Alex had dropped his menu and was staring at me. I was 17 or 18, visiting Texas for the first time, and we were out grabbing a bite to eat. With the exception of a few family vacations, I'd thus far spent my entire life in the northeast; I grew up in New York City, went to a few boarding schools (yes, a few) in Massachusetts and Vermont, but finished high school back in the city. I'd eaten a lot of different types of food by the time I landed in Houston, but never this.
"You've never had chicken fried steak?" Alex asked me.
"Never even heard of it, dude. What is it, chicken or steak? Is it both?"
He gave me a look like I had confessed that I'd never kissed a girl. So I ordered the chicken fried steak. And understood. And if you've had good chicken fried steak
CFS to aficionados), then you understand too. Tender, battered steak,
fried in a pan, topped with a creamy, peppery gravy. How in the name of
President Sam Houston do you improve on that?
There are quite a
few theories about just where CFS originated, but I like the one about
Jimmy Don Perkins, a short-order cook from Lamesa, Texas. It's said
that in 1911, Jimmy Don missed the comma in an order for "chicken,
fried steak" and assumed the customer wanted steak cooked like fried
chicken, creating a culinary mistake that outshines even the famed "you
got chocolate in my peanut butter" accident. Other histories credit CFS
to the German immigrants in Texas hill country who were remaking a
version of wiener schnitzel, while others claim it's simply a dish born
from traditional Southern cuisine. Perhaps there's a grain of truth in
each, but I'd still think they ought to put Jimmy Don on a postage
One of the great things about CFS is that it's easy to
make at home and is forgiving enough that you can make the recipe your
own without destroying the core qualities that make it great. By
tweaking each of the four stages of the cooking process to your liking,
you'll be well on your way to Texas perfection. Note: I recommend
bringing your ingredients up to room temperature before cooking.
Stage One: The Steak
steak is the heart of good CFS, and you can get there a couple of ways.
If you've got one of those spiked hammers used for tenderizing meats
and disciplining children, buy a few pounds of round steaks and beat
them into thin, tender submission. If not, or if you just want to get
to the frying faster (that'd be me, Bob), just use some good cube
steaks. Either way you go, season with a bit of salt before moving on.
Stage Two: The Batter
a seasoned flour mixture for dredging: pepper is a must, but things
like paprika, dry mustard, garlic powder and Old Bay can all make for
nice variations. If you want the most basic version, you can simply
dredge the steaks in your seasoned flour and move on, but I prefer the
following: make an egg wash by combining two eggs, two cups of milk,
and some hot sauce. While traditional recipes often go the
flour-egg-flour route, I've learned that the reverse works beautifully:
dip your steaks in the egg wash, then dredge in the seasoned flour,
then back to your egg wash. Finally, there's the heavier (yet still
fantastically tasty) breaded version. Proceed as above, but after your
second egg wash dip your steaks into a bowl of breadcrumbs. If you want
to get fancy, you can use panko, but I wouldn't mention that to any
Texans at the table.
Stage Three: The Frying
a reasonable amount of shortening, canola, or vegetable oil in a cast
iron pan: a quarter inch or so should do -- you don't need enough to
fill your Explorer. Heat it to about 350 degrees and carefully lay your
steaks in. Fry on each side for three to five minutes until they're
golden brown. Remove them to a plate with paper towels and allow to
Stage Four: The Cream Gravy
right, bitches, it's Elvis time. Pour off all but about four
tablespoons of oil from your frying pan, keeping any solid bits that
have fallen off or stuck to the bottom. Over a medium heat, add three
tablespoons of your seasoned flour and stir constantly for about 2
minutes until the flour is browned. Whisk in 2 cups of milk (for
extra-fat Elvis-style, add two tablespoons of heavy cream), some salt,
and a hearty helping of black pepper. Continue whisking and cooking
over medium-low heat until it's thick and creamy. Pour over the steaks
and enjoy - leather jumpsuits are optional.
officially thanked Alex for shaming me into ordering the CFS. Come to
think of it, I never thanked him for hipping me to homemade nachos,
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either (tortilla chips, sprinkled with jalapenos, covered with a "big
'ol bungalow of cheese"). So thanks, dude. I owe you one.
Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and once chicken fried a manila envelope. It was tasty.