Chicken parmesan, when prepared well, is fantastic stuff. You’ve got chicken that’s crispy and crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside, blanketed by savory and slightly tangy marinara and all of it is under a layer of hot and melty mozzarella that is dusted with salty, grated parmesan cheese.
Newsflash: it also makes a great sandwich.
What is chicken parmesan?
It turns out that chicken parmesan is not exactly an Italian dish. According to the LA Times, the first instances of chicken parmesan appeared in the Northeastern United States in the 1950s. Eggplant parmesan—which is something that many of us would simply consider the alternate, vegetarian version of chicken parm—was invented first. Eggplant parmesan has its roots in Italy, and it wasn’t until Italian immigrants settled in the Northeastern US states that chicken started to be subbed in place of the eggplant.
There are disputes about where eggplant and chicken parmesan get their name or at least the parmesan part of the name. Some food historians believe that it wasn’t supposed to be the word “parmesan” at all, but instead another Italian word like, “palmigiana” (meaning shutters, like the ones around a window on a house) or even a corruption of “damigiana” which translates to basket, which could denote the baking pan or dish holding the chicken, sauce, and cheese.
Let’s turn chicken parmesan into a sandwich
This week I decided to bake my chicken parmesan instead of frying it. The breading process is still the same though, except for a small secret weapon that I’ll cover below. I can’t promise you that this will be the best chicken parmesan you’re going to ever enjoy, but it hits all of the aforementioned superlatives and doesn’t actually require all the cleanup and hassle that comes from deep frying.
Yes, I’m baking the chicken, but this is the same panko-crusted chicken recipe I’ve shared in the past. It’s good and it’s easy and let’s get started!
First, we need some bread
Since this is an Italian-focused dish and since I was already working on testing an Italian-focused bread recipe, I figured I’d combine the two things and it turned out better than I expected. We’re making focaccia, which is a recipe I published over the weekend.
Focaccia is a type of bread that originated in ancient Rome when bread was typically flat and baked on a stone hearth. Humans have advanced a little since then and my recipe is baked in a 9 x 13-inch baking pan—the sort you might have used for brownies—in the oven that you hopefully have in your house.
You can flavor the top of the bread with all sorts of things, from fresh or dried herbs to tomato slices and other veggies perfectly positioned to look like flowers. For the most part, though, I like to top my focaccia very simply since it is typically sliced for sandwiching.
Focaccia is a bread that is typically fairly high in hydration. This means the percentage of water by weight in the dough is almost as heavy as the weight of the flour in the recipe. Professional bakers use a calculation called “Baker’s Percentages” which details the amount of water as a percent of the amount of flour and in this recipe my focaccia recipe is 75% hydration. An experienced baker can see a recipe in grams and have a good idea of how the dough will be based on quick math and percentages.
If you’re a beginning baker, you might struggle a little if you come across a typical bread recipe that is 75% hydration because the dough will be very sticky and hard to shape. With focaccia though, that doesn’t matter because you give the dough some boundaries in the form of a baking pan and simply allow the dough to spread inside those boundaries. No difficult dough shaping is required in other words.
I love focaccia.
This is an intermission. Feel free to move about the room and get snacks.
Since there’s no shaping involved, your time investment on focaccia is very low. But for me, the return you get is fantastic, because the resulting bread is so good. It’s crunchy on the bottom, but still soft throughout. The bottom of a good focaccia almost seems fried, crispy, and buttery even though it’s baked with a few tablespoons of oil.
Here’s the recipe for my focaccia. I’m a big fan of it for the purpose of sandwiching. If you want a super wide-open crumb for bread that you can use on your next charcuterie board or just for dipping through oil and vinegar for snacking, you might want to find another recipe, but this works great for sandwiching with just enough space on the top and bottom of a slice to hold a sandwich together.
Baked panko-crusted chicken
Chicken parmesan is traditionally made from chicken breast, but in my recipe, I use thighs. You can use breast pieces if you prefer, and I cover that in the recipe below.
I’ve written about a recipe very similar to this that I created in October of 2021. This was for my one-pan crispy chicken biscuit recipe that I concocted and unleashed on the world back then. It works well and I suggest you give it a shot when your chicken biscuit needs are itching.
Because this uses panko, it’s perfect for a chicken parm recipe for a couple of reasons. One, because most chicken parmesan recipes seem to call for panko breadcrumbs and two, because panko breadcrumbs already start out crunchy and will retain that crunch through a baking process. So, we’re already halfway to our projected goal with this move.
As a person who likely does more frying than most home cooks, I still get super frustrated with the process. It’s hard to beat the crunch you can achieve with deep frying, but this technique with panko does get close and the cleanup is super minimal which is a big deal.
There are three things that make the baked version of this recipe work very well. They are:
- using chicken thighs instead of breast pieces
- crusting them with panko-style breadcrumbs
- The secret ingredient in the dredging process (it’s mayonnaise!)
Chicken thighs are super forgiving with their cooking process. As long as you hit 165 degrees F (74 C) in the thickest part of the thigh they will be fully cooked, and they should be able to go a few degrees higher than that if you get distracted and pull the thighs out later than you wanted to.
You can also use chicken breast pieces in this recipe, but I do recommend that if you are going to use chicken breast, you butterfly the breast meat to have thinner cuts which will cook properly in the right amount of time for the panko to crisp up and brown.
The panko breadcrumbs are possibly one of the wonders of the modern cooking world. They’re breadcrumbs that are already crunchy before you add them to the place where they should be adding crunch. These are the second thing that adds a ton of texture to this sandwich. Use panko if you can find them. Otherwise, you will not find crunchitude!
The final secret to this recipe is using a little mayonnaise in the egg portion of the breading station. The mayonnaise contains more egg and oil in a emulsified state that will stick to the chicken and help to brown the breadcrumbs a bit more than they would without the mayo. It’s a good secret ingredient to remember for future “frying” in the oven.
This is the second version of marinara I’ve made for this site. BUT you’ve never seen the first recipe yet because I never actually wrote about it and I certainly haven’t shared it. I made and tweaked that marinara from my wife’s current recipe at the time (in 2021) but since then she has changed it quite a bit into this recipe I’ve shared down below.
For this sandwich, I like the marinara to be a bit thick in texture. But if you prefer a thinner marinara, it’s easy to add a couple of scoops to a blender to thin or you can add the entire batch into the blender if you’d like the sauce to be extra smooth in consistency.
The cheeses: mozzarella and parmesan
I made mozzarella twice for this blog and I probably will not make it again, so I bought some this week. The mozzarella process just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I’m fairly certain you don’t save a dime and the quality of homemade mozzarella doesn’t seem to be worth enough in my opinion to justify it.
I’d never seen this sort of log of fresh mozzarella before, so I bought it. It’s basically just a double-sized amount and was perfect for a week of making chicken parmesan sandwiches with a little left over.
For chicken parmesan, you want fresh mozzarella and not shredded, or low-moisture mozzarella. You need this soft goodness that melts into a really creamy and salty experience.
This is named chicken parmesan, so I guess we have to use parmesan?
As you can read above, there’s a good chance that the original eggplant parmesan didn’t really have parmesan in it, but that ship has sailed out into the Mediterranean at this point, so we’re going to have to sprinkle some grated parm on it.
That’s a good thing though because parmesan dusted on top can only add extra salt and nutty character to the sandwich. You can use the stuff in the green container from the pre-sliced cheese section of the grocery store, but the stuff you grate yourself will taste better. Either way, just sprinkle it on top when you’re about to add the lid to your sandwich.
Let’s make this sandwich
First, we need to gather our components and put them together.
You can make the marinara a day in advance and you can bake the focaccia in advance as well. So, in theory, this sandwich could be a quick weeknight dinner where you simply prep the chicken and bake it.
Once you have a hot oven from baking the chicken, you can switch it over to broil and top each chicken piece with marinara, parmesan, and shingled slices of mozzarella and that completes the sandwich fillings.
Chicken parmesan on focaccia recipe
Below are some sandwich photos and the main recipe. Keep scrolling to fill your eyes with sandwich goodness.
Here’s the whole chicken parmesan recipe including the focaccia. The recipe does not however include Robin’s marinara, but I linked to it from the ingredients list. You can make the marinara a day or two in advance too if you want, which would turn this into a quick meal once the marinara and focaccia are already made.
A comforting sandwich with crispy, juicy, oven-baked chicken thighs topped with tangy and savory marinara and melty mozzarella. All sandwiched between your own buttery, light, and crunchy homemade focaccia.
- 450 grams all-purpose flour (3 3/4 cups)
- 337 grams water (1.5 cups)
- 6 grams instant yeast (2 teaspoons)
- 24 grams olive oil (2 tablespoons)
- 9 grams salt (1 1/2 teaspoons)
- 2 sandwich sized chicken thighs (you can use breast meat too, see notes below)
- 1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons hot sauce (optional)
- 3⁄4 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- non-stick cooking spray (Pam or another brand)
- focaccia (from above)
- 2 crispy chicken pieces
- 1⁄2 cup marinara (view recipe)
- 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
- 4 thin slices of fresh mozzarella
- basil, minced
Focaccia: spray cooking spray into a 9 x 13-inch pan and then add and spread 2 tablespoons of olive oil around the pan.
Weigh and add all ingredients into the bowl of your stand mixer or another large bowl.
Mix the ingredients in the stand mixer on medium for about 5 minutes or you can do this in a bowl with a spoon until there are no dry spots from the flour. This will not be a smooth dough; it will be wet and sticky. If you are stirring with a spoon, it will take about 10 minutes and will be a bit messy.
Scrape the dough into the 9 x 13 pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray and olive oil added. Dunk the tips of your fingers into the oil in the pan and use them to spread the dough out a little. Don't worry about getting it into the corners yet.
Rest in a warm place for 45 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap or an inverted sheet pan that covers the whole 9 x 13 pan.
After 45 minutes, wet your fingers in a bowl of water and fold the dough over on top of itself a couple of times. This will be sticky and perhaps messy. But folding it once or twice will help the structure of the final dough. This fold is most easily accomplished by grabbing the edges of one of the short sides of the pan and folding it over onto itself.
Using water on the tips of your fingers as often as needed, attempt to get the folded dough into the shape of your pan. Push it around and get it as close to the corners as you can. It will stretch out more during the final resting phase, but making sure it's close to filling out the pan will help here.
Allow the dough to rest again for another 45 minutes, covered by plastic wrap or a sheet pan on top of the 9 x 13-inch pan.
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F (233 C).
Dimple the top of the focaccia gently with your fingers. Try not to deflate the dough too much during this process. The yeast has worked hard to create the airy bubbles and create lift, be gentle.
Once you have dimpled the top of the focaccia, drizzle it lightly with olive oil. At this point, you can season the top by sprinkling it with salt and herbs. I prefer to sprinkle flaky salt, ground black pepper, and maybe a little sprinkle of parmesan cheese. But you can add fresh basil, thyme or even sage if you want. A blend of Italian spices would also work well.
Add the pan to the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is brown and slightly darkened. I like to rotate the pan 180 degrees halfway for consistency of browning.
Chicken parmesan: if you baked your focaccia earlier, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F (230 C). Otherwise, it's the same temperature so leave it set.
Get your chicken thighs out of the refrigerator and start to set up your chicken dredging station. You will need three bowls for this.
The first bowl will contain your all-purpose flour. Add a pinch of salt and black pepper to the flour.
The second bowl will contain your whole egg, mayonnaise, and hot sauce. Add these three ingredients and whisk to combine well.
The third bowl will have the panko breadcrumbs, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. whisk to combine.
Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil.
Spray the aluminum foil with cooking spray, this is where your chicken will go.
For each chicken thigh, coat with flour in the flour bowl, then dip into the egg mixture (ensuring that it's fully coated everywhere) and finally press into the panko breadcrumbs until each piece is fully coated. Place on the cooking spray sprayed aluminum foil.
Spray the top of each piece of chicken with cooking spray, this will help the chicken brown and crisp up better.
Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, and flip each chicken piece. Spray the top side of the chicken again with cooking spray.
Bake for another 5 or 10 minutes. These last few minutes are depending on the thickness of your chicken. If you're using thick chicken breasts you will need the full amount of time. Thinner and smaller sized chicken thighs might only need 5 more minutes.
At this point, your chicken should be done, and you can remove it to a wire rack to rest.
Sandwich assembly: slice focaccia into shapes the size of your chicken pieces and then slice horizontally to get ready for sandwiching.
Place pieces of chicken on top of the bottom slice of focaccia. Top the chicken with a couple of tablespoons of marinara.
Sprinkle the marinara and chicken with 1 tablespoon of parmesan for each sandwich. Add 2 slices of mozzarella on top of each chicken parmesan.
Place the focaccia bottom slice with the chicken, marinara, and mozzarella on a sheet pan and place it under a hot broiler for 4 minutes or until the cheese is melty.
Remove the sheet pan and top each sandwich with minced basil and then cover everything with the focaccia top to complete the sandwich.
Serve and enjoy.
Chicken: If you want to use breast meat, you will probably need to butterfly the meat so that it is thin enough to cook in time. Your meat needs to be no more than 3/4 of an inch thick to ensure that it is cooked sufficiently in 15 or 20 minutes. Chicken tenders would work well at this oven time and temperature if you want to use those.
Check back next week to read about shellfish
Yeah, it’s not beef. It’s not chicken. It’s not pork. It’s something from the ocean!
In a sandwich.