Few foods scream “TEXAS” louder than Chicken Fried Steak. Along with Chili (The Official State Dish of Texas), few things cause more arguments amongst friends and rivals over whose is the best.
By the way, Chicken Fried Steak is the Official State Dish of Oklahoma. Go figure.
The origins of Chicken Fried Steak are a little murky, but conventional wisdom generally believes German immigrants to Texas in the early- to mid- 19th Century invented Chicken Fried Steak as a way to not only enjoy something similar to the Viennese/German dish Wienerschnitzel (traditionally a breaded and fried veal cutlet), but also to make tough cuts of beef palatable. (As we know, bovine back then weren’t the chemically enhanced behemoths we know and eat today; they were just as hardscrabble as the land and the people living on it.)
Another story is that it was accidentally invented by a short order cook in Lamesa, Texas, in 1911. When a waitress turned in an order for “chicken, fried steak”, the cook, Jimmy Don Perkins, misread it. He dipped the steak in the fried chicken batter, and a legend was born.
One of my favorite food writers, Robb Walsh, describes 3 different types of Chicken Fried Steak in his book, Texas Eats: 1) The Southern/East Texas version is dipped in egg and then flour, similar to the way Southern fried chicken is prepared; 2) Central Texas’s version is made with bread crumbs rather than flour, much like Weinerschnitzel; 3) A West Texas version that is made without dipping the meat in egg; this is related to what cowboys called pan-fried steak.
Robb Walsh also talks about the three most common ways people mess up a Chicken Fried Steak: 1) Over- or Under-seasoning – “If you use a salty seasoned flour for the batter, the steaks end up too salty. Underseasoning is just as bad. Even the batter on a perfectly cooked steak can taste pasty if it isn’t seasoned”; 2) Too much tenderizing – The ratio of batter to meat is crucial, and it’s determined by the thickness of the meat. If you pound the meat too flat, the steak is all batter and the steak is overcooked by the time the crust is done [this also leads to the meat shrinking in the crust].” ; and, 3) Overheating the oil – To cook a Chicken Fried Steak so the crust is golden and the meat is cooked trough, it is critical to keep the temperature of the oil at around 350F.
My recipe is much like the Southern/East Texas Version. It’s what I grew up eating and the one that most people know.
A few notes:
1. The best cut of meat for a chicken fried steak is going to be round steak. It’s a flavorful, lean, and relatively cheap cut of beef. You can buy it in the grocery already tenderized (where it may also be called “cube steak”). If you buy it un-tenderized, you’ll need to do it yourself with a tenderizing mallet. It looks like a square hammer with spikes on each end of the mallet’s head. You very likely have one in the recesses of your knife drawer.
2. It’s best to have everything at room temperature before you start. This way, everything cooks at the same speed and there will be less chance of the meat being cooked improperly.
3. You don’t want to have too much breading on your steak. If you have too much breading, it’ll take too long for it to cook all the way through and the steak will overcook and shrink.
4. Correct fat temperature is important when frying. If the oil is too cool, the breading will soak up the oil and you end up with a greasy steak. If it’s too hot, the coating will burn before the meat is cooked. The fat but come to a full sizzle when you put the steaks in. Proper frying temperatures help seal the coating and keep as much of the oil out as possible while still cooking everything evenly.
5. This goes for overcrowding the skillet, too. Don’t do it. The oil temperature will drop too much and the steaks won’t cook properly.
6. Purists will be appalled, but if you like, you can substitute chicken (Chicken Fried Chicken) or pork (Chicken Fried Pork) in place of the beef.
7. Speaking of appalled purists, I genreally do my frying in an electric skillet. It’s much easier for me to control the temperature of the oil. Purists, however, will insist on using a cast iron skillet. It’s up to you.
8. You have to have gravy. Period. There are no exceptions to this rule.
Peanut Oil, Vegetable Oil, Shortening, or Lard for frying
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
2 large eggs
6 ea. 6 – 8 oz. tenderized round steaks
1. Mix together the flour and spices in a large, shallow bowl or on a large plate. Set aside.
Beat together the buttermilk and eggs in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. Take each steak and dip it first in the flour and lightly coat. Be sure to shake off any excess.
Next, dip the steak in the batter and coat completely. Take the steak out of the batter and allow the extra liquid to dip off.
Dip the steak back into the flour and evenly coat all over. You want to be sure there aren’t any wet spots.
Shake off any excess flour. Lay the steaks out in a single layer on a rack. (This will help allow air circulation around the steaks and help keep them fairly dry.)
3. Have a 1″ depth of fat in a large skillet. Heat the fat to 375F, or until flour sprinkled in the oil immediately sizzles (but doesn’t burn) or a drop of water will make the oil pop (be careful of oil spatter).
4. Once the oil has heated to the correct temperature, take the steaks, no more than 2 at a time, for 5 – 7 minutes total, turning once. The temperature will immediately drop once you put in the steaks, so be sure to adjust the temperature as necessary to keep the fat at 350F. (This is the optimal temperature to cook the steaks without making the batter soggy or overcooking the batter before the meat is done.)
Take the finished steaks out of the oil and either place back on the rack to drain (my preferred method) or place on paper towels to drain.
After each batch is done, raise the heat back up to 375F before adding the next batch. Again, after adding the steaks to the fat, be sure to keep the temperature at 350F.
After the steaks are done, carefully drain off all but 1/4 c. of the drippings and saving any cracklings that may be in the skillet and make the gravy.
A note on the gravy: A good gravy can enhance your Chicken Fried Steak and a bad gravy can ruin it. You want a thick, creamy texture (but not pasty), a deep flavor (there are few things worse than a lumpy, bland, pasty gravy), and just the right amount of seasoning (over-salting is a common mistake).
Making good gravy is something that takes patience and practice. If you make this recipe for the first time and are a little unsure, just serve it on the side. You’ll do better next time.
1/4 c. pan dripping (if you have some nice cracklings too, great)
1/4 c. flour
2 c. whole milk, room temperature or warm
1 tbsp. black pepper
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1. Heat the pan drippings over medium heat (about 350F if you’re using an electric skillet). Add the flour and make a roux. You’re looking for something between a blonde- and peanut butter- colored roux.
2. Whisk in the milk and cook the gravy until it smooths out and thickens. Whisk in the salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning. If you want a thinner gravy, add a bit more milk.
3. Serve over (or next to) the Chicken Fried Steak and whatever else is on the plate.
Now I’m hungry.