Schnitzel is such a traditional dish in Germany that it comes as a surprise to me that not everyone knows the answer to “What is Schnitzel?”. My first answer is that it's delicious. My second answer is … well, it's actually a bit more complicated.
I'm going to peel back the layers of this most delicious dish, immerse ourselves in its history, and explore the many types of schnitzels that are cooked in the different regions of Germany. The end result? Lecker schmecker delicious!
But before I take a bite into history, a quick definition of schnitzel is needed.
a thin slice of meat, usually tenderized by pounding, coated in flour, eggs,
and breadcrumbs, and then pan-fried until perfectly crispy with a deep golden
brown crispy breading that covers the tender, juicy meat.
Sometime between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, Of Culinary Matters (originally, De Re Coquinaria) was written and is considered to be the first recorded cookbook that is still in print today. Most assume Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived sometime in the 1st century AD during the reign of Tiberius, wrote or compiled it.
Within the many techniques given, there are three that match schnitzel: pounding meat to tenderize, coating with bread crumbs, and frying.
This suggests that our modern schnitzels have been around for over 2,000 years.
From 12 BC to 16 AD, the Romans traveled to the Germanic countries, the land bordered by the Vistula R. on the east, the Rhine R. on the west, southern Scandinavia on the north, and the upper Danube R. on the south. I think one can assume their cooking methods came with them and is the start of answering the question, What is Schnitzel?
Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, when veal was widely eaten in northern Italy, and then later, in the Renaissance period, Cotoletta alla Milanese is mentioned in cookbooks in the early 17th century. Just what is Cotoletta alla Milanese? A tender veal cutlet coated in crunchy breadcrumbs and fried in butter, usually still with a bone.
Ummm, that almost sounds like a fat schnitzel, aka breaded cutlet.
Fast-forward again, this time to the 1850's and Radetzky, the Austrian field marshal stationed in Northern Italy, was so impressed with that Cotoletta alla Milanese that he brought it back home to Austria. A little pounding of the meat, and the Austrian Wiener Schnitzel was born.
Aha. The answer to, What is Schnitzel!
This is considered by many to be the beginning of the history of the Schnitzel, claiming Austria as its origin. And by Austrian law and trademarks, for a schnitzel to be called a Wiener Schnitzel or Viennese Schnitzel, it must be made from veal. Only veal.
The German word schnitzel (Middle High German: snitzel) is a diminutive of sniz meaning 'slice'. The name Wiener Schnitzel is first seen in printed in this book: "Rheinische Jahrbücher zur gesellschaftlichen Reform", by Püttmann, Hermann, Publication date: 1845.
This was published in 1845? Before Radetzky?
That puts his contribution into question. But it does show that the actual word schnitzel is of German origin. The Viennese schnitzel connection really remains unknown. And so the controversy continues. Can schnitzel really be called a German recipe? Well, linguistically, the word IS German.
Even if the origins of schnitzel can't be pinned down with accuracy, its place in the culinary history of Germany is established. German cooks have put their own twists on the dish, creating many versions.
The use of different types of meat, such as chicken, veal, beef, mutton, pork, turkey, and even venison, and then the variety of sauces and combinations of sides, provide a type of schnitzel to suit regional palates.
With so many varieties to choose from, here are the top 10:
Although schnitzel will pair with almost anything, there are several side dishes that stand out as the most popular sides for that perfect schnitzel. The most popular choice? Pomme Frites!
*NG: Northern German style (with cream/mayo)
*SG: Southern German style (without cream/mayo)
If you have a craving for that authentic taste of Germany, here's a quick overview of how to make a great pork schnitzel, the most popular kind that's served in Germany. This same recipe will work for almost any type of meat, such as chicken breast or chicken cutlets, sliced turkey breast, or veal meat, almost any thin piece of meat.
Get my authentic German Schnitzel recipe with a step-by-step guide to making that tender, juicy schnitzel with that crispy golden-brown crust.
The recipe uses boneless pork chops or pork cutlets. I butterfly them and then pound them thin with the flat side of a meat mallet. This works best if the meat is placed between sheets of plastic wrap.
Follow these three easy steps, and you'll be enjoying the best pork schnitzel for dinner tonight.
To see my complete printable recipe, click here.
Schnitzel is more than just a meal. It's that little bit of German culture that starts with simple ingredients and transforms them into a mouth-watering dish that's been made with love.
We’ve peeled back those layers to answer that question, What is schnitzel?
We’ve looked at the unusual history and seen the regional differences within Germany. More than just a mere dish, schnitzel is a slice of German culture, where simple ingredients are lovingly transformed into a mouthwatering dish.
Next time you savor that perfectly cooked schnitzel (with Jägersosse?), remember that it’s more than a meal. It’s a delicious taste of German tradition.