Chicken-fried steak, Anne Byrn-style
More than 100 years ago, a Wichita, Kansas cafe advertised in the local newspaper, “We satisfy the hungry and the cost is no more.” One of the ways in which it did so was with a beef dish that is now a Southern favorite, chicken-fried steak.
A round steak, pounded, then dredged in flour and fried, chicken-fried steak is typically served with milk gravy and mashed potatoes. It truly, deeply, satisfies.
In its heartland home, meals needed to be that way. It was important for food to fill your plate and fill your belly. Crucially, this recipe was created with less tender, less expensive cuts of beef in mind, which made the meal affordable in to make at home or purchase in a diner.
Cuts like the round are lean, and they need tenderizing to break down and be palatable. My mother used to marinate round steak in a spicy blend and then braise it for hours to tenderness. For chicken-fried steak, you don’t marinate the beef, but you do tenderize it by bashing with a heavy skillet or meat pounder, or better yet, pound it with a heavy, pronged meat tenderizer. Once that bit of exercise is out of the way, you’re ready to start cooking.
How to chicken-fry a steak
To learn the best method, I called my friend Dotty Griffith, who used to be the longtime food editor of the Dallas Morning News, and now is a college journalism instructor. Dolly grew up in Texas, and her mother regularly placed chicken-fried steak on the dinner table.
Dotty said you must begin with round steak — about a pound — and cut it into serving portions that are bashed until they are 1/4-inch thick. Now, this takes a lot of pounding on a sturdy surface. Pour milk over the meat to cover. Add a few slices of pickled jalapeño peppers if you like things spicy. Then set the meat aside while you get the rest of the meal together. Cook the mashed potatoes. Steam spinach or green beans. Slice ripe tomatoes.
Now, gather a few shallow dishes, and in one, beat two eggs. In another, add a cup of flour and season the flour with freshly ground black pepper — a bunch of it — and seasoning salt, such as Lawry’s. Pull out your cast iron skillet, and fill the skillet with 2 1/2 to 3 cups vegetable oil. Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high at let it sit until the oil is hot — 375 degrees.
While the oil heats, prep the meat. Pull the meat out of the milk. Pour the soaking milk into a glass measuring cup. You'll need 1/2 cup. Add more fresh milk if needed, then pour the milk into the eggs, and stir to combine. Working with one piece of meat at a time, dredge the meat in the flour mixture, then dip on both sides in egg, then dredge it again in flour.
Once the oil is hot, slide that meat into the oil and cook one or two pieces at a time until deeply golden on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Once cooked, use tongs to pull the meat out of the oil and onto brown paper or a rack to drain. Repeat with the remaining meat. You can keep the cooked meat warm by placing it in a warm oven.
Gild the lily with milk gravy
As much as I loved my mother’s fried chicken, I just adored her milk — or what some people call “cream” — gravy. It is, essentially, drippings, flour, milk and seasonings. Dotty and everyone else who knows chicken-fried steak makes milk gravy to accompany it.
Here’s how to do that: Pour out almost all of the drippings and oil from the skillet, leaving about 1/4 cup. Whisk in 1/4 cup flour. You can use the leftover seasoned flour if you like. Over low heat, whisk in 1 to 2 cups milk, adding as much as needed for the consistency you like. Season with salt and pepper. That’s it.
To serve the steak, place it on plates with mashed potatoes and cover with milk gravy. Add something green, a slice of tomato, and you need no more to understand the meal that truly satisfies.
Chicken-Fried Steak with Milk Gravy
Serves: 2 to 3
Hands-on time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
1 pound boneless round steak, about 1/2 to 1 inch thick
1/2 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
Seasoning salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 to 3 cups vegetable oil, for frying
1/4 cup reserved cooking oil
1/4 cup leftover seasoned flour from dredging or fresh flour from the bag
1 to 2 cups whole milk, as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the steaks: Cut the steak into two to three pieces. Place on a cutting board, and with a meat tenderizer, pound the pieces until they're about 1/4 inch thick, turning them from side to side in this process. Place the meat in a large glass dish and pour the milk over. With a fork, turn the pieces so they are covered with the milk. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the eggs in a shallow dish, and whisk with a fork to break up the yolks. Set aside. Place the flour in another shallow dish, and season it well with seasoning salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the oil in the skillet. It should measure almost 1 inch.
Transfer the steaks to a plate and pour the milk remaining in the dish into the eggs, whisking to combine. Dredge the meat in the flour mixture on both sides, then dip in the egg, and then dredge again in flour. Place the meat on a rack to rest for 15 minutes.
Bring the oil in the skillet to 375 degrees over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, dredge the steaks one more time in flour if the flour has dissolved. Carefully slide most of the steaks into the skillet, being careful not to crowd the pan. This will assure the steak cooks quickly and browns well. Cook until well-browned, about 2 minutes, then turn and cook on the other side until well-browned and the meat tests done, about 2 minutes. You may need to adjust the heat up or down to keep it at a constant 375. Transfer to brown paper or a rack to drain. Return the oil to 375 degrees and repeat with the remaining steaks. Once all the steaks have been fried, keep warm and make the gravy.
To make the gravy: Pour out all but 1/4 cup oil from the skillet. Off the heat, whisk in the flour. Place the skillet back over medium heat and whisk until smooth. Pour in 1 cup of the milk and whisk until smooth. Add more milk, as needed, to bring the gravy to your desired consistency. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm with the fried steak.