The Term 'Cutlet' Doesn't Mean What You Might Think

If you've ever had veal scallopini, lightly breaded, pan-fried, and served over a bead of beautiful fresh pasta, then you've had a cutlet. If you've ever had schnitzel, pounded to within an inch of its life, seasoned, breaded, deep fried, and served with lemons and rosemary, then you've had a cutlet. If you've ever had chicken fried steak, lean, coated with flour, deep fried and swimming in gravy, then you've had a cutlet.

Looking at these recipes, one Italian, one German, and one American, we see can an interesting instance of culinary symmetry. Though hailing from three different culinary traditions, there is no denying the similarities in the construction of the recipes. Each consists of a thin slice of meat that has been breaded and fried in some capacity. And though it makes a good amount of sense to believe that the breading and frying are what makes them similar, that is only part of the equation.

The type of meat is not a connecting thread either, as scallopini, schnitzel, and chicken fried steak are all made with different types of meat. No, the essential connecting thread between these three recipes is that they are all a variation of the cutlet. However, there is a general belief that the term "cutlet" refers solely to a breaded and fried piece of meat, where the term is actually in reference to the cut of meat itself, not how it is prepared.

It's the cut that counts

The primary definition of a cutlet is straightforward — a small slice of meat. You can get cutlets from chicken, turkey, veal, beef, pork, lamb, and mutton either pre-cut and packaged from the grocery store, or by making them yourself from a larger section of meat. The latter is a great money saver and makes the most out of the meat. Thinner or tenderized meat slices are easier to chew and require much less cooking time than would've been dedicated to the larger section. 

While it is true that some of the more well-known cutlet recipes call for the breading and frying of the meat, this does not a cutlet make. Though delicious in their own right, you can cook cutlets without breading or frying them. Indeed, a simple chicken cutlet seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon, sliced and served over a bed of greens makes for an excellent salad. Beef cutlets, too, are excellent for cooking up quickly and cutting up to serve on sandwiches, or on their own with some roasted potatoes and vegetables.  

Cutlets are also not to be confused with croquettes, which are flat patties of minced meat or fish that's been egg-washed, breaded, and deep-fried. Just remember, that a cutlet is nothing more than a small slice of meat with endless potential for flavor and utility.