Chicken marsala is a classic Italian dish that consists of chicken cutlets cooked with Marsala wine and mushrooms. It’s a flavorful combination that has become popular at Italian restaurants around the world. But what should chicken marsala be served with to create the perfect meal?
The Origins of Chicken Marsala
Chicken marsala originated in Sicily, Italy. It was likely first made by Sicilian chefs using local ingredients like Marsala wine and mushrooms. Marsala wine is a fortified wine produced in the city of Marsala in Sicily. The rich, nutty flavor of the wine is a key component of the chicken marsala dish.
The exact origins of the dish are obscure, but it seems to have emerged in the 19th or early 20th century as Italian cuisine evolved and regional specialties like chicken marsala became popular. By the mid-20th century, chicken marsala had been embraced by Italian restaurants in the United States and other countries.
Traditional Ingredients in Chicken Marsala
While recipes can vary, the traditional chicken marsala dish is made with just a handful of main ingredients:
- Chicken cutlets – usually chicken breast pounded thin
- Marsala wine – an Italian fortified wine
- Mushrooms – most often cremini or button mushrooms
- Flour – to dredge the chicken
- Chicken broth or stock
- Parsley – for garnish
By cooking the chicken cutlets briefly in a pan, then making a sauce of the Marsala wine, mushrooms, and chicken broth, you end up with an elegant yet easy Italian dish. The marsala sauce has a rich depth of flavor from the browned mushrooms and absorbed wine.
Serving Chicken Marsala
Chicken marsala is usually served as the main protein of a meal. But what are some good accompaniments and side dishes to serve alongside it? Here are some traditional options:
One of the most common pairings with chicken marsala is pasta. The chicken and sauce are served over a bed of pasta, usually a long shape like linguine or fettuccine. The pasta soaks up the delicious wine sauce and makes it into more of a one-plate meal. Spaghetti or penne would also pair nicely.
Another excellent starch pairing is risotto. Rice dishes are common in northern Italian cooking, so a creamy risotto, like one made with mushrooms, balances the chicken marsala beautifully. The textures of the tender chicken, rich sauce, and creamy risotto complement each other perfectly.
If you want a lower-carb option, roasted or mashed potatoes are a tasty choice. Roasted red potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes add comfort and substance to soak up the sauce. Potatoes boiled in heavily salted water are also an authentically Italian side.
Polenta is cornmeal boiled into a porridge, then allowed to set. Slices or cubes of golden fried polenta give you a crunchy, corn-y side that Italians often enjoy with chicken dishes. It adds more texture to the plate.
Some green vegetables, like sautéed spinach or broccoli rabe, make a nice complement to the rich chicken. They balance the plate with freshness and nutrients. Asparagus or green beans work well too. Be sure not to overcook the vegetables so they maintain their bright color and crispy texture.
Herbs, Cheeses, and Other Additions
There are a few other components that can round out a chicken marsala meal:
- Fresh herbs – Chopped parsley or basil sprinkled over the finished dish add freshness.
- Parmesan cheese – Grated parmesan is a tasty addition, either as part of risotto or pasta, or sprinkled on top.
- Balsamic glaze – A drizzle of thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar glaze can add a touch of sweetness and acidity.
- Garlic bread – What Italian meal is complete without garlic bread? The rich chicken dish calls for the zing of garlicky, buttery toasted bread.
- Salad – A simple green salad with vinaigrette is always a smart choice to start an Italian meal.
Full Meal Suggestions
Putting together a cohesive, delicious meal featuring chicken marsala means choosing elements that work together. Here are three full meal recommendations showcasing classic pairings:
Chicken Marsala with Pasta
- Fettuccine or linguine pasta
- Chicken marsala
- Sauteed broccoli
- Garden salad with Italian dressing
- Garlic bread
Chicken Marsala with Risotto
- Mushroom risotto
- Chicken marsala
- Sauteed spinach
- Wedge salad with blue cheese dressing
- Garlic bread
Chicken Marsala with Potatoes
- Roasted red potatoes
- Chicken marsala
- Sauteed green beans
- Caesar salad
- Garlic bread
Chicken Marsala Around the World
While chicken marsala originated in Italy, the dish has gained worldwide popularity. Here’s a look at how it’s adapted in other countries:
In Italian-American cooking, chicken marsala is a staple menu item at Italian restaurants nationwide. American versions sometimes use breast fillets instead of cutlets for convenience, and add touches of cream or spices to the sauce.
British chefs have put their own spin on chicken marsala by using shallots or leeks instead of onions, and sometimes adding cream. Port or Madeira wine may replace the marsala. Morels or porcini mushrooms are favored.
Aussies love chicken marsala as much as anyone! Australian recipes often feature lots of fresh thyme in the sauce. They also add thick slices of prosciutto or pancetta for a heartier dish.
In Brazil, frango ao molho de marsala (chicken in marsala sauce) is a fusion of Italian and Brazilian cuisines. Brazilian cooks use native dried mushrooms called cogumelos and add cream and spices like cumin.
Key Tips for Chicken Marsala Success
Making restaurant-quality chicken marsala at home does take some technique. Here are tips for getting perfect results:
- Pound the chicken cutlets thin so they cook quickly and absorb the sauce.
- Dry the cutlets well so the flour coating adheres.
- Use high-quality marsala wine – it makes a difference.
- Cook the mushrooms until well browned for maximum flavor.
- Use low to medium heat when simmering the sauce to prevent sticking.
- Stir in the cold butter at the end for a silky sauce.
- Garnish with chopped parsley just before serving.
Chicken Marsala Recipe
This classic recipe uses simple ingredients for incredible flavor:
- 4 chicken cutlets, pounded 1/4 inch thick
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup flour
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1/4 cup Marsala wine
- 3/4 cup chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- Season the chicken cutlets with salt and pepper, then dredge lightly in flour. Shake off excess.
- In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken cutlets and cook for 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown. Transfer to a plate.
- Add remaining olive oil and cook shallot for 1 minute. Add mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes until browned.
- Stir in Marsala wine and chicken broth, scraping browned bits from pan. Simmer for 2 minutes.
- Whisk in cold butter until sauce is smooth. Return chicken and any juices to pan and simmer for 1-2 minutes to heat through.
- Garnish chicken with parsley before serving.
Make it a Meal!
For a full meal, serve the chicken marsala over linguine or fettuccine pasta. Add a side of sauteed spinach for color. Include crusty garlic bread and a fresh green salad.
A nice Italian wine like Chianti pairs perfectly with chicken marsala. Enjoy this classic dish with equally classic wines and sides for a taste of Italy at home!
The History and Evolution of Chicken Marsala
Chicken marsala has a long and storied history, evolving from an improvised peasant dish in Sicily to a refined menu item served at Italian restaurants worldwide. Here is a more in-depth look at the origins and transformations of this delicious chicken dish over the centuries:
Early Beginnings in Sicily
As mentioned earlier, chicken marsala likely originated in the 19th century in Sicily. During this time, many Sicilian vineyard owners would cook with the local Marsala wine to experiment with food and wine pairings or use up wine that had begun to oxidize.
Sicilian cooks also had access to wild mushrooms foraged from the nearby forests. Peasants would hunt rabbits, pheasants and other game to cook up with the mushrooms and wine over an open fire.
Over time, chicken became a more accessible meat option, and the dish we now recognize as chicken marsala emerged as a peasant meal utilizing humble, local ingredients.
Marsala Wine’s Influence
Marsala wine has been produced in Sicily since the late 1700s. This fortified wine was initially created to emulate the Spanish sherries and Portuguese Madeira wines that were popular at the time.
Marsala wine proved to be food friendly and gained favor for cooking. Its nutty sweetness and high alcohol content made it perfect for tenderizing meats in a braise and reducing into a sauce.
As marsala wine grew in popularity in the early 1800s, more Sicilian cooks began cooking with it, laying the groundwork for what would become chicken marsala.
Italian Immigration Brings Chicken Marsala Overseas
In the 1880s-1920s, waves of Italian immigration brought traditional Sicilian recipes like chicken marsala to the United States, Argentina, Britain, Australia and beyond.
Italian restaurants sprang up in cities around the world to feed expatriated Italians craving the familiar flavors of home. Creative Italian cooks adapted chicken marsala to appeal to local tastes using ingredients available in each country.
The dish gained broad appeal among non-Italian diners as well, and became a menu staple at upscale Italian eateries by the mid-20th century. More refined modern versions emerged using thicker cutlets, wild mushrooms and higher quality wines.
Contemporary Riffs on Chicken Marsala
The classic version remains popular today, but contemporary chefs have put new spins on chicken marsala while preserving the essence of the dish:
- Chicken marsala meatballs
- Turkey or veal marsala
- Marsala mushroom sauce over fish
- Creamy marsala pan sauce
- Marsala reduction glaze
Home cooks have also found quick weeknight shortcuts using boneless chicken breasts or premade marsala cooking sauce.
Enduring Popularity of an Italian Classic
While variations abound, traditional chicken marsala with pan seared cutlets, marsala wine and mushrooms continues to be a staple on Italian restaurant menus and a favorite recipe for home cooks.
The savory flavor profile and elegant simplicity of chicken marsala make it a classic Italian recipe that will endure for generations to come. Its longevity is a testament to how local ingredients combined creatively can produce a dish with timeless, global appeal.
Frequently Asked Questions About Chicken Marsala
Chicken marsala is a popular Italian-American dish, but there are still some common questions surrounding how it’s traditionally made and served:
Should chicken marsala be served with pasta or risotto?
Chicken marsala can be served over pasta, risotto or on its own. Pasta and risotto both pair nicely by soaking up the flavorful sauce. Fettuccine, linguine, spaghetti and penne are good pasta choices. Mushroom risotto offers an extra layer of earthy flavor.
What sides go well with chicken marsala?
Some classic side dishes that complement chicken marsala include sauteed spinach, roasted potatoes, green beans, broccoli rabe and polenta. A green salad is always a smart choice, and garlic bread is a warm, hearty addition.
What wine pairs best with chicken marsala?
Traditionally, you would pair chicken marsala with the same varietal as the sauce – Marsala wine! A Sicilian Marsala wine is ideal. Other good pairings are Chianti, Barolo, Amarone, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Chardonnay.
Should you use sweet or dry Marsala wine?
A good quality dry Marsala wine is preferred, as the sweetness tends to concentrate when reduced into a sauce. Reserve the sweet Marsalas for dessert wines.
Is chicken marsala better with wine or cream?
The traditional Italian preparation uses wine to deglaze the pan. Some modern versions add cream which provides a silky texture but dilutes the wine flavor. For classic flavor, it’s best to cook chicken marsala with dry Marsala wine as the base.
Should chicken marsala have mushrooms?
Yes, mushrooms are a signature ingredient in chicken marsala, providing an earthy flavor and richness to the sauce. Cremini, portobello and porcini mushrooms are most common. For vegetarians, the dish can be made without the chicken as “mushroom marsala.”
How long does it take to make chicken marsala?
From start to finish, chicken marsala can be made in under 30 minutes. Slicing the mushrooms and pounding the cutlets thin helps speed up the cooking process. The chicken cooks quickly, then you make the fast pan sauce.
Chicken marsala is an Italian comfort food classic for good reason. By learning about its origins, traditional pairings and evolution, you can better appreciate the nuances of this favorite dish. Follow an authentic recipe to enjoy the irresistible flavor combination of tender chicken, mushrooms, and marsala wine sauce. Shared with pasta, risotto or fresh vegetables, chicken marsala makes a satisfying meal with old world flair.