5 Tips for Perfect Chicken Fried Steak
I cooked yesterday.
I cook most days. It is one of the things about being a stay-at-home dad that I like. But yesterday was especially meaningful because I made chicken fried steak. Which reminds me. This week's post is going to have pictures of food, including cooked meat. I know that some of my readers are vegan and may have an issue with that. I love and respect you, and it may be better for you to read next Monday's newsletter.
I grew up in Texas and spent a substantial portion of my childhood on a cattle ranch. I grew up raising beef cattle. The cowboys who worked our ranch used to joke that in Texas, a vegetarian was someone who ate chicken. I didn't know any vegans.
I did know my grandmother. I even lived with her for my sophomore year in high school. She was outgoing, tough, and had high expectations. She could also cook like nobody's business.
Cooking was a big deal for my grandmother. She had 6 kids (my mom was #2, and the oldest girl) and she perfected making good meals that fed lots of people that didn't cost a lot of money. She was especially good at making breakfast.
Her specialty was chicken fried steak. She had learned how to make it from her mother, who had learned from her mother. She passed it along to my mom and, while I lived with her, she taught me.
I don't have a lot that ties me to Texas these days. My own memories of the place are complicated. Trauma and joy live next to each other in my memories of Texas. I haven't lived there for nearly 25 years. I have only been back a few times. I live in North Carolina now, and (mostly) I love it here.
Despite that distance, when I cook chicken fried steak, I tap into an unbroken line of Texas tradition that dates back generations.
The earliest known mention of "chicken fried steak" comes from Colorado in 1914. But it had been around for years by that point. The most likely source of the dish was German immigrants to Texas in the 19th century. Chicken fried steak is basically schnitzel. The Germans opened restaurants and breweries and operated hotels, many catering to the large Texas cattle drives of the late 19th century. Chicken fried steak was a hit, and soon became a popular chuckwagon dish on the trail. It was easy to prepare with the staples on the wagon and made use of cuts of meat that were less popular, making it a cheap alternative for operators. It remains an enormously popular meal in the state.
I can remember my grandmother's exacting lessons on the "right way" to make chicken fry. And I remember being kind of annoyed at times, wondering why she was teaching me this. I was 15 when I lived with her. I wanted to eat food, not make it.
Now I have a clearer idea why she did it. It was her way of staying connected to her grandmother. It was about creating legacy. It was about sharing. And, when done right, chicken fried steak could be even more. It could be a metaphor for how to live life.
So, I made the steak yesterday. And I thought of my mom, and my grandmother, and her mother and grandmother. And I thought about Texas. The good things. High school football. Mums at homecoming. Sweet tea on a hot day. The combination of bone tired and heart full after a day on horseback. I thought about that rock house in Alexander, Texas where I learned what it meant to be cared for, and how sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of the people around you.
Here are 5 tips for making perfect chicken fried steak. And if you do it right, a few tips for better living too.
Season the flour.
To make chicken fried steak, you need to dredge tenderized cube steak. First in flour, then in a mixture of eggs, milk and buttermilk, then in flour again. It is important that the flour be seasoned.
Some people use plain flour, and then season the final product. That's fine. But my grandmother would not be pleased.
The point of seasoning the flour, she told me, is that the flavor of the seasoning then gets distributed throughout the steak. You get a little flavor in every bite. It's infused throughout the meat. Season at the end and it's inconsistent. Too little here. Overwhelming there.
My grandmother's seasoning was simple. Just salt and pepper. I use seasoned salt to give it an extra kick. But the seasoning goes in the flour.
We have things that spice up our lives, that add flavor, depth, and complexity to the things we do. Our passions, our hobbies, our collections. These things make life better.
There is a temptation to put these things off until the end. To spend our lives focused on earning a living and raising kids and accomplishing goals. When we are "done" then we can do the spicy stuff. When we retire. When we go on holiday. Someday.
That's fine. But my grandmother would say that isn't the right way. The right way is to get a little spice in every bite. To spread the enjoyment throughout the meal.
To season the flour.
Make sure the oil is right.
After the steak is dredged, it is ready to go into the oil to cook. But you have to make sure that the oil is right. Too hot, and the steak will burn at the edges without getting cooked through. Not hot enough, and you won't get the crispy coating. And there weren't many things that were unforgivable for my grandmother, but soggy chicken fried steak was one of them.
The oil is perfect when it gets a kind of heat shimmer at the top that looks like tiny waves. If the oil is aggressively bubbling it is too hot. No shimmer? No steak. It's not nearly hot enough.
Cooking is transformational. It takes something that may be inedible or unsafe and transforms it into something delicious that our body can use for energy without risk. That transformational ability is powerful, but it has to be controlled.
There are moments that transform all of us. We all have times where we have been dropped in hot oil. Metaphorically speaking. At least I hope metaphorically speaking.
These transformational moments have to have the right level of heat. If they are too intense, they can damage us and cause trauma. If they aren't hot enough, they may pass by without us even realizing that they were there, changing nothing. The moments that change us must be just right.
Know when to flip the steak.
Chicken fried steak could theoretically be cooked all the way through by leaving it in the oil on one side. But it would be terrible. It has to be flipped in order to get crispy all the way around and cook evenly.
Just like with the oil, though, you must know when to flip it. My grandmother's instructions were unequivocal. You only flip it once. One of the great things about chicken fried steak is that it makes a very tough cut of beef (cube steak) melt in your mouth tender. Flip the steak repeatedly and the rapid temperature changes can cause the fibers to bind and make the meat tough again. The way to avoid this is to avoid rapid temperature change and flip it once.
The way to know when to flip is to pay attention to the signs. When the juices from the meat start to pool on the side that is up, and the edges start to turn from beige to gold, it is time to flip.
Sometimes, we must change things. Stay too long in one situation and we become uneven and imperfect. We won't become what we are supposed to be. But change too much and we won't ever get the full benefit of where we are.
Change is good. It's necessary sometimes. But we must know when to change. And we do that by paying attention to the signs and knowing when the time is right.
Let the steak rest.
When the steak is ready, you pull it from the oil and sit it on paper towels to absorb excess oil and let the meat rest. The steak will continue to cook for a few minutes even after it is removed from the heat, the changes are just happening internally. Resting allows the juices to redistribute, making the finished product tender and full of flavor.
Cutting the meat before it rests interrupts this final cooking and redistribution. It can cause uneven moisture and textural issues. It still tastes fine, but it isn't as rich as it could be.
There is a constant temptation to rush from one thing to the next. To get more done, to mark more things off the to do list. Trust me, I know. I am a Todoist obsessive. In our hyper competitive, late-stage capitalism world rest is not considered a value. Hell, most of the time it is seen as a sign of weakness. It's not. It is a critical part of life, just like it is a critical part of chicken fried steak.
When we rest, we are still "working." We are redistributing our spirit, our joy, our energy. Rest is a counter cultural act. It is justice work. Too often the people we give the least rest (the disenfranchised, the homeless, the prisoner) are the ones that need it the most. Space to breathe, to be without expectation, sleep. These are not luxuries for the few. They are a requirement for us all.
You have to let it rest.
Everything is better with gravy.
So, you prepped your flour. You heated your oil. You cooked and flipped your steak. You let it rest. You can put it on a plate and enjoy it now.
If you want to take it to the next level, if you want to make a good experience extraordinary, then you need to turn to your cast iron skillet and hot oil, add some flour, milk and water, and make some gravy.
Gravy can be tricky. My grandmother used to say that she had made gravy her whole life but had never made the same batch. It is unique to the day, the skillet, the steak, the seasoning. My grandmother never measured anything. It was all estimation and feel. I told her once it was like she used the force to cook gravy. She either didn't get the reference or just wasn't amused.
Gravy was serious business to her. It requires attention. You have to stand and whisk and blend the components until they become smooth. She wouldn't serve chicken fried steak (or biscuits) without it. Gravy adds depth, complexity, and texture. You can eat the steak without it, but why?
We all have our gravy. Something that gives our life depth. It may be faith or family. It might be what we read or watch. It might be art that we consume or create. It might be music. It is that thing that makes life... life. You can get by without it. Things would be okay. But they wouldn't be the same.
Pay attention to your gravy. Add flavor and texture and depth to your life.
It's what my grandmother would want.
Thank you for your continued support of Combat Snuggles. I could not do this without you.
Be well y'all.
And keep pounding the rock.