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Bland marsala sauce: what went wrong?

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  • blaze Feb 23, 2009 08:18 AM

looking for some advice please. i have a family recipe for chicken marsala that has been a winner until recently. in the past, i've used holland house marsala and the sauce has tasted like marsala. however, i decided to try marsala wine from the wine store and the sauce hasn't been as flavorful lately. last nite it was downright bland. poor dh tried to put on a brave face when i asked how his dinner was, but after i took my first bite, it was not good!
i've tried the sweet marsala wine, but it seemed too sweet. so this time i tried dry marsala.
any suggestions? i've traditionally used a mix of about half-cup marsala and half-cup chicken stock. should i just use all marsala? and i've been trying to ease up on added salt b/c dh has high blood pressure. could less salt really make it that bland?
TIA.

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  1. Is this a whole chicken or a couple of chicken breasts? IMO, the ratio of Marsala to chicken stock is out of balance. I'd probably use a ratio of .75/1 with 1 part water 3/4 part wine. Yes, the reduced salt could be a contributing factor, but not knowing how much salt you used makes that difficult to asses. How well the chicken breasts were browned, the amount and quality of the wine used, the amount and freshness of the herbs (I'd assume oregano, thyme) amount and freshness of the garlic and onion, type of olive oil, amount of butter, whether the butter is salted or unsalted, type of mushrooms used, etc. are all factors in the flavor.

    1. First, I never use Holland House anymore because it is way too salty. Yesterday I made Emeril's Chicken Marsala which calls for 3/4 cup Marsala to 1 cup of chicken stock. I used Dry Marsala Wine and I thought the sauce was delicious. I find with cooking down wine that if you do not cook it down enough, the sauce will taste to alcoholy, but in the alternative, if you cook it down too much, you will lose the flavor of the wine. Perhaps you cooked the wine down too much and the sauce then became too bland. Do you finish your sauce with butter because that adds a nice richness to sauce?

      1. My guess, holland house marsala is not real marsala, loaded with salt. If you used real marsala which is so much better you needed to season with salt, pepper and some other seasoning to make it flavorable. Hollandhouse is full of preservatives and not true marsala like any cooking wine. You need to season from scratch. I use stock marsala, some good fresh herbs, fresh chicken and it is great. You probably didn't season enough, also true marsala accordingly to me is garnished with fresh butter to make a richness and flavor. I'm guessing you are used to seasoned or salty wine, the other marsala is so much better but remember no seasoning so you need to season as you go.

        4 Replies
        1. re: kchurchill5

          I agree--what's missing OP's description is seasoning/spices, especially salt. Holland House is loaded with salt. The mixture of stock wine needs seasoning or else blandness should be the result unless you highly seasoned every other component of the dish. In any event, I wouldn't touch Holland House with a 10 foot pole.

          1. re: Ora

            Thanks for the advice! I stopped using the HH awhile ago because it was loaded with stuff I couldn't pronounce. I think I probably didn't season well enough, and the sauce probably simmered a little too long. I'll be readjusting and trying again for a better outcome.

            1. re: blaze

              My favorite family marsala recipe uses 1 1/2 cups dry marsala and no chicken stock. It's a pretty simple recipe, but I always find the sauce really flavorful due to the marsala and sweet onions. I agree with the other posters that tweaking the seasoning and marsala ratio should help solve the blandness.
              Phoo-D
              http://www.phoo-d.com/2009/02/marsala...

              1. re: blaze

                Blaze, if you are seriously cutting back on salt, congratulations.

                It will take a few days before your senses of taste adjust without the flavor amplification salt provides. That may be the cause of your Chicken Marsala problem. To help compensate, add extra herbs and spices for a while but soon your threshold of taste perception will improve without the salt and you will find food tastes better than ever.
                Totally avoid restaurants and processed foods for a while because they are loaded with salt and will reset your taste perceptions. In a week you won't miss the salt if you are consistent in reducing its use in everything you eat. Get it off the table too.

          2. The issue of saltiness keeps coming up when people complain about bland sauces and soups. I agree that the like culprit here is the saltiness of the HH cooking wine. Did you ever taste that?

            I usually salt my soups and stews gradually, aiming that point where the flavor 'pops out', without going overboard and making the dish taste salty. If you are unsure whether salt is the issue or not, you could try adding salt to a sample of the sauce. It it makes a noticeable difference, then you are on the right track.

            1. This is a great recipe I've adapted from Cooks Illustrated. I find it works equally well with either sweet or dry Marsala.

              Chicken Marsala
              Serves 2-4

              4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (5-6 ounces each), pounded thin
              1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
              Salt and freshly ground pepper
              2 TB vegetable oil
              12-16 ounces white mushrooms, sliced or quartered
              1 medium clove garlic, minced
              1 TB tomato paste
              1 ½ cups sweet Marsala (imported)
              1 ½ TB lemon juice
              5 TB unsalted butter or margarine, cut into 5 pieces
              2 TB minces fresh parsley leaves

              1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position, place a large heatproof dinner plate on the rack, and heat the oven to 200°

              2. Pat the chicken breasts dry. Place the flour in a shallow baking dish or pie plate. Season both sides of the chicken cutlets with salt and pepper to taste. Working with one cutlet at a time, coat both sides with flour. Shake to remove excess flour; set aside.

              3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Place the floured cutlets in a single layer in the pan and sauté until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Using tongs, flip the cutlets and cook on the second side until golden brown and the meat feels firm when pressed with a finger, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to the heated platter and return the plate to the oven.

              4. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of butter. When the butter has melted add the mushrooms. Sauté, stirring occasionally and scraping the pan bottom, until the liquid released by the mushrooms evaporates and the mushrooms begin to brown. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until the tomato paste begins to brown, about 1 minute. Off the heat, add the Marsala to the pan. Return the pan to high heat and simmer, scraping the browned bits from the pan bottom, until the sauce is slightly syrupy and reduced to about 1 ¼ cups, about 5 minutes. Off the heat, add the lemon juice and any accumulated juices from the chicken. Whisk in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately.

              2 Replies
              1. re: CindyJ

                CindyJ; this looks great. I have a wonderful chicken marsala recipe but I never make it because it takes 2 hours and 20 pans (or at least it feels like that.) I'm going to try this. Thanks.

                1. re: CindyJ

                  I have made this EXACT recipe many times and it is very good.

                  It is important than you use sweet and not dry Marsala.

                2. I tried Chicken Marsala for the first time last night. I used HH Marsala cooking wine. The chicken ended up tasting very bland--not sweet or marsala-like at all. I've read the comments about using real marsala wine rather than HH; would marinating the chicken in the marsala wine (or HH) for several hours beforehand (or overnight, even) help? I got the impression that simmering in the wine for 20 minutes or so just was not enough contact time for the chicken to absorb the flavor. Furthermore, I used a skillet big enough to fit three full chicken breasts; for 3/4 cup sauce (1/2 cup HH and 1/4 cup water), a skillet that big may only be covered 1 cm or less with sauce. Hardly any of the chicken might actually be simmering in the sauce, then--even more reason to not pick up the flavor?

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: drmark27

                    Take a look at the recipe that Cindy J posted - that is the technique that you want to use. If you were to marinate your chicken before you saute it, marsala would be a terrible choice. In order to make good Chicken Marsala you are going to need to procure some Marsala. Do not ever use cooking wine. for anything. ever.

                    The chicken should not cook in the wine or wine sauce at all. You want to season your chicken well, dredge it and saute it nicely. In addition to sale and pepper you can even use a little bit of granulated garlic or onion powder if you want more flavor. Your marsala sauce accompanies the chicken. By using good wine, constructing the sauce well and getting a nice reduction you will have plenty of flavor. I find that less expensive truffle products (like truffle butter to mount the sauce, truffle 'juice', or a couple of jarred truffles) are a nice way to enhance Chicken Marsala.

                    1. re: Kater

                      You're right Kater, that the chicken shouldn't simmer in the sauce. The chicken is so thin that it cooks quickly in the pan, and the sauce adds the flavor. I'd like to add that two ingredients that are key for flavor are the tomato paste and (fresh) lemon juice. This recipe almost looks too easy to be good, but it's a favorite of mine.

                      1. re: CindyJ

                        Thanks for the feedback. Yes, this technique is totally different than the one I used. I had no problem with overcooking despite the thinness of the chicken though--the one good thing about how it turned out was how moist and tender the chicken was. It just had no flavor. I did use onion and garlic powder in the flour to dredge but I did not add salt or pepper. Next time, I will try your recipe, CindyJ.

                        1. re: drmark27

                          Let us know how it turns out. :)

                          1. re: CindyJ

                            In my opinion, it was absolutely the decreased salt that made it disappointing. It's always a huge factor, but if there aren't a lot of other flavors, insufficient salt will cause a dish to taste downright miserable.

                            1. re: jvanderh

                              Do you mean the decreased salt due to the substitution of "real" Marsala wine for cooking wine? I suppose the entire recipe needs to be considered, rather than just the one component. IMHO, using cooking wine is NOT the way to add flavor to a dish.

                              1. re: jvanderh

                                I used the cooking wine. One of the knocks on that product seems to be that it's loaded with salt, right? Yet--it ended up rather tasteless.

                                1. re: drmark27

                                  The point I was trying to make was that the blandness wasn't because you switched from cooking wine to real Marsala; it was because the rest of the ingredients in your recipe didn't enhance the flavor enough. For example, in my recipe above, there's a concentration of flavor in the caramelized fond left by the chicken, garlic, mushrooms, and tomato paste, and that is deglazed with the marsala wine. Also, if you totally eliminated the salt from your attempt using the real Marsala, it could have resulted in a somewhat bland-tasting dish. The "fix" would be not to switch back to cooking wine, but to season to your liking with a small amount of salt at the end.

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    I agree!

                                    1. re: CindyJ

                                      That does make sense. The only thing in my recipe that could have produced flavor were garlic and onion powder, which I mixed with the flour to dredge, the HH cooking wine, and a chopped onion that I mixed in the skillet with the cooking wine and the chicken afterward. Not much taste there, I guess. I thought the cooking wine would provide it all.

                      2. it is possible to make a tasty dish without adding salt, but unless the salt is forbidden, you are wise to add at least a small amount while you are cooking.

                        Salt added while cooking enhances the flavors you are using in the dish. Salt added AFTER cooking only adds the flavor of salt.

                        If you include chopped fresh herbs in your cooking, they go a long way to enhance flavor (as do rubbed dried herbs), but they do their best when "helped" by a little salt. To get the most flavor out of the least salt, use pure salt, such as kosher salt or sea salt. Common table salt has lots of additives and requires more to do its job.

                        1. When I make chicken marsala I sautee prosciutto with the mushrooms - adds some extra saltiness and great depth of flavor.

                          1. Since this is another older thread that has been revived, I'll just say that I've never had any complaints or been disappointed with this method:

                            http://foodwishes.blogspot.com/2007/0...

                            Now, thanks to Chow, I'll have to try CindyJ's method for comparison.