with recipe for the best Wiener schnitzel
“Only veal is the real deal!”
(almost fake) Viennese saying
A GOLDEN Wiener schnitzel, pronounced sh-nitt-sell1, the Vienna cutlet, can be a crisp, light, and tender, heavenly treat served in one of the world’s best restaurants — like the Steirereck in Vienna’s Stadtpark or in one of Kurt Gutenbrunner‘s NYC coffeehouses or restaurants2.
The beloved schnitzel used to be a treat for Central-European households, including Jewish ones3. Few countries have adopted this dish as enthusiastically as Israel. “On Sundays, when gentiles had roast pork, Jews had Wiener schnitzel,” reads Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food.
Unfortunately, this star of world cuisine is often nothing but a horribly flat and greasy dry piece of sadness from a fast-food counter, languishing in a pool of ketchup, or outright miserable, limp, and warmed-over reconstituted meat from a prison canteen. And even the average, more or less well-executed schnitzel in Vienna itself, the hometown of the schnitzel, is often far from what it truly can be. So what makes a truly great, golden, puffed up, crispy Viennese schnitzel? And who has made schnitzel great forever?
I won’t beat around the significance of the pounding of a schnitzel because sexual innuendos of the Wiener schnitzel are plenty and obvious. The underlying thoughts and aggressive impulses of this Viennese oral fixation are clear. No wonder that, of all cities, Sigmund Freud developed his theories in Vienna, where he lived for almost eighty years.
Schnitzel and nationalism
First, let’s get to the meat of the “schnitzel question.” Though any thin slice of meat or vegetable can be turned into a schnitzel, the fact is that the Viennese, who perfected schnitzel in the 1800s, insist on nothing but veal. Veal, as in a poor little baby cow, you may ask? Yes. I know, it’s not vegan, nor even vegetarian. And therefore, even though the dish is a symbol of national pride, it didn’t fit the diet of Austria’s infamous mass-exterminating dictator either, who was a vegetarian. Still, no matter what, the Viennese have always loved their Wiener schnitzel. Sadly, this still didn’t prevent them from cheering on their dark-haired, brown-eyed Führer of the Aryan race.
In Austria, the common pairing of Wiener schnitzel with sauerkraut found on menus all around the world would be considered a faux pas. But, for good reason. Popular culture, like Charlie Chaplin’s historic 1940 movie The Great Dictator, links Wiener schnitzel, aka the Austrian, to sauerkraut, the Kraut, aka the German. In his fake German language, Chaplin as dictator Hynkel shouts, “The Wiener schnitzel mitt the lager beer’tn and the sauerkraut!“ (That’s as good a reason as any to watch one of the best movies ever made!)
A swastika-schnitzel on a German satirical TV show during 2016’s presidential elections accused the Austrians of voting like their national dish — meaning flat and brown, the colors of the Nazi. A court had to rule that the Facebook post showing the Hakenkreuzschnitzel (swastika-schnitzel in German) was indeed palatable. By the way, Austrians ended up voting by 54% for a centrist, liberal, cigarette-smoking, green party intellectual, Alexander Van der Bellen (The other 46% didn’t mind voting for someone who…)
Before the onset of the 19th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and nationalism, Wiener schnitzel was simply called a breaded cutlet, with no geographical indication (see the first editions of Katharina Prato’s cookbook)4. Breaded veal cutlets show up in cookbooks as Viennese, as Wiener, only since the second half of the 19th century when Wiener schnitzel slowly became the symbol of nationalist pride it still is today5. To the point that, a hundred years later, in George Tabori‘s 1996 drama “Ballade vom Wiener Schnitzel“, the schnitzel-loving but dyspeptic protagonist Alfons Morgenstern, a fictional Viennese food critique, disguised with a Hitler mustache (the one stolen from Chaplin), gets shouted at by the disappointed restaurant owner, who was lusting after a star, with the quintessential Austrian war cry: “Give him a schnitzel! Stuff it in the mouth of the dirty Jew!“6
Byzantine and golden Venetian origins
But schnitzel, just like the average Viennese, doesn’t know (or doesn’t want to know) about his multicultural origins. The technique of breading and frying food is, in fact, an immigrant from the Byzantine Empire. Or it might have come with the Ottoman Empire’s army that has been twice at the gates of Vienna. Also, the Armenian spy Johannes Theodat (or Owanes Astouatzatur) who brought coffee to Vienna and opened the first coffeehouse, Rotenturmstrasse 147, very well could have introduced the locals to the schnitzel’s Byzantine ancestor. Anyhow, via Spain and possibly some Jewish merchants and others fleeing the Inquisition, breaded cutlets supposedly arrived in Venice and Milan.
Crucially to the history of schnitzel, in 15th-century Venice, the fashion was to eat food coated with gold leaves. It’s a craze the Serenissima learned from her Byzantine archrival8. Yes, it’s safe to eat pure gold, though edible gold leaves have no taste whatsoever. Nonetheless, in Venice, the symbolic powers of gold and the imaginary healing properties of the metal let this craze go completely out of hand. So much so that in 1514, the council of Venice finally had to ban this practice. From then, on the Venetian aristocrats breaded and fried their food to mimic gold, the same way the poor must already have been doing all along to imitate the rich. To this day in Vienna, most still describe the color of a schnitzel’s crust as golden.
The schnitzel comes to Vienna
Vienna isn’t far from Italy. Here too, wars and trade spread the idea early on. But the Viennese knew how to coat food with breadcrumbs and fry it, way before they discovered and perfected schnitzel9. Take a dish such as fried chicken, called Backhendl, another world-famous Viennese specialty, which largely predates schnitzel. Numerous legends about the origins of schnitzel are feeding the national narrative. One particularly popular anachronistic story figures a big name in Austrian history, nobleman and field marshal Joseph Radetzky, conquering Italy and bringing schnitzel to Vienna from Milan. This tale was debunked in 200610.
In Italy, they have a close relative of Wiener schnitzel called cotoletta alla milanese, a sautéed breaded (though without flour) bone-in veal chop, not as thinly pounded as a Wiener schnitzel and not as puffed-up – in every sense11. But today, cotoletta alla milanese in Italy is very often, in fact, quite Viennese-style schnitzel-ish. Both dishes are all about the veal.
The Viennese perfected that golden souffléed crust. Wiener schnitzel seems like a dish for special occasions, where one wouldn’t mind shallow-frying a costly piece of meat. On the contrary, the technique, in fact, elevates the meat to its full potential, as it is delicately cooked, almost sous-vide, keeping all its moisture and flavor enclosed inside the pocket of that thin, crispy breadcrumb coating. The steam is trapped and thus puffs up, or soufflés, the crust. And that’s the way to recognize a proper Wiener schnitzel.
The poor and their substitutions for veal
Wiener schnitzel is part of Vienna’s bourgeois food, especially its upper segment, reflecting political developments that reach back into the 18th century12. But even diary entries of the family of the Austrian Emperor dating back to the early 1840s show that they too appreciated the dish’s luxury. It’s not a cheap treat if you’re using quality, organic, mother-milk-fed, pasture-raised veal, which you should if you like your schnitzel to be tasty. The difference from regular veal is real. The poor — who in Vienna are all those who can’t afford quality veal for their schnitzel — use butterflied chicken breast or, like most peasants, pork.
Such a schnitzel is no Wiener schnitzel, which is a protected geographical indication in Austria and Germany and can only be made of veal. A schnitzel made with chicken is a Hausmeisterschnitzel, the janitor’s cutlet, aka the poor man’s schnitzel13. Maybe you could get away with calling it Classic Viennese Janitor’s Schnitzel. When made from pork it may be labeled Schnitzel Wiener Art, meaning Vienna-style. Austrian-born celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck fondly recalls pork schnitzel. Other local popular substitutes for real veal schnitzel are large mushrooms, like the parasol and puffball mushroom, that can be found in the Wienerwald, the Vienna Woods surrounding the city where even famous Viennese like Sigmund Freud and his family used to go on weekends to forage for mushrooms. (See my post on the Vienna Woods Heuriger.)
Many Wiener-schnitzel-eating Europeans immigrated to Palestine, “where beef was scarce and cattle expensive to maintain.” When they finally came up with some protein worthy to be coated with that famous golden crust, it turned out to be “the cheaper and more abundant turkey,” explains Joan Nathan in her recipe for Penguin Buffet’s classic Israeli schnitzel in The Food of Israel Today. Gil Marks adds that “Schnitzel was particularly important in a country where few people possessed an oven in their home, as thin cutlets could be easily fried over a flame.”14
The cooks in the kibbutzim and moshavim noticed that once in a golden crust, turkey can actually taste surprisingly close to veal. Incidentally, Zahav (“golden” in Hebrew) is the title of chef Michael Solomonov’s award-winning cookbook on the world of Israeli cuisine. Today, schnitzel (or שניצל, shnitsel) definitely plays the leading role in the world of Israeli food. It’s on almost every menu throughout the country, even in upscale restaurants. Schnitzel is often made with chicken and prepared with spice combinations reflecting the ethnic background of the cook. With loads of za’atar and sesame seeds, Michael Solomonov’s schnitzel recipe is no exception to that. The fun part is that the turkey schnitzel, this ersatz for Wiener schnitzel, eventually made it back to Vienna, where it got adopted and still enjoys relative success today. Though to be honest, most Viennese are unaware of this Jewish intermezzo.
A slice of the golden calf
In German, cute things are goldig, “goldish.” Sigmund Freud’s mother called her favorite “mein goldener Sigi,” “my golden Siggy.”15 Gold is key to the understanding not only schnitzel but also the Viennese, Jewish, and the anti-Semitic imagination. In the bible, gold represents the divine and celestial light, the glory of God16. Gold always stood for power, wealth, and even health. In other words, just think of the golden calf as a Wiener schnitzel. It’s veal and it’s golden. But, just like schnitzel for the Jews, the golden calf is a symbol of assimilation, as well as the syncretism of the 20th century. In the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, gold was widely used as a means to show one’s place in society. In that vein, the new concert hall in Vienna, the Musikverein, heavily relied on gold for its interior decoration, as did the Secession building for its gold-leaf dome. Gustav Klimt’s art and the whole of Jugendstil, Viennese Art Nouveau, would hardly be imaginable without gold.
But the golden heart of the Viennese, although celebrated in local songs (“Wienerlied“) and by the tourism industry, always was in fact proverbially ambivalent. To that effect, in the early 1900s, author Max Winter chose The Golden Viennese Heart (“Das goldene Wiener Herz”) as the sarcastic title for a series of social critiques and added, “The saying that ‘all that glitters is not gold‘ is never more applicable than to the ‘Golden Viennese heart.'”17 The insistence of cookbooks on the golden color of the Wiener schnitzel is to be seen and understood in that light.
There is a second well-known reference for the right degree of browning for the crust of a perfect Wiener Schnitzel. Vienna wouldn’t conform to its cliché as the city of music if every recipe wouldn’t describe the coloration as that of a Stradivarius violin, the Jewish instrument and the instrument of the Wienerlied.
So next time you eat a schnitzel, you might hear, through a narcissistic Viennese song about the golden Viennese heart, a discrete voice chanting ירושלים של זהב (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav), the unofficial national anthem of Israel, increasingly popular with right-wingers: “Oh, Jerusalem of gold / and of light and of bronze / I am the violin for all your songs.” Schnitzel: fiddle, gold, God, and Jerusalem. Got it? Incidentally, the song was commissioned back in 1967 by a Viennese émigré, the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek.
Far-fetched? Well, in your oriental dreams or adventures, you might be tempted to hop on your schnitzel and fly away on that magic crumb-carpet, that “bröselteppich” of Byzantine origin, as the Viennese affectionately call their favorite food. Don’t be afraid to sit on those fried breadcrumbs, because, as any Viennese cook will tell you, a well-executed Wiener schnitzel must be dry enough for you to sit on it without your clothes getting stained. If you ever wondered why anyone would sit on a schnitzel and worry about stains, now you know!
Reclaim the Wiener schnitzel!
Finally, here’s how you should go about it. It’s quick and easy to make Wiener schnitzel:
RECIPE for Wiener Schnitzel, the Classic Viennese Bread-Crumbed Veal Escalopes
Kaiser roll crumbs are a must. No panko!
Breadcrumbs for a Wiener schnitzel need to have the right proportion of bread crust to bread white. This is best obtained from plain, finely ground Kaiser rolls. Panko is made from bread without any crust and is coarsely ground into large airy, flakes. Panko breadcrumbs are way too dry and crunchy for Wiener schnitzel. They will not provide the typical thin and crispy puffed up crust and taste of a Wiener schnitzel18. No seasoning — no parmesan required here.
In any event, prepare more breadcrumbs than will actually end up stuck to the cutlets themselves, as you absolutely want to avoid having to shovel or, worse, pat the crumbs on.
To ensure best possible taste, as always, buy the best you can find. Buy less and/or less often, if you want to save money. The best will obviously be quality organic, mother-milk-fed, pasture-raised veal (or free-roaming chicken or turkey, etc.)
Get loin, or better, top round, which is juicy but holds together well. Whichever piece your butcher advises you, don’t worry too much about tenderness, as the cutlets get pounded anyway.
In Vienna, get Kalbsschnitzel vom Schlegel (Keule) or Schale vom Kalb, which is lean and holds together well. In short, it is the ideal schnitzel meat. You don’t have to pound the hell out of it to tenderize it. It’s tender even if you use slightly thicker slices. Cheaper alternatives are the Schluss and the Nuss vom Kalb. They are slightly juicier but need to be tenderized with a mallet.
These are your good sources for high-quality meat in Vienna. Call to be sure they have what you want, the day you want.
- online & organic, Porcella.at: Young and hip for your slow food needs in Austria and Germany.
- most famous, Fleischerei Ringl: Gumpendorfer Straße 105, 1160 Wien. Phone: +43 15 96 32 78. Probably the best-known place to buy meat in Vienna.
- organic & dry aged meat, Fleischsommelier Billa Corso Hoher Markt: Hoher Markt, 1010 Wien. The convenience of a supermarket in the city center with a nice meat counter and a good selection of dry-aged meat.
- kosher, Fleischerei Bernat Ainhorn: Große Stadtgutgasse 7, 1020 Wien. Phone: +43 1 214 56 21. The main culinary advantage of kosher meat is that it is pre-salted. So there’s no need to dry brine or anything like that.
Pre-salting/brining the meat
This is the key to succulent protein. If your meat isn’t kosher, you should definitely follow the advice of professionals and so many famous chefs, including Thomas Keller, Alice Waters or Judy Rodgers, and pre-salt or brine your meat. Generously salt your slices of schnitzel meat and leave it in the fridge for up to a couple of days (To be exact, depending on the salinity of your salt, use between 0.5% and 0.10% of the weight of your meat. Use a gold scale for such small amounts).
Frying in vegetable oil, clarified butter or old-school animal fat?
Local peasants use pork fat, old Yiddish recipes take schmaltz, Michelin-star chef Frauneder fries in vegetable oil, the Steiereck swears by butter. Most Austrian home cooks fill their skillet with one inch of vegetable oil, and many do as chef Gutenbrunner, who puts butter into the oil right at the end of the procedure, which gives it a nutty taste. I don’t and just use a light vegetable oil that doesn’t impart any extraneous flavor. Not so long ago cookbooks would tell you to either use pork fat like the peasants, or Yiddish shtetl fat from chicken, schmaltz.
- 4 veal top round cutlets/escalopes (or loin, topside, rump) 4-5 ounces each (120-140g)
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten with 3 tablespoons of cold water
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (coarse-grained flour, “griffig” in Austria, works best)
- 2 cups very fine breadcrumbs from Kaiser rolls, sifted (no panko!)
- freshly finely ground white pepper (optional)
- 3 cups light vegetable oil like canola (or clarified butter) for frying
- 1 lemon cut into 4 wedges
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves, fried (optional)
- 1/4 cup lingonberry or cranberry preserves (optional)
- Pre-salting: If you didn’t buy kosher meat, you should salt the slices of meat and put them back into the fridge for two days (Use a gold scale to measure the salt to 0.5% and 0.10% of the weight of the meat). This step is not mandatory, but will result in a dramatically tastier and juicier piece of meat!
- Pound the cutlets: Put the meat in plastic wrap or in a plastic bag to reduce the mess. Delicately flatten the cutlets with a meat mallet or tenderizer. In a pinch, you can use a cleaver or the bottom of a small skillet or saucepan. Try to get even thin cutlets, between 1/8-1/4 inch (3-6mm) thick. The latter is the gold standard in Vienna. Too thin, it’ll dry out and you would end up with nothing but breadcrumbs in your mouth, overpowering the meat. You may want to trim away any ragged edges.
(Up to this point you can prepare ahead. Keep refrigerated wrapped in plastic for a maximum of 2 days.)
- Heat the oil to 350°F (170-180°C). Traditionally, plenty of oil is required. At least 1 inch of oil in a heavy bottom skillet no less than 2 inches deep. (If the schnitzel can’t swim, it will be sautéed, which will result in uneven browning, the crust not puffing up, and the meat not cooking in its own steam casing.) Alternatively, use a deep fryer.
- Breading the cutlets: Place 3 separate plates side-by-side: One with the flour, one with the lightly beaten eggs and one with the breadcrumbs. If you didn’t pre-salt the cutlets, season with salt. If using, also season with freshly ground white pepper.
Take one cutlet and dredge it in the flour, shake off any excess, then dip the cutlet into the egg and finally into the breadcrumbs. Don’t press on the cutlets! This would prevent the crust from souffléing, from puffing up. Delicately shake off the excess breadcrumbs. Fry immediately.
- Frying the schnitzel: Check that the oil is hot enough. The oil must sizzle when you place a schnitzel into it. Fry the schnitzel until golden — or the color of a violin. Flip to brown the other side. Don’t stop shaking the skillet in a circular motion to help to loosen the crust and trap steam under the coating to puff it up. The oil swirling in waves over the top of the cutlet also results in a much lighter crust.
If you are scared to spill oil, or if you are using a deep fryer, you should use a ladle to continuously spoon hot oil on top of the schnitzel to help it soufflé.
- Dry the schnitzel: Take the schnitzel out of the skillet and let drip back into the pan as much oil as possible. Place the schnitzel on paper towels or a kitchen towel to absorb the grease. Place on a rack in a 200°F (100°C) oven, just the time to prepare the other three schnitzels, up to 10 minutes.
- Serve immediately on warmed plates with lemon wedges and optionally with fried parsley leaves and lingonberry jam. Never serve sauce with a Wiener schnitzel; it would ruin the crunch. Also, capers, anchovies, and eggs are unheard of on a Wiener schnitzel but are part of the à la Holstein or French à la Viennoise garnish.
Accompany the schnitzel with a classic, slightly tangy cucumber, beet or potato salad or, a leafy green salad like a baby gem lettuce or frisée. Sautéed or boiled new potatoes sprinkled with chopped parsley is another traditional pairing.
Drinking a Grüner Veltliner wine with your Wiener schnitzel is almost mandatory. A Chardonnay would be nice too. (See my post on Grüner Veltliner Wine.)
Leftovers are delicious in a bun with pickles, sauerkraut or arugula.
- Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Hoboken, Wiley, 2010), pp. 536-537.
- Kurt Gutenbrunner, Neue Cuisine. The Elegant Tastes of Vienna. Recipes from Wallsé, Café Sabarsky and Blaue Gans. (New York, Rizzoli, 2011)
- Felicity Cloake, How to make the perfect wiener schnitzel (The Guardian, May 28, 2014)
- Franz Maier-Bruck, Das große Sacher Kochbuch (Schuler, 1975)
- J. Kenji López-Alt, “The Science of Frying” in The Food Lab. Better Home Cooking Through Science (New York, London, Norton & Company, 2015), pp. 847-862.
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- Wiener is often spelled Weiner. Even Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (on page 536 in its edition from 2010) hesitates between Wiener and Weiner schnitzel. In Yiddish Cuisine (Northvale, New Jersey, London, 1993, Aronson), Robert Sternberg even spells Weinerschnitzel as one word.
While surfing, I discovered a weinersnitchel!
- There’s also Edi & the Wolf by Michelin Star Chef’s Eduard Frauneder & Wolfgang Ban, but they commit the faux pas of making a Wiener schnitzel with pork. When made with pork it is to be differentiated by labeling it as Vienna-style schnitzel or such.
- Most Jewish cookbooks about Ashkenazi or Israeli cuisine feature recipes for schnitzel. Evely Rose’s The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook is certainly no exception to that.
- Susanne Breuss, Karin Liebhart, Andreas Pribersky Inszenierungen: Stichwörter zu Österreich (Vienna, 1995, 2nd edition, ISBN-10: 3854490712) pp. 117-126 and p. 201.
Isabella Wasner-Peter, librarian at Vienna’s city hall (see http://www.dw.com/en/wiener-schnitzel/a-18976224) reminds us that in Vienna
- recipes using breadcrumb coating exist dating back to the end of the 17th century.
- flour, egg and breadcrumb coating can be traced back to the mid 19th century.
- first mention of a “Wiener” schnitzel can be found towards the end of the 19th century.
- The text actually uses the very common insult “Saujud,” which literally translates into “pork-Jew,” a decidedly more food related offense.
- “The story that Georg Franz Koltschitzky founded the first Viennese coffee house (Zur blauen Flasche) after the second Turkish siege of Vienna (1683) is a legend scientifically refuted by Karl Teply. On January 17th, 1685 the Armenian Johannes Deodat (Diodato) received the first authorization to serve coffee in public bar; This first Viennese coffee house was in the house where Deodat lived, the Hachenberg house on the Haarmarkt (1, Rotenturmstraße 14). Another operator of a very early coffee house (Café Rebhuhn) was Isaac de Luca.” (translated from Kaffeehaus – Wien Geschichte Wiki)
- Mäßig und gefräßig (Wien, Passagen Verlag, 1996) edited by Annemarie Hürlimann and Alexandra Reininghaus for the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (M.A.K.), p. 99.
- Isabella Wasner-Peter, ibid.
- See the linguist Heinz Dieter Pohl in: Die österreichische Küchensprache: Ein Lexikon der typisch österreichischen kulinarischen Besonderheiten (mit sprachwissenschaftlichen Erläuterungen), Praesens, Vienna, 2007, ISBN-10: 3706904527.
- See the presentation, variations and adaptations of the recipe for “Sautéed Breaded Veal Chops, Milanese Style“ by Marcella Hazan in: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (New York, Knopf, 1992) pp. 373-376.
- Rolf Schwendter Arme Essen – Reiche Speisen: Neuere Sozialgeschichte der zentraleuropäischen Gastronomie (Vienna, 1995, ISBN-10: 3900478899) pp. 195-201.
- Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Hoboken, Wiley, 2010), pp. 536-537.
- Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (New York, Basic Books, 1953), vol. 1, p. 3.
- Zech. 6:11 and Dan. 11:21
- Nicholas T. Parsons “Clichés and the art of self-irony” in: Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal Books, 2008), pp. 37-38.
- Though the case for panko is evidently understandable, it simply results in a different dish. Like many others, the great Thomas Keller advocates panko. Chef Einat Admoni in her lovely cookbook Balaboosta (which is Yiddish for “perfect housewife”) goes a step further and advocates feeding our loved ones schnitzel that is coated in a mixture of panko and crushed cornflakes.
Some recipes from the Yiddishland specify matzo meal, especially for Passover. For the looks and for the symbol, Israeli cooks would mix some sesame seeds, aka manna, into the breadcrumbs. On Purim, some add poppy seeds.