel for bread crumbs. Here, any plain French or Italian bread, well dried (in the oven if necessary), but not toasted, would do.

Once the butter in the pan was heated to 325 degrees, the schnitzels were fried, one at a time, to a light golden brown, turned over once during the process. (Hardly any of the butter goes into the final schnitzels.) Quickly drained on both sides on absorbent paper, they were plated with parsley-flecked potatoes on the side (superfluous) and served with a mixed salad. Hot schnitzel needs to be eaten immediately.

It was delicious, immeasurably enhanced by the portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph gazing down at us in the Imperial's eye-poppingly opulent dining room and by the satisfaction of learning the secret of real -- and superb -- Viennese schnitzel.

Nick Malgieri, director of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, has written eight cookbooks.

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