When you type the words "lemon chicken" into Google, a myriad of recipes pop up. Some offer takes on Chinese lemon chicken, a fried chicken concoction reminiscent of orange chicken. Others offer baked lemon and chicken trays in the oven, which tend to dry out the chicken and leave you with a distant reminder of the lemon. But to get the real, French-inspired lemon chicken recipe, a dish so elegant you could be fooled into thinking it’s much more complicated to make, you’d have to look for a lesser known phrase: "chicken francese."
Luckily, we’re here to provide you with the ultimate classic lemon chicken recipe, a recipe so straightforward and so strikingly beautiful you’ll want to serve it for dinner every night of the week. Our elegant yet simple lemon chicken is a refined dish of lightly fried chicken breasts, cooked in a thyme-infused butter, lemon and wine sauce. This impressive yet easy to prepare dish will make any weeknight meal feel special!
Gather your ingredients for this elegant lemon chicken recipe
Simple lemon chicken is actually an amalgamation of French and Italian-American cooking techniques. "Francese" means French in Italian, which is an indication of what the recipe’s creators thought of the dish. Invented by Italian-American immigrants, classic Lemon Chicken is a dish of lightly floured and fried chicken breasts, cooked in a herb-infused butter and wine sauce. The French in its original name is a reference to the clean-tasting, French-inspired sauce of the dish, a butter and lemon affair that would be at home in any Michelin-starred restaurant.
To make the sauce, you’ll need fresh lemon, fresh thyme, and parsley. Butter, chicken stock and a dry white wine like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay make up the tres francaise sauce.
But the fried cutlets are entirely Italian American — and they make the dish feel homey yet refined at the same time. Freshly grated flakes of parmesan cheese help complete the dish and cement its place in the annals of the best Italian dishes you’ve ever made.
Slice the chicken into thin cutlets
To get started on this lemon chicken recipe, you’ll need to prep your store-bought chicken breasts. A typical chicken breast sold in a North American store has two halves that together tend to weigh about 1 pound, making it a plump serving for four. But a typical chicken breast halve is also too thick for the thin, elegant fried cutlet we want in lemon chicken.
To remedy that, we will need to slice our chicken breasts in half crosswise. To do this, place the chicken breasts side by side on a cutting board. Slice chicken breasts in half, cutting across. You should end up with 4 thinner chicken breasts in total.
Prep the lemon chicken for frying
Lemon chicken is first covered with a dusting of flour, and then dipped into a rich blend of egg and milk. This helps create a thin, luxurious coating on the outside of the chicken.
In a large shallow bowl or plate, whisk together egg, milk, salt and pepper. Place flour in a separate bowl or plate. We use both egg and milk because while egg helps the flour adhere, the milk adds fat and protein to the mix. This helps the chicken cutlets become more brown and glossy as they cook. In the end, it leads to a buttery, textural coating on the outside of the chicken.
To prep our chicken for frying, dip each piece of chicken first in the flour and shake off the excess. Then dip each piece in the egg and milk mixture, and allow the excess to drip off. Set chicken cutlets aside while you prepare the frying pan.
Fry the lemon chicken breasts
To fry the lemon chicken breasts, we’re going to use the shallow pan frying method. This results in soft chicken breast with an airy, eggy coating that is cooked through and delicately flavored.
Set a large, heavy duty pan with tall rims over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup of vegetable oil to it, and heat it until it’s hot (a drop of batter or water should sizzle when it hits the oil). A Dutch oven or cast iron pan would be great to prevent the oil from splattering.
Working in batches, add chicken cutlets to the pan, without overcrowding it. Fry each cutlet for about four minutes on each side, turning it over once. The chicken cutlets should be golden brown and cooked through when done (there should be no pink flesh visible when you cut through the chicken, and it should flake easily).
Transfer cooked chicken breasts to a paper-towel lined plate, and set aside.
Brown the lemon slices for your lemon chicken
The following step adds a lot to the beauty of the dish, but we also find it helps improve the flavor of the lemon sauce, so don’t skip it.
Preheat a second pan to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan. The addition of oil to the butter prevents it from burning too quickly, while the butter imparts a rich flavor to the lemon slices.
To infuse our lemon slices, add the leaves from three sprigs of thyme to the pan (remove the leaves by gently grasping the thyme sprig with your fingers and pulling against the direction in which they grow). Mix the butter, oil, and thyme leaves until the butter has fully melted and everything has combined.
Add lemon slices and fry, turning them over once, until they have browned around the edges, about five minutes in total.
Make the lemon chicken’s sauce
To make the lemon sauce, we’re going to add more lemon juice and zest, more butter, white wine, and chicken stock to our lemon slices. This creates a chemical reaction in which a miniature French chef appears on the handle of your pan, sprinkles some fairy dust into your pan and you end up with an incredibly silky, smooth butter sauce. All joking aside, whatever does happen here, it might as well be magic for how good it tastes!
Add the remaining three tablespoons of butter to the pan with the lemon slices. Add two whole sprigs of thyme, white wine, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Give it a stir and bring the whole mixture to a boil — this should take mere minutes.
Once your butter and white wine sauce reaches a gentle boil, add chicken stock. Keep the heat on medium and cook for another five minutes, allowing the alcohol to cook out of the sauce.
Finish cooking the chicken breasts in lemon sauce
Taste the sauce, adding salt and pepper to taste. You may want to add more lemon, or more butter. If the sauce breaks when you add butter, stir it a few times and let it cook until it comes together again.
Once you are happy with your sauce, reduce the heat to low-medium. Add chicken cutlets back to the lemon sauce. Let the cutlets heat through and cook in the sauce for an additional five minutes, turning them from side to side once. Remove the thyme sprigs from the sauce.
Add parsley and parmesan to the pan, reserving some for serving.
Serve lemon chicken with spaghetti and more parmesan
Voila, your lemon chicken a-la francese is ready! We recommend serving our elegant and simple lemon chicken immediately as it comes off the pan. The sauce should be luscious and delicate, flavored with lemon, thyme, and the notes of your chosen white wine. The chicken cutlets are soft and cooked through, easily sliced with a knife, and coated in a gossamer light yellow-white breading.
As befitting an Italian American classic, lemon chicken is wonderful when served with spaghetti, and sprinkled with more parmesan. However, it tastes equally delicious with roasted potatoes.
Just don’t forget to serve it with a few glasses of the wine you put in it! Food cooked with wine always tastes best when accompanied by the same wine. If serving them later, Lemon Chicken slices will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for four days. Keep the sauce separate for best results.
- 1 lb chicken breasts (2 boneless skinless breast halves)
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon milk
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- ½ cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 2 lemons,(1 thinly sliced and one zested and juiced)
- 5 sprigs of thyme
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 cup chicken stock
- ½ bunch fresh minced parsley
- ¼ cup parmesan cheese, grated or in flakes
- Place the chicken breasts side by side on a cutting board. Slice chicken breasts in half, cutting across (you should end up with 4 thinner chicken breasts in total).
- In a large shallow bowl or plate, whisk together egg, milk, salt, and pepper. Place flour in another large shallow bowl or plate.
- Heat vegetable oil in a large, heavy duty pan with tall rims over medium-high until hot. A Dutch oven or cast iron pan would be great to prevent oil from splattering.
- Dip each piece of chicken first in the flour, shake off the excess, then in the egg, and allow the excess to drip off.
- Add chicken to pan, working in batches if necessary (do not crowd the pan). Fry each cutlet, turning over once, until golden brown and cooked through, about 4 minutes on each side. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate.
- To prepare the sauce, preheat a large pan to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter. Add leaves from 3 sprigs of thyme. Add lemon slices and fry, turning them over once, until they have browned around the edges, about 5 minutes in total.
- Add remaining butter to pan. Add 2 sprigs of thyme, white wine, lemon juice and lemon zest. Bring to a boil and add chicken stock. Cook for another 5 minutes.
- Reduce heat to low-medium. Add chicken cutlets back to the lemon sauce. Let the cutlets heat through and cook in the sauce for an additional 5 minutes, turning them from side to side once. Remove the thyme sprigs from the sauce.
- Add parsley and parmesan. Serve immediately, with spaghetti or roasted potatoes.