Chicken fried steak is a classic that stands the test of time

Do you remember the first time you heard the words “chicken fried steak” or saw them together on a menu? It’s a bit befuddling if you think about it. Is it poultry or beef? And did a chicken fry this steak?

Also called country fried steak, the dish typically features a cheap cut of beef that is tenderized, breaded, fried and served with gravy made from the pan drippings. The breading insulates the meat as it cooks to help retain moisture, while the gravy serves to supplement it and add flavor, both of which are often lacking in cheaper steak cuts.

I always associate the dish with Uncle Bill’s Pancake & Dinner House, a diner in St. Louis, where I went to college. It’s open 24/7, so, naturally, there were many late-night visits with classmates after hours of studying or a night out at the club. (I don’t think I ever went to Uncle Bill’s when the sun was up.) Every time, I ordered the same thing: country fried steak and eggs. It features a breaded and fried slab of beef under a blanket of creamy gravy; two eggs however you want them; a side of hash browns; and your choice of pancakes, biscuits or toast. It was affordable, filling and delicious.

It is the standard by which I judge all other versions I encounter — but it turns out, there is more than one way to fry a steak.

The origins of chicken fried steak are shrouded in a bit of mystery. One tale traces the dish to the early 20th century, when a cook at Ethel’s Home Cooking in Lamesa, Texas, received an order for “chicken, fried steak” and mistakenly combined the two dishes. As fun as the anecdote is, this story isn’t true. But it points to one version of the dish: beef dredged in flour, dipped in egg and/or milk, coated in flour again and then fried (similar to some recipes for fried chicken, hence the name).

“Considerable evidence suggests that a version of the dish arrived in the cultural baggage of German immigrants who settled in Texas in the mid-1800s,” history professor James McWilliams wrote in Texas Monthly. “Some food historians trace its culinary heritage to Wiener schnitzel, a Viennese meal of breaded veal pan-fried to a light crisp in lard or clarified butter.” This German-influenced version uses bread crumbs as the final step in the breading process, which leads to a crisper exterior.

A third version is a more basic pan-fried steak enjoyed by cowboys. As they often didn’t have bread crumbs or eggs to cook with, the steaks were simply dredged in flour, then cooked in oil in a cast iron skillet.

These are the three buckets the dish typically falls into, but variations abound. “Home cooks took a specimen of the lowliest and stringiest cuts of meat from the most bedraggled backyard cow, whacked it into tenderness, dredged it in spice-laden flour, and cooked it in leftover grease,” McWilliams wrote. “It was scrappy, low-rent fare that reflected the struggle of settlers living on the edge of starvation and penury. And like all such humble, home-cooked dishes, it was almost infinitely variable.”

My version is an homage to the one I enjoyed all those years ago, and it’s influenced by the myriad recipes available today. It’s also slightly streamlined for efficiency, with a couple of minor tweaks for improved results.

The go-to cut of meat for this dish is cube steak, which is what I call for. Cube steak is round steak that has been run through a mechanical tenderizer, known as a meat cuber or swissing machine. (It’s responsible for the dimples you see on the beef.) But cooks can use whatever they want, with some even opting for more premium cuts, such as filet mignon (though I think those are better reserved for other uses).

For the coating, I stick with the three-step breading process (flour, egg, flour) to achieve the thicker coating that I’m used to. Instead of bread crumbs, I recommend the same seasoned flour mixture for the first and third steps to keep from dirtying an extra dish. The addition of cornstarch and baking powder, though not exactly traditional, helps create a lighter, crisper coating. Some recipes call for a mix of buttermilk and egg for the middle step, but using the same milk as for the gravy cuts out an extraneous ingredient. Speaking of gravy, the “chicken” versus “country” moniker usually reflects whether the steak is served with a white or brown gravy (in which it is sometimes smothered). I prefer the former, generously seasoned with freshly ground black pepper.

The result is a crisp, beautifully seasoned chicken fried steak and a creamy, peppery white gravy. Each forkful is like a hearty hug, begging you to go back for more.

The dredging process for Chicken Fried Steak. Scott Suchman for The Washington Post, food styling by Lisa Cherkasky

Chicken Fried Steak With White Gravy

Chicken fried steak is typically a cheap cut of beef that is breaded and fried, then served with a white gravy. The go-to cut is cube steak, which is round steak that has been run through a mechanical tenderizer, known as a meat cuber or swissing machine. (If you can’t find cube steaks, you can make your own with a bladed meat tenderizer or by pounding with a tenderizing mallet.) A white gravy, prominently seasoned with black pepper, is made in the same skillet used to fry the steaks. Serve with mashed potatoes and green beans for a complete meal.

Storage note: Refrigerate for up to 3 days.

For the chicken fried steak

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon fine salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large egg

1/4 cup whole or reduced-fat milk

4 to 6 cube steaks (1 1/2 pounds total)

Peanut, vegetable or other neutral oil, for frying

For the white gravy

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

Fine salt

Make the chicken fried steak: Set out two shallow bowls or baking dishes and have a platter or sheet pan nearby. In one, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika and cayenne until well combined. In the other, whisk the egg and milk until well combined.

Dredge each cube steak in the flour mixture, shaking off any excess; then dip in the egg wash, letting the excess drip off; then dip again in the flour mixture, gently pressing to make sure it is well coated on each side. Shake off any excess, and set on the prepared platter or sheet pan.

In a large well-seasoned cast iron or nonstick skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add enough oil to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat until shimmering. (When a bit of the flour mixture is dropped into the pan and instantly sizzles, the oil is ready.) Place a wire rack over a large sheet pan or line a tray with towels and set it near your work area.

Working in batches, fry the steaks until nicely browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Using tongs, transfer the steaks to the prepared wire rack or tray. Repeat with the remaining steaks.

Make the white gravy: Pour off the frying oil through a fine-mesh strainer set inside a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Remove any large pieces of breading that may be left in the skillet. Return the skillet to medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the frying oil and the flour, and cook, stirring regularly, until the flour is a light brown, 30 to 60 seconds. Slowly whisk in the milk and pepper and simmer, whisking regularly and adjusting the heat as needed to keep the mixture from boiling too vigorously, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste, and season with salt and more pepper, as desired.

Transfer the steaks to plates and serve with gravy poured over the top.

Substitutions: Shortening or bacon grease can be used instead of neutral oil.

Variations: Country fried steak is similar to chicken fried steak, except it is served with a brown gravy instead of white. To make a brown gravy, replace the 2 cups of whole or reduced-fat milk with 2 cups of no-salt-added or low-sodium beef stock or broth, and proceed as instructed.

Serves 4-6 (4 to 6 steaks, plus 1 1/2 cups gravy)

Nutritional Facts per serving (based on 6, 1 steak and 1/4 cup gravy) | Calories: 477; Fat: 30 g; Saturated Fat: 9 g; Carbohydrates: 21 g; Sodium: 475 mg; Cholesterol: 124 mg; Protein: 28 g; Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 5 g

— From staff writer Aaron Hutcherson.

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