Chicken-fried steak was never on my radar until I started dating a Texan. Even then, when she waxed poetic about it, her eyes turning back to the lucky days when it was lunch at the school cafeteria, all I could respond with was an awkward mix of curiosity and disdain. I simply didn't understand how a well done, deep-fried hunk of a cheap steak drowned in gravy could ever win hearts and minds.
One trip to Texas changed all that.
I remember my first chicken-fried steak, at a Country Inn No. 2 in Brenham. Out came a golden slab, so big it overhung the super-sized platter. I took a bite of the thinly pounded, breaded steak, and suddenly I understood: If you love fried foods and gravy, chicken fried steak is the ultimate way to eat them.
I've since made numerous excursions for it on my regular visits to the Lone Star State. Above is one of the more exemplary versions I've come across, from Killen's Barbecue. Despite the too-thin gravy, it's a perfect piece of chicken-fried steak: a beautiful browned crust with a tender and flavorful piece of beef swaddled within. It was exactly what a chicken fried steak should be, and exactly what I have yet to find in my home town of New York. As it stands, if I want this greatness at home, I have to take matters into my own hands.
First things first, let's all agree to call chicken-fried steak by it's proper acronym going forward, CFS. With that part settled, it's time to tackle a major issue: finding the right steak.
The spirit of CFS dictates that it be made with a cheap steak. That steak also needs to be tender. See the problem? Cheap and tender are two words that don't generally go together when describing cuts of beef. I began my tests by picking up four of the least expensive cuts I could find, including bottom round, eye round, sirloin tip, and cube steak (the most popular cut for CFS, and usually made of round that's been run through a tenderizer a couple times).
For each cut, I pounded the steak even thinner than it came, placing each in a plastic bag and going at them with my rolling pin until they were between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick (a meat pounder or small skillet will work too).
I whipped up some initial batches and enlisted the tasting help of some of my Texan friends. Everyone agreed on a clear winner: The sirloin tip was the most tender and had the best beefy flavor by far. Cube steak may be the people's choice for CFS, but it took a distant second place to sirloin tip in terms of both texture and flavor. Bottom round and eye round, meanwhile, were tough and flavorless, and if it weren't for the delicious crust, they probably would have been fed to the dogs.
Putting the "Chicken-Fried" in the Steak
CFS's strange name comes from its batter, which should closely resemble the best fried chicken crust you've ever had. I know my way around fried chicken, so this part seemed like a no-brainer to me.
I started with my standard batter station: First I dredged the steaks in plain flour, followed by a dip in an egg-and-buttermilk mixture, and finally a coating of flour dampened with buttermilk and seasoned with salt, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, paprika, and black pepper.
That final coating of dampened flour is important because it's what ultimately gives the fried crust its craggy texture and extra-crispiness.
Next, I rested the steaks on a wire rack, which helps set the coating so that it stays intact when you fry it.
To avoid the mess of deep frying, I shallow-fried these steaks in a cast iron skillet. But that led to a few problems. First, the batter didn't brown evenly, since the areas not touching the bottom of the pan cooked at a slower rate. Second, the breading got smashed against the bottom of the pan, ruining the three-dimensional craggy texture I was aiming for. Third, after the first couple steaks, pieces of blackened crust that had fallen off previous batches started to embed themselves in the subsequent ones. And fourth, my breading, which has always worked great for my fried chicken, was just too thick and heavy on the steak.
It turns out that CFS, despite its name, doesn't work exactly like fried chicken. Back to the drawing board.
CFS (Certified Fixed Steak)
To fix the breading, I made the first coating with cornstarch instead of flour, which helped create a thinner inner layer, and therefore a thinner overall crust. I also added baking powder to the outer coating of damp flour for extra lightness.
Given my disappointment with pan frying, I switched over to full-fledged deep frying, using my seven-quart dutch oven to accommodate the large size of my pounded steaks. This made a huge difference, producing steaks that were evenly golden, with every nook and cranny of their textured crust intact.
Riding the Gravy Train
CFS isn't really CFS until your pour a thick pepper gravy over the top. I've covered this territory previously, so there's not much new to say. After you've finished frying your steaks, take a quarter cup of the now well-seasoned frying oil and work it into a roux with some flour.
Once that browns lightly, I whisk in whole milk, season it heavily with coarsely ground black pepper, and let it cook until thickened, which only takes a few minutes. Then after a final seasoning with salt and more pepper, it's good to go.
I've you've made your CFS right, with a thick, craggy crust, even a deluge of gravy won't soften it up. This is one version to make your inner Texan proud.