Originally published in the Herald-Sun 5-7-2012
Tonight Petey and I are having chicken-fried steak for dinner. It’s one of The Kid’s favorite foods. When our scholar came home last Spring, being a highly trained culinary student, the decision was made to make it for the family–solo. No advice was asked for, and the finished dish almost made my stoic child cry. It was all wrong.
Flour had been replaced with corn starch (for crunch, I was told). And there was not enough fat in the pan to cook them. The soggy coating didn’t hold up. It fell off in big slabs. The Kid was heartbroken.
“What happened? I was trying to improve it, and it’s awful!”
What happened is the fiddling with the procedure. I did the same thing forever. My thought, when attempting to “improve” it was, “I know better.” I didn’t.
My mom has, for as long as I can remember, made awesome CFS. The meat is covered with a light, crispy coating. Inside it’s tender and juicy. And the gravy, good grief, the gravy.
It’s thick and white, flecked with pepper and bits and pieces of the stuff left in the pan after frying the steaks. Growing up, I was constantly trying to come up with compelling reasons why I couldn’t help clean up after dinner. On Chicken fried steak night, I volunteered to tidy up all by myself.
Not because I was so grateful Mom had made CFS. But because I would take the opportunity to snack on the leftover gravy (straight from a spoon). I know, gross. But this is amazing gravy.
So, when cooking it on my own, I decided to use techniques that I had started using in other dishes. I would use sherry to flavor the gravy, and add beef stock, to deepen the flavors.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Every time I made it, it was awful. Each time, I would tweak my procedure to try and fix it. I still couldn’t make a decent CFS. It was always wrong and disappointing.
One day I had an epiphany. My mom’s was awesome. At least two family members asked for it for their birthday meals. So, what the heck was I doing, trying to improve on perfection?
I started watching my mom when she made it. There was nothing fancy about the way she made it, no herbs, or fancy techniques, or liquor, or sauce reductions.
I decided to make it in this simple, straightforward way. That was the day I cracked the code. What’s the code? There is no code.
I finally had made delicious chicken fried steak.
It’s a country dish, made with inexpensive ingredients, that folks make all the time. When I got over myself, and understood that the recipe doesn’t need my adjustments, it worked.
I finally asked my mother, a Jersey girl, how she learned to make such authentic, yummy chicken fried steak.
She told me when she was first married, and living in North Carolina, money was tight, and she was having trouble putting a hearty meal on the table each night.
Mizz Chapel, her next-door neighbor, and a born and bred Southern girl, came to her rescue with a couple of simple, cheap, country recipes. One of them was for CFS. And because mom is not an improviser in the kitchen, she always made it the same way. Just the way Mizz Chapel showed her. The right way.
If you want to go nuts in the kitchen, and invent new recipes, and improve old ones, go right ahead. But if you want true, authentic chicken fried steak, don’t mess around with it. The reason why it’s been made the same way for years and years, is because this is the way that works.
Mizz Chapel’s Authentic Chicken-Fried Steak and Gravy
1 1/2 pounds beef cube steak
3 cups flour
2 3/4 cup whole milk
salt and pepper
Double dredge the steak: in one shallow dish, put seasoned flour. In another, whisk eggs and 3/4 cup milk. First dip steak in flour, then egg wash, and then back in the flour.
Heat enough oil in a frying pan to come half to three quarters up the steak. Fry steaks until browned and flip and cook the other side. The oil will be absorbed by the breading, so you will have to keep adding a little oil to the pan. DO NOT cook in a dry pan, your meat won’t get crispy if you do. Place cooked steak in a single layer on a drying rack in a 200 degree oven. This will keep them warm and crispy until you’re ready to eat.
Gravy: Use the same pan, unwashed. Pour off the fat, leaving two or three tablespoons. Sprinkle into it a few tablespoons of the flour from the dredge. Stir together until the flour loses the uncooked flavor and aroma. Into the bubbling roux, pour two cups of whole milk. When it boils, the gravy is ready. If it’s a little thick, add a little milk until you’re satisfied. If it’s a little thin, carefully sprinkle in flour and whisk it into the gravy (if you aren’t careful, you will get lumps of uncooked flour, so be gentle).
Taste for salt and pepper, and serve on steak with mashed potatoes or buttered noodles. A fresh, simply cooked, country veg, like carrots or squash, is a nice side.
Thanks for your time.