When I turned 16, I got a job at a BBQ joint near my parent’s house in Manchaca, Texas called Railroad Bar-B-Que. Back then, it was nothing more than a tin shed on the side of a Farm to Market highway. But they had some of the best tasting brisket, sausage, and ribs I’d ever eaten. They also had pretty kick ass chicken fried steak and cream gravy. On my first day of work the very first thing I was taught to do was how to properly pound, bread, season and fry a Texas-sized chicken fried steak.
Now I have to say that the steak itself was pretty amazing, but what put this plate over the top was the gravy. Good God in Heaven that gravy was delicious. It, as I learned next, was made from the drippings of the slow-smoked chicken we also prepared and served at the restaurant. I lovingly made that gravy by the gallon everyday I worked there. And at the end of the night, if I was lucky, and there was extra gravy left, I would take it home with me and serve it over homemade buttermilk biscuits the next morning. Ahhh, to be 16 again…
So to honor Texas on this second day of March, I decided to make a batch of chicken fried steak the way I was schooled so many years ago. Now, the most important things about the chicken fried steak eating experience are 1) the crispiness of the crust, 2) the tenderness and chew of the steak and 3) the flavor and consistency of the gravy.
For the crust, the steaks should be double-dipped, period. Now the fry is also very important and my method might be somewhat controversial. Most traditionalists will say shallow fry in a cast iron skillet. At the restaurant, we deep-fried the steaks in a commercial deep fat fryer for the sake of speed and efficiency. At home, I use a cast iron pot with about 2 to 3 inches of oil. The advantage of this method is less splatter and mess with a deeper pot and, more importantly, an even coloring on the crust. In a skillet shallow fry method, the steak rests on the bottom of the pan and will get dark spots. In a Dutch oven with more oil, the steak will float and will get a uniform golden brown color on both sides.
For added flavor, I use a trick I got from watching Tyler Florence. Throw some fresh herbs and a whole head of garlic into the oil and slowly heat up to 350 degrees then remove and discard. The herbs and the garlic will perfume the oil and give their flavor to the steaks as they fry.
The steak itself should be tender but still have some chew to it. This is chicken fried steak not steak fingers from the DQ. It’s not tough but it’s also not fork tender. I use bottom round. It has good flavor and a little marbling. One thing that I do to make it a bit more tender and to add another hit of flavor is to marinate the steaks overnight in buttermilk and Tabasco. It brightens up the flavor and the tang of the buttermilk and the spice of the Tabasco are a good counterpoint to the gravy.
Now the gravy was the hardest part. How do I even come close to the flavor of chicken drippings? The answer, reduced chicken stock. A well-jellied stock reduced down to about 2 tablespoons gives the gravy a rich and savory depth that milk and butter can’t do on their own. And if I’m really feeling like I need the comfort of home cookin’ I’ll replace the butter with some rendered chicken fat…
And that, good friends, is how you make a chicken fried steak, Texas style.
Chicken Fried Steak
Ingredients1 ½ lbs beef bottom round trimmed of excess fat 2 cups plus 1 cup buttermilk 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Tabasco 2 cups flour 1 ½ tablespoons onion powder 2 tablespoons hot or sweet paprika 2 tablespoons Kosher salt 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 2 eggs Canola oil 6 sprigs fresh thyme 2 sprigs fresh rosemary 3 sprigs fresh sage 1 head of garlic cut in half horizontally
1. Cut beef into 6 pieces. Place each piece between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and pound out using the teeth side of a meat mallet, to about ¼ inch thick. This will tenderize the meat.
2. Place the pieces in a shallow non-reactive container and pour over 2 cups buttermilk, 1 tablespoon Tabasco. Marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
3. In a medium flat dish (baking dish), mix flour with onion powder, paprika, salt, and pepper and combine well.
4. In another medium flat dish, lightly beat the eggs and add 1 cup buttermilk and 1 teaspoon Tabasco.
5. Remove the steaks from the marinade and shake off the excess buttermilk.
6. Dredge each piece of meat in the seasoned flour, then in the buttermilk mixture, and back into the seasoned flour patting off excess; set out on a rack fitted over a baking sheet and allow to rest in the refrigerator before frying.
7. Put about two inches of oil into a large deep cast iron pot. Add the thyme, rosemary, sage, and garlic to the cool oil and heat over medium high heat until the oil registers 350 degrees F. The herbs and garlic will perfume the oil with their flavor as the oil comes up to temperature. Remove herbs and garlic from oil and discard.
8. At 350 degrees F, add the steak, two pieces at a time and cook until golden brown on both sides. About 3 minutes per side. Remove steaks and drain on paper towels.
9. Place steaks on plates, top with cream gravy and serve immediately.
Ingredients2 cups chicken stock 2 cups milk 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 tablespoons flour Kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a small saucepan, bring stock to the boil and reduce down to about ¼ cup total liquid, about 20 minutes.
2. Whisk in the milk and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring so it doesn’t scorch the bottom of the pan. Keep the milk on low heat.
3. Melt butter over medium-low heat in a thick-bottomed saucepan. Just as the foam subsides, add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk to prevent lumps. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes to coat the flour and remove the starchy taste. Do not allow to brown.
4. Gradually add the warm milk and whisk vigorously. Bring up to a slow boil. Cook for 5 minutes or until gravy is the desired consistency.
5. Season with salt and pepper, remove from heat and immediately ladle over chicken fried steak.