Braised Chicken Marsala & Mushrooms

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Happy new year! I closed 2018 out with a mushroom recipe, and although I didn't plan it this way, my first Sunday dinner of the year was also mushroom-centric. As a young adult, Chicken Marsala was one of the first dishes I was inspired to recreate from my favorite Italian restaurants. It's hard to believe that canned button mushrooms, cooking wine and thawed chicken breast cutlets were my staples back then, but I really thought I was doing something! Fast forward to my thirties, where fresh mushrooms are plentiful, I'll happily splurge on a good bottle of Marsala, and duck fat is a way of life. You probably have an idea of where this recipe is headed. Tonight's dinner was a comforting treat to myself before giving up alcohol, dairy, gluten and sugar for a month, but I'll save the details on that punishment for a future post. All you need to know is that if you're already on a restricted diet, there are some ways you can modify this recipe and still enjoy it.

Traditionally, Chicken Marsala is made with pounded chicken breast cutlets, and the sauce is prepared like most any other pan sauce. I opt to work with chicken thighs or small chicken quarters, as I much prefer developing the flavor of the sauce by braising my chicken. It's pretty similar to a southern smothered chicken dish, save for the inclusion of Marsala wine. Ordinarily I'd do a smothered chicken dish all in the same pan, letting the chicken simmer in the gravy. But here's the thing. Mushrooms take awhile to cook properly, especially if you have a whole pan to brown. To cut back on time considerably, I braise the chicken in the oven while preparing the mushrooms for the sauce on the stove top.

Here are some tips on ingredients and substitutions:

  • Marsala wine: You can use a dry or sweet Marsala wine here; I prefer dry. If you don't have Marsala, a dry white wine can still be used to make a great mushroom sauce. Just can't call it Marsala sauce!
  • Alcohol free: If you prefer not to use alcohol at all, you can replace the wine in the recipe with additional chicken stock. However, the trick is to introduce some acidity. I've found that deglazing the pan with sherry vinegar works well, and pairs nicely with the mushrooms.
  • Duck fat or butter: I like using duck fat because it works well under high heat, has a deeply savory flavor, and gets the skin of the chicken golden brown and crispy. It's also naturally lactose free, making it suitable for Whole 30. Clarified butter or ghee will work in similar fashion without burning in that first step. Alternatively, use a neutral cooking oil to sear your chicken, then incorporate regular butter to saute the mushrooms and onions. 
  • Gluten-free: 1-for-1 gluten free flour can be substituted for the all-purpose flour. If you prefer to thicken with a cornstarch slurry, that'll work too. The Marsala sauce will be very thin and soupy if you use the full volume of stock in the recipe but don't add anything to thicken it. So if flour or cornstarch aren't options, you may want to cut the amount of stock by half and serve it as a thinner pan sauce.
  • Chicken: As noted above, this is a braised recipe so don't use breasts. The chicken quarters I got from the butcher were on the smaller side which is perfect. I find the gigantic grocery store chicken quarters to be tougher and more difficult to work with. They'll take longer to cook if you leave them whole, so it's best to separate into thighs and drumsticks first. Bone-in thighs are another easy option.
  • Serving size: This reheats well so I cook as much chicken as will fit in my roasting pan. Feel free to halve the recipe, steps will be the same.

I'm not big on making new year's resolutions, but I am setting a goal to blog as often as I can. One of the things that has held me back from that in the past has been photography. In the middle of winter especially, it can be hard to squeeze in a full day's shoot before my natural light disappears. Unless I start making dinner at lunch time, it's often a miracle if I finish cooking and plate the final dish before sundown. Today was one of those days I had to bypass my step-by-step photos (also known as process shots) in order to make it to the finish line. That's my long winded way of saying I'm gonna get more posts up on the blog this year, but you may notice less photography!

Braised Chicken Marsala & Mushrooms

4 lbs bone-in chicken thighs or quarters
3 tsp Kosher salt
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp salt-free poultry seasoning, such as Bell's
3 tbsp duck fat or ghee, more as needed
1 lb sliced cremini mushrooms
8 oz sliced shiitake mushroom tops
1 onion, sliced
Cracked black pepper, to taste
8 cloves garlic, minced or grated on a microplane
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups Marsala wine
3 cups warmed chicken stock, preferably homemade
A few sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary*
1 tbsp finely chopped sage*
Finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, to garnish (optional)

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves 6 to 8
Special Equipment: Large cast iron skillet or other heavy bottomed pan, deep casserole dish or roasting pan, grater or zester

*Note: Thyme, rosemary and sage are often sold together in a pack, sometimes labeled as poultry herbs. If you don't have fresh herbs you can supplement with a teaspoon of dried Italian herbs.

Recipe Steps:

  1. Trim excess skin from the chicken. Season with salt, paprika and poultry seasoning, being sure to rub the spices and salt into the underside of the meat and under the skin. If you have time, you can place the chicken in the casserole dish and refrigerate for an hour, up to overnight. It'll give the salt extra time to get into the meat. Otherwise, continue immediately to the next step.
  2. Preheat your oven to 375°F. Over medium high heat, melt a tablespoon of duck fat in a heavy skillet. Once sizzling, sear the chicken skin-down, working in batches so as not to crowd the skillet. Flip the chicken over when the skin is golden brown and cook the underside for a couple minutes. Transfer seared chicken to the casserole dish and continue with remaining batch, adding another tablespoon of duck fat as needed.
  3. Arrange the seared chicken pieces in the casserole dish in a single layer. Stick a few sprigs of thyme and rosemary in between the chicken. Pour in about two cups of warmed stock, just enough to cover an inch or so in the pan and leaving the tops of the chicken exposed.
  4. Transfer the casserole dish to the oven and cook uncovered, for 30 minutes. A thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh should read at least 170°F. You'll start to get more of a falling-off-the-bone texture as the temperature heads towards 190°F. There's no reason to cook it beyond that though.
  5. Meanwhile, back on the stove top, add all of the sliced mushrooms to the skillet. If you need to, add more duck fat (or ghee, or butter) to the skillet. Sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and cook the mushrooms until they soften and release all their liquid, stirring frequently. This could take up to 15 minutes over medium high heat.
  6. Add the sliced onions. Continue cooking the mushrooms and onions until most of the liquid in the skillet has evaporated and onions have softened, another 10 minutes. As they cook, season the mushrooms and onions to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. If your chicken is still cooking in the oven, you can turn the skillet down to hold the mushrooms for the next step. Once the chicken has finished cooking, transfer to your serving platter and tent loosely with foil. Reserve the drippings and stock left in the pan. Discard the herbs.
  8. Add a final tablespoon of duck fat or butter to the skillet of sauteed mushrooms and onions. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes. Sprinkle the mushrooms evenly with the flour and stir quickly to dissolve. Cook for a minute, until fragrant. 
  9. Pour in the Marsala wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits in the bottom of the skillet. Cook for a minute, then pour in the reserved chicken stock and drippings from the casserole dish. Also add any stock that was left if you didn't use it all in the roasting pan; should be about 3 cups total. Stir in the chopped sage and season to taste with salt and pepper, if needed.
  10. Simmer the sauce for 5 minutes; it should thicken up to the consistency of a very thin gravy. Ladle the mushroom sauce over and around the chicken, leaving some of the crispy skin exposed. Garnish with chopped parsley.

I love serving Chicken Marsala over a good root veggie mash or polenta. Today I opted for a cheesy cauliflower mash (steamed parsley, pureed with an immersion blender and then mashed with shredded Fontina cheese and an herb compound butter) and a side of sauteed spinach that was spiced up with Calabrian chilies. It was perfect... I almost loved the cauliflower/spinach combo as much as the chicken!

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  1. This looks awesome. Do you think that this dish would pair well with your smoked gouda grits?

  2. You made mashed cauliflower sound sexy... now I have to make that with the chicken lol