Richard Olney's Chicken Gratin

February 24, 2015

Test Kitchen-Approved

Author Notes: The foolproof chicken recipe to get you through winter is anything but bland, boring, and sensible. Note that, as Olney says in his headnote, "The acidity of the white wine and the lemon cause the cheese custard to curdle in the cooking, creating a texture that, personally, I find pleasant but may not please everyone." I've found that the extent of the curdling depends on the size and juiciness of the chicken (and lemon), the pan, and the length of cooking time, but it's always been delicious. Adapted slightly from Simple French Food (Atheneum, 1974).Genius Recipes

Serves: 4


For the chicken

  • One 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound fryer chicken, cut up (or use all legs and thighs, or all breasts)
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large handful finely crumbled stale, but not dried, bread, crusts removed
  • 1/3 cup white wine

For the cheese custard

  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 egg yolks
  • Salt, pepper
  • 3 ounces freshly grated Gruyère
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon and deglazing liquid
In This Recipe


  1. Heat the oven to 400° F. Salt the chicken pieces and cook them in the butter over medium heat until nearly done and lightly colored on all sides -- about 20 minutes, adding the breasts only after the first 10 minutes. Transfer them to a gratin dish of a size to just hold them, arranged side by side.
  2. Cook the crumbs in the chicken's cooking butter until slightly crisp and only slightly colored -- still blond, stirring. Put them aside (don't worry if a few remain in the pan) and deglaze the pan with the white wine, reducing it by about half.
  3. Whisk together the cream, egg yolks, seasonings, and cheese, then incorporate the lemon and the deglazing liquid. Spoon or pour this mixture evenly over the chicken pieces, sprinkle the surface with the breadcrumbs, and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the surface is nicely colored and the custard is firm.

More Great Recipes:
Casserole/Gratin|Cheese|Chicken|Milk/Cream|Winter|Christmas|Fall|Valentine's Day|Entree

Reviews (59) Questions (1)

59 Reviews

Margaret October 14, 2018
As I don't use wine, is it OK to leave it out altogether or is there a substitute I could use?
Kristen M. October 17, 2018
You'll want to deglaze the pan with something to get all the delicious brown bits—you could use chicken stock or even water in a pinch. The dish will overall be a bit richer without the wine's acidity for balance, but the lemon will help.
Ute T. February 6, 2018
After reviewing all the comments, I'm surprised that nobody thought of doing the custard with a half and half rather than 35% cream. For this dish I would use both whole eggs AND 10% to reduce the caloric content. Forty years ago and in rural France where this dish originated, people probably cooked with a lot more fat than they do today.
MadeInMaine May 5, 2017
I had bookmarked this recipe and decided to make it last night. Boy, was I ever disappointed! I followed the recipe almost exactly with the exception of the lemon juice b/c I didn't want a curdled custard sauce. However, I didn't note that the wine could contribute to that also. YUCK! It looked like vomit, and was most unappetizing. If this is a Community Pick, I'd better move! : )))
Shortrib August 13, 2016
Now THAT was delicious. Chicken legs, and exactly as written (except pecorino in place of gruyere.) Served with bulgur, sliced tomatos and green beans. Sauce is rich, creamy and perfect!
Claudia February 26, 2016
Very good, but I over fault. Even though I used unsalted butter, I think the cheese must have added some salt...I'd recommend adding it later, if needed.
Upsidedownpineapple January 6, 2016
I was a little hesitant to make this recipe after reading some of the comments about curdling, but I am so very happy that I disregarded my hesitation! <br /><br />I followed this recipe exactly and my goodness, it was truly amazing. <br />If you were to consider this recipe less as containing a custard, and more about creating a beautifully decadent sauce that alternates between spoons of rich cheesy creaminess to buttery lemony smoothness. This is a beautifully broken sauce which gives a diversity of flavors. <br />If you read the note from Richard Olney, the original author of this recipe in his book, 'Simple French Food', a plain homogeneous sauce was not what this recipe was intended or created to produce. <br /><br />We used a plump, corn fed French hen which I trimmed the excess fat and skin from, some nutty Gruyere cheese from Switzerland and made the breadcrumbs from a French country style loaf of bread which I dried slightly in the oven to 'stale it'. The homemade breadcrumbs from a fresh loaf are larger and softer than than store bought crumbs and they fried nicely in the chicken juices, and browned perfectly on the finished dish and are definitely worth taking the extra couple of minutes to make.<br /> I did need to bake this dish a little longer to reach the correct internal temperature for the chicken as it was quite plump.<br /><br />My partner was so very delighted with this dish that he insisted that I must make this again for a dinner party that we are hosting this week. I highly recommend this recipe if you are looking for a show stopping main course that is very simple to prepare with quality ingredients and is delightfully French.
carcar October 26, 2015
I made this pretty much as written but added the lemon juice at the end, just before serving and it was perfect. The lemon flavor is essential but by adding the juice at the end you avoid curdling the custard.
lynette October 8, 2015
In response to gingerroot's suggestion for partially cooking the chicken and finishing the dish the following night, see link on food safety:
Judith H. October 7, 2015
If you used lemon zest for flavor would that eliminate the custard curdle?
Kristen M. October 7, 2015
Posting this here as well as the Hotline, so that other commenters can see: <br />Hi Judy! I don't know that it would be a guarantee for every pan shape and every chicken, since there's still some acid from the wine and high heat, but others on this thread have said they've consistently had unbroken custard by leaving out the lemon (see mustardwithmutton's comment below).
Transcendancing June 26, 2015
This was such a great recipe tonight, I didn't have a huge amount of cooking energy, so I am delighted with how easy this was! My custard curdled, but the lemony taste was *delicious* with everything. Will definitely make this again! I served it with Buttered Saffron Rice with Parsley, and steam-fried greens.
mustardwithmutton June 25, 2015
I adore this dish and have made it on numerous occasions. I always omit the lemon as I prefer an uncurled sauce. The results are always amazing, smooth silky custard and I don't think the flavour of the custard is in any way diminished by omitting the lemon. So for all the reviewers below who don't like the texture of the curdled sauce I highly recommend making it again and leaving out the lemon - this is what causes the sauce to break.
Christopher L. April 13, 2015
Wow, I made this last night with a wild turkey breast. Delicious.
Mary March 17, 2015
I think the flavor outweighs the curdle texture of the sauce. Made just a couple of adjustments to the recipe as written - added fresh thyme, teaspoon of Coleman's mustard powder and used zest of one lemon instead of the juice. I also used panko instead of bread. I used skinless, bone-in chicken breasts, thighs and legs (made a double recipe and put the breasts in a separate gratin dish from the legs). I also found the chicken needed about 40 minutes to cook through (maybe because I had the two gratin dishes in the oven). Next time I will make sure to cook the pieces more thoroughly on the stove top in step 1. Overall, delicious and special chicken dish. I served it with roasted asparagus sprinkled with salt and red pepper flakes.
Kevin F. March 8, 2015
Made this tonight, and while the sauce "broke", I found it to be delicious. Kids really enjoyed it and the Mrs. thought it was "good". We used all chicken thighs, and found it fattier than I think the recipe intended, but that was expected and I didn't mind it at all. Will try this at a lower temp next time to see if we can keep the custard from breaking, but it won't be a deal breaker if it happens again.
Jeannine D. March 6, 2015
Kristin, I loved this dish, curdle and all!
gingerroot March 6, 2015
I made this last night to celebrate my husband's 40th birthday. It was divine! Yes, my sauce split, but the chicken was so delicious we have renamed it Birthday Chicken. In order to get everything on the table on a weeknight, I did step 1 the night before and finished the recipe last night. I did cook the chicken a bit longer since it was in the fridge overnight - probably 35 minutes instead of 20-25.
gingerroot March 6, 2015
Oh! I also made bread crumbs from a slice of The Essential Baking Co's Super Seeded Multi-grain gluten free bread (I can only find this bread at Costco). The bread crumbs were crisp and delicious.
Anne March 5, 2015
Kristen, thanks for your reply, but I have to say that a recipe that needs a caveat that the texture may be unpleasant does not qualify as "genius." For me it wasn't so much the texture as the appearance of the curdled sauce -- nowhere near a "custard." Would never serve to guests, and in fact had to cajole my family to try it.
ThereseTetzel March 4, 2015
I made the recipe as written. The taste was very good but the curdled sauce was not. Won't make this again. It could be done much faster and better with a simple pan sauce over sautéed boneless chicken breasts.
hmship March 3, 2015
I made this last night with thighs. So delicious. I really loved the curds. I did end up pouring off some of the fat before browning my bread crumbs. And I had extra large eggs so only used 2 egg yolks.
Eileen March 3, 2015
This was easy and amazing. Quick for the decadent results. Legs were our fave to grab and have bite fulls of the crisp crumb topping.
Asaracoglu March 3, 2015
Delicious! Although next time I would make it with skinless chicken. The skin was kind of flabby but the delicious crispy breadcrumbs stuck to it at the same time.
pattyrat March 2, 2015
We made this over the weekend, followed the recipe exactly. It turned out well and we enjoyed it, but not so much that we will make it again. It just didn't "wow" us enough, considering all of the decadent ingredients.
Aliwaks March 1, 2015
PABLO = Panko stupid auto correct, if I had "used Pablo" I would have kept that part to myself. :)
Aliwaks March 1, 2015
Made this tonight, with a few adjustments 1) used an enormous chicken that didn't have a lot of fat but gave off too much "juice" 2) used asiago instead of gruyere because the mediocre gruyere at my supermarket was $11 for 8oz and that's crazy, 3) added fresh thyme, nutmeg & a bit of mustard to the custard.4) I used Pablo .<br /><br />It was pretty delicious, it would be better with a smaller more flavorful chicken, this was a massive mass market with more liquid than flavor so the custard held but had about 2 cups juice hanging under the custard layer which made things soggy.<br /><br />All in all glad I read all the comments, food52 wins again!
Gwendolyn March 1, 2015
Made this tonight and it was amazing. Rich & comforting & delicious and so quick & easy to make. I used Akmak cracker crumbs since I didn't have bread,
Jmolaei March 1, 2015
i used 2 larger chicken breasts and cooked longer than 10 minutes in the first phase. I chilled the chicken and custard mixture so that I could finish baking later. 30 minutes at 400 didn't cook them through. 20 more minutes covered with foil did it. I guess I should have checked that they were nearly cooked in the first step. Sauce broke too, but the flavor was wonderful. Some thyme would be a nice addition. I'll try again maybe with a layer of potatoes and herbs.
CookbookRick March 1, 2015
Folks, something to keep in mind here: Richard Olney wrote this recipe about 40 years ago, and used a farm-raised chicken, as he cooked in his home in the South of France. His chicken was surely not as fatty as our current chicken, which explains the excessive amount of fat in the skillet. For those of you with split sauce, I have to wonder about the temperature in the recipe, because a custard will separate above 325F. The cheese would act as a binder, though. It is possible that your ovens are higher than 400F. I have a friend who made this the other night, and while it didn't look curdled or as deeply browned as the photo with the recipe, it worked.
CookbookRick March 1, 2015
Ummm, but I realize this doesn't solve the problem of those cooks who made this recently and had too much fat in the pan. <br /><br />
Stevet February 28, 2015
Why did the cheese sauce split? It tasted great but looked horrible
Kristen M. March 1, 2015
Stevet, please see my note to Anne below.
Foodie1 February 28, 2015
I was so intrigued with this recipe, had no Gruyere, but had roasted poblano peppers and ordinary cheddar cheese. I resisted the urge to add spices to the custard and the result was subtle southwest. I removed most of the fat before crisping the bread crumbs which were my home made Portuguese mountain rye. I used about 1 cup of crumbs. I will increase the sauce slightly next time for the gratin dish I used. I will do this one again!
Joeyman9 February 27, 2015
I should note, I drained the pan I cooked the chicken in, way to much grease, so my breadcrumbs were not "drowned" in the chicken grease. I left just a tablespoon or less in the fry pan. Also, as noted by FavourFlavor, trimmed the excess skin and fat from the thighs mostly. Chicken was very moist, tender and delicious
Ingrid R. February 27, 2015
I love the idea of using potatoes under the chicken. What do you think?
FavourFlavour February 27, 2015
I found this to be a very easy dinner dish - pantry staples, simple steps, and on the table in less than an hour. As others have, I used chicken thighs (with skin and bone, but most of the fat trimmed off) and about 1/2 cup panko crumbs. The chicken was moist, and the flavor was good. I have made pork cooked in milk before, so thanks for this new variation on a great theme!
Janet February 27, 2015
While I thought the finished dish was good, I found the directions for the breadcrumbs impossible to follow as written. My chicken (I used thighs) rendered almost a half cup of fat, and between the milk solids in the butter and the fond in the pan, it was browned. A "handful" (1/3 cup? 1/2?) of breadcrumbs was going to drown in that much fat, and there was no way they'd stay "blond." I poured off the fat through a strainer, returned the browned bits to my pan and used a little of the strained fat to saute the crumbs in a different pan.
Jeannine D. February 26, 2015
Same thing happened to me Anne. I emailed Kristin, but haven't heard back yet.
Anne February 26, 2015
This tasted delicious but I didn't have a custard so much as an (unfortunately) separated sauce - not so lovely looking - any idea what I did wrong?
Kristen M. March 1, 2015
Hi Anne, you didn't do anything wrong -- Olney says in his headnote, "The acidity of the white wine and the lemon cause the cheese custard to curdle in the cooking, creating a texture that, personally, I find pleasant but may not please everyone." I've found that the extent of the curdling depends on the size and juiciness of the chicken (and lemon), the pan, and the length of cooking time, but it's always been delicious. I'll add this information to the headnote so people aren't surprised.
whmcdevitt February 26, 2015
Thank you Marshacb! found it! :)
Joeyman9 February 26, 2015
Made this dish this afternoon. Only variations, used Panko breadcrumbs and legs and thighs. Unfortunately my wife came home before I could clean the stove after cooking the chicken. Her complaining went to exhalations in a half hour after just one bite. Served with Farro Salad with Roasted Mushrooms and Parmesan. My all time favorite. Also some broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic and oil. BTW, the custard was delicious. Will definitely make again, suitable for sharing with guests
Jeannine D. February 26, 2015
I was thinking of slicing some russet potatoes very thin, par boiling them, put them on the bottom with chicken on top with egg, cream mixture. What do ya'll think?
Pimms1967 February 26, 2015
I second JulieS's question - how could one make this gluten-free on the breadcrumbs? Would gluten-free breadcrumbs work or could crushed rice cereal achieve same results?
Kristen M. February 26, 2015
All will have slightly different textures, but will be good and crisp -- you could even substitute crushed up gluten-free crackers.
Jimmy L. February 26, 2015
Can i substitute white wine with something else? I don't want to cook with wine
Kristen M. February 26, 2015
That's a tough one, but I know that some people substitute fruit juices or chicken stock. You might want to add a little more lemon to help balance the richness.
paseo February 27, 2015
try verjus
whmcdevitt February 25, 2015
I tried to find the Julia Child rice and haricot vert vinaigrette recipe mentioned in the text and had no luck. I wondered if anyone knew where I could find it. Thanks for any help you can provide.
Marshacb February 26, 2015
@whmcdevitt Check out Tracey Jackson's own description of this dinner. She provides a link for the rice recipe and briefly describes her own recipe for the beans.
JulieS February 25, 2015
Do you think I could use gluten free bread crumbs? My daughter has an allergy. I also would have to bake it in a quiche pan or cast iron pan (of which I'd brown the chicken in) as I don't have a gratin pan.
MizF February 25, 2015
This looks delicious. Do you think this would turn out OK if I used (1) boneless skinless thighs or breasts (I hate chicken skin), (2) 1 or 2 whole eggs rather than just yolks, (3) wheat germ rather than bread crumbs?
Kristen M. February 25, 2015
Yes, I do think all of these would work out fine -- I would just be worried about the skinless chicken drying out on top, so you might consider flipping it halfway through or putting it in an extra snug pan so the custard comes up higher.
Keith W. February 25, 2015
Breasts worked well. I use ghee so they always brown perfectly. (also substituted coconut milk and Asiago...added 1 T of Panko crumbs to the bread crumbs)
Jamie J. February 25, 2015
Sounds so good...would be fun to make with someone and have the meal together.
Kristen M. February 25, 2015
I totally agree.
Jenny February 25, 2015
Do you think this could be assembled earlier in the day, then baked in the evening?
Kristen M. February 25, 2015
Yes, I think that should be fine -- it will just take a little longer to cook, and you'll might want to start it at a lower temperature so it doesn't brown too much before the chicken is heated through.