Digging Into Chicken-Fried Steak, A Texas Icon (2023)

"Chicken-fried steak is a dish that's about taking something that's less than palatable, in this case a tough piece of beef, and with a little ingenuity turning it into something delectable," says Lisa Fain, the author of the Homesick Texan. "This perseverance, creativity, and positive attitude completely embraces the spirit of Texas and the Texan way of doing things." In fact, chicken-fried steak is so damn Texan, it has its own day, mandated by no more august body than the Texas State House of Representatives.

"Did you ever eat chicken-fried steak when you were growing up?" I recently asked my Arizona born-and-raised husband, thinking that folks who weren't brought up in Texas or Oklahoma may not be familiar with the dish. He scoffed. "Of course I did. It's not like it's the state dish of Texas or anything."

While he's technically correct—the reach of chicken-fried steak reach extends beyond the Texas state lines—he was missing the point. Chicken-fried steak tells the story of Texas. The dish shows us how a particular global diaspora changed Texas foodways for good, and it brings us back to a time when so-called "country cooking" was just ... cooking.

Digging Into Chicken-Fried Steak, A Texas Icon (1)

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If you've lived up to this point never having consumed chicken-fried steak, well, that's just not living. Start with the basics: chicken-fried steak is steak, breaded and fried like you would chicken. Purists will argue that you can't use just any beef in chicken-fried steak; traditionally, the cut was tough and cheap—usually round steak—although many cooks and restaurants use higher-end cuts like ribeye or tenderloin these days. After the cook pounds out a piece of round steak with a mallet (or runs it through a tenderizer), she dredges it in seasoned flour, dips it in egg wash, then dredges it in flour again. This process ensures a seal that traps the heat inside the breading and cooks the meat while keeping it tender. The steak is then fried, either in a cast iron skillet or a deep fryer. The golden brown and crunchy result is then slathered in cream gravy, which is made from pan drippings (or bacon grease), flour, milk, and pepper. The final product is a wonderful combination of salt and umami, showcasing the rich creaminess of a well-executed gravy.

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According to Robb Walsh in his 2012 encyclopedia of regional Texas cuisine, Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook, there are three styles of chicken-fried steak in the Lone Star State. The first is the schnitzel-adjacent Central Texas version; East Texas interpretations skew more stereotypically "Southern," with a thicker, richer breading; West Texan cooks specialize in cowboy-style pan-fried steak, which is coated in flour—skip the eggs—and seared in a skillet. This latter style hearkens back to the 19th century cattle-drive days, when Texan ranchers were sending their herds out West, chasing gold rush money first in California and later in Colorado, as well as supplying cattle to frontier outposts in West Texas and New Mexico, which may account for why the first print instance of chicken-fried steak appears in the Colorado Springs Gazette in June 1914.

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While it's nearly impossible to definitively trace the origins of chicken-fried steak in Texas and beyond, the most commonly accepted history of the dish traces a line back to a wave of German immigration to Texas that began in the 1830s. Thousands of people—primarily middle-class farmers and artisans from west-central Germany—arrived seeking opportunities in Texas' wide-open spaces. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 40,000 Germans populated a long stretch of Texas countryside known today as the "German belt," from their point of arrival in the port city of Galveston in the southeastern part of the state to Kerrville, located in the west-central hills.

The Germans brought with them an Austrian dish called wiener schnitzel: a butterflied veal (or sometimes pork) cutlet pounded thin, dipped in eggs and bread crumbs, then deep fried until golden brown. The resulting coating, sometimes referred to as a "carpet of crumbs," is similar to that of chicken-fried steak, but the schnitzel is only dipped once in flour rather than twice, so the coating is a bit thinner and crispier. German settlers likely found that veal and pork were a bit thin on the ground, but that beef was in abundance, especially during the Civil War. During the war, Texas supplied the Confederacy with beef, which led to a steep rise in the cattle population. As such, the switch to cheap cuts of beef in the preparation of wiener schnitzel likely occurred sometime in the mid-19th century.

Despite the fact that over the generations, more and more people flocked from the Hill Country and beyond to the urban areas of Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, Texas remains a largely rural state with a sizable population working in agriculture. As such, chicken-fried steak is closely associated with Grandma's scratch cooking in the Texan imagination, although it's safe to say that few people cook chicken-fried steak at home these days. "It's one of those peasant foods that brings you back to the roots," says Jack Gilmore, the boisterous chef behind Jack Allen's Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant on the outskirts of Austin. "Every mom and grandma living in the South had bacon drippings in a coffee can on the stove, in between the burners. So you take a cut of meat, pound it out, flour, salt and pepper, cast iron skillet, put some fat in there, and boom."

"That's why grandma was tough," Gilmore laughs. "She used to beat her meat every night."

Says Hoover Alexander, owner of Hoover's Cooking in Austin, "I think chicken-fried steak fits into what I call 'po-folks culture,' using what's available to you to make something nice." Chicken-fried steak has been a menu staple in Texas (and beyond) since the rise of restaurant culture in the 1950s; if you're looking to find the best chicken-fried steak at a restaurant, the prevailing wisdom says you should count the number of pickup trucks in the parking lot (the more the better).

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So, what makes a good chicken-fried steak? The first step is the treatment of the meat, which, for authenticity's sake should be a tough cut. "For me, what makes a great chicken-fried steak is the opposite of what you'd think," says Fain. "For instance, you see some restaurants now touting fancy-pants chicken-fried steak made with ribeye steaks, but this misses the point. A ribeye doesn't need to be pounded into submission, breaded, and fried to taste good. It's perfect as is. On the other hand, tougher cuts of beef do need some help, which is where chicken-fried steak excels, as chicken-fried steak is about transforming something not great into something sublime."

But you can't just take a steak and beat the hell out of it and expect your chicken-fried steak to come out right. Kim Pierce, writing in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, cites instructions from The Kentucky Housewife (1839) for the home cook to beat the tough cuts "tender, but do not break them or beat them into rags." It's about finding that sweet spot between too-tough-to-masticate and mushy-enough-for-invalids-and-babies before sending it to the fryer.

Digging Into Chicken-Fried Steak, A Texas Icon (4)

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While the (correctly prepared) meat is the star of the show, some may argue that the sides make the dish—I like a big mound of mashed potatoes and something green, usually green beans or broccoli (or if I'm at Threadgill's in Austin, broccoli-rice casserole liberally doused with hot sauce). Some people drop the artifice of nutrition and get mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese with their steaks, while others will split the difference and order fried okra.

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But for most folks, the deal-breaker is the gravy. "There were several restaurants who were known for their chicken-fried steak but they cheated and used a gravy mix," says Alexander. "I could always tell the difference. You need that little burst of freshly cracked black pepper." Indeed, it's easy to spot a cream-gravy impostor; mix-based gravy almost always tastes pasty, where scratch-made gravy wears its rendered-fat authenticity like a badge.

(Video) OLD SCHOOL CHICKEN FRIED STEAK (COOKED LIVE ON FACEBOOK COOKING SESSION)

While you can't really fiddle too much with a dish as iconic as chicken-fried steak, there is some wiggle room for interpretation. At Jack Allen's Kitchen, Gilmore and his team seek to elevate the peasant dish by using New York strip in place of the round steak, but it's the smoky, green-chile-spiked cream gravy redolent of bacon drippings that really sets this variation apart. Hoover's uses cuts that have proven to be "fork tender," meaning they've responded well to judicious tenderizing before being breaded, fried, and topped with a peppery, umami-rich cream gravy made with bacon fat and chicken stock. Hill's Cafe in Austin breads its legendary chicken-fried steak with a cracker-type meal and tops it with a chicken-stock-based "yella gravy."

Beyond Austin's borders, chicken-fried steak negotiates a similar tension between traditional renditions and contemporary attempts to 'elevate' the rustic dish. Folks wait patiently for hours on end—and with good reason—at Sodolak's Beefmasters in Bryan, where the under-$10 chicken-fried steak is nearly as big as the pickup trucks in the parking lot. Meanwhile, in Houston's tony River Oaks neighborhood, Frank's Americana Revival offers up a gut-busting whopper of a chicken-fried steak that will set you back $22 (which probably helps subsidize the cost of the valet service at lunchtime.) Norma's Cafe, an old-school diner in Dallas' humble-yet-gentrifying Oak Cliff neighborhood holds the line amid a burgeoning population of trendy new restaurants with its award-winning chicken-fried steak. But the bottom line is, unless you're eating a pre-pounded frozen cutlet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bad chicken-fried steak, which is why it has achieved iconic status across generations.

Regardless of whether it's your Oma or a hidden line cook making your chicken-fried steak, in Texas, every instance is an interaction with a complex story of the globalization of people and food. Everything else is gravy.

FAQs

Why is it called chicken-fried steak if it's not chicken? ›

Chicken Fried Steak gets its name from the breading used on the outside of the steak before it's fried in the same manner as traditional fried chicken — but instead of chicken, a tenderized piece of beef steak is used instead.

Is chicken-fried steak a Texas thing? ›

Is Texas Known for Chicken Fried Steak? Texas is the home of chicken fried steak and the dish is a fundamental recipe for those with Texan roots. Texas even boasts a state holiday, passed in October 2011 designating October 26, as Texas Chicken Fried Steak Day.

What's the difference between country-fried steak and chicken-fried steak? ›

The other distinction that sometimes comes up is that, where country-fried steak is flour-dusted and usually served with brown gravy and onions, chicken-fried steak is breaded with eggs and served with cream gravy.

What cut of meat is chicken-fried steak? ›

Generally, the most common cuts used for chicken fried steak is a lean cut, such as top round, eye round, sirloin tip or cube steak (essentially a top round that's sold pre-tenderized, hammered with meat tenderizer). Originally, chicken fried steak was created as a way to utilize cheaper cuts of beef.

What state is known for chicken-fried steak? ›

The town of Lamesa, Texas, claims to be the birthplace of chicken-fried steak, and even hosts an annual celebration of the dish. Chicken-fried steak is the more popular over country-fried steak in Texas.

Who introduced chicken-fried steak to Texans? ›

Another theory claims that Jimmy Don Perkins, a short-order cook in a cafe in Lamesa, Texas, invented the dish by accident in 1911. According to the legend, Jimmy Don mistook two separate orders, one for chicken and one for fried steak, for one strange request and chicken-fried steak was born.

What food is Texas best known for? ›

Today, chili is the official state dish. Texas is known for its own variation of chili con carne. Texas chili is typically made with hot peppers and beef (or sometimes game meats like venison) and is sometimes served with pinto beans, either as a side or in the chili itself.

What is Texas Chicken called in USA? ›

Church's Texas Chicken trades as Texas Chicken or Church's Chicken in many countries. The chain is currently owned by American private equity firm High Bluff Capital Partners. As of 2017, Church's Texas Chicken had more than 1,700 franchised and company-owned locations in 26 countries.

Why is a cowboy steak called a cowboy steak? ›

We can assume that this rugged name came from the equally rugged hunk of steak you'll get when you order a cowboy steak cut from your butcher or a local restaurant. It's manly and rugged, much like a cowboy. Cowboy cuts, since they're part of the ribeye steak cut, also come from the rib section of the animal.

Why is my country-fried steak soggy? ›

1. The oil isn't at the right temperature. Adding the steak to the oil before it's reached 350° will make the breading wet and soggy, it needs to instantly start cooking as soon as it hits the oil so that the breading can crisp right up.

Is chicken-fried steak real chicken? ›

Chicken-fried steak is, quite simply, a piece of steak that's battered and cooked in the same way one would fry chicken. Though upscale restaurants might use pricey cuts like tenderloin, most opt for less-expensive round steak or cube steak.

What is another name for chicken-fried steak? ›

Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak or CFS, is an American breaded cutlet dish consisting of a piece of beefsteak (most often tenderized cube steak) coated with seasoned flour and either deep-fried or pan-fried. It is sometimes associated with the Southern cuisine of the United States.

Why does my breading fall off my chicken-fried steak? ›

You Don't Start Dry. The first step to breading chicken is crucial; make sure the chicken is completely dry before starting the dredging process. Using a paper towel, pat the meat dry on all sides. Excess moisture will cause the flour to get soggy and thus will not adhere properly to the chicken.

How do I make the best fried steak? ›

Heat a heavy-based frying pan until very hot but not smoking. Drizzle some oil into the pan and leave for a moment. Add the steak, a knob of butter, some garlic and robust herbs, if you want. Sear evenly on each side for our recommended time, turning every minute for the best caramelised crust.

What is America's favorite steak? ›

Ribeye is America's favorite cut of steak, enjoyed by 61% of survey respondents, followed by filet (47%) and T-bone (43%).

Is chicken steak healthy? ›

Chicken has just as much protein as beef and pork without all the fat and calories. One 268-calorie breast has 33 grams of protein to support your bones, muscles, skin, blood, and immune system. It also has almost 10% of the magnesium you need every day, plus iron to carry oxygen to your cells.

What US city is known for its hot chicken? ›

Hot chicken (or Nashville hot chicken) is a type of fried chicken that is a local specialty of Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States.

What was John Wayne's favorite steak? ›

Considering his status as a man's man, it's no surprise that John Wayne loved roast beef.

Why is Texas known for steak? ›

Some of the most well-known aspects of this large state are its cattle country and its prized beef, so it is no surprise that Texas also houses some of the best steakhouses in the United States. Anyone can tell you that Texas is the place to be for meat-lovers.

What was the first steakhouse in America? ›

But it wasn't until 1837 that America's first steakhouse, Delmonico's, opened its doors.

What is Texas national dish? ›

Chili was adopted as the Texas state dish on May 11, 1977. The International Chili Cook-Off has been held in Texas in 1967. President Lyndon B.

What is the most famous snack in Texas? ›

In Texas, the most popular snack food is chips and salsa.

What food can you only get in Texas? ›

Attractions like Schlitterbahn only exist in the Lone Star State.
  • Texans love to chow down on some Frito Pie. ...
  • Kolaches, a Czech pastry, is a staple in Texas cuisine. ...
  • Fried gator can also be found on menus in the Lone Star State. ...
  • Although Whataburger is all over the US now, it is quintessential Texas.
10 May 2021

What is the oldest American breed of chicken? ›

The Dominique is the oldest chicken breed in America and most likely the first breed to be developed here. By the mid-1700s, this was the most popular breed in America. Dominiques are weather hardy and are happiest running free.

Is Golden Chick a Texas thing? ›

The Golden Chick story began in San Marcos, Texas when the concept was created by a former employee of another franchise who believed he had a better way. His first restaurant opened under the banner of “GOLDEN FRIED CHICKEN”.

Why is it called Popeyes chicken? ›

Copeland Sr., opens “Chicken on the Run” in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi, serving traditional Southern-fried chicken. After several months of lackluster performance, he reopens the restaurant as “Popeyes” (after Popeye Doyle of The French Connection).

Did cowboys put meat under their saddles? ›

It wouldn't be unusual for a cowboy to tuck a few pieces of flank steak under their saddle between the leather and the horse. The heat and friction of a days riding would cook the thin steak while the horse's sweat would season it with salt.

What's the difference between a tomahawk and a cowboy steak? ›

A cowboy steak has a short frenched bone; the tomahawk, a long frenched bone. Cooking Methods: Grill.

Do cowboys eat beef? ›

Fresh beef was readily available, but cowboys also hunted wild game and fished in streams along the trail and during roundups. The cook used bacon grease to fry everything, but bacon also served as the main meat when supplies ran low. Beans made up the bulk of a cowboy's protein intake.

How do you keep breading from falling off country fried steak? ›

Another important tip is to place the breaded meat onto a sheet pan, cover and place back in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before frying. This will firmly adhere the breading onto the meat and help keep it from falling of when frying.

Does soaking steak in milk make it tender? ›

It's milk.

A steak that marinates in an acidic or enzymatic liquid too long, such as citrus juice or cola, becomes tough or mushy. But the acid in milk is so mild that you can soak beef in it long enough to tenderize it effectively, without damaging the proteins on the surface.

How do you keep breading from falling off when frying? ›

How To Keep Breading From Falling Off Chicken
  1. Pat the Chicken Dry.
  2. Dredge in Flour.
  3. Dip in Beaten Eggs.
  4. Coat in Breadcrumbs.
  5. Chill and Be Patient.
2 Sept 2022

Does McDonald's use real steak? ›

Every one of our McDonald's burgers is made with 100% pure beef and cooked and prepared with salt, pepper and nothing else—no fillers, no additives, no preservatives. We use the trimmings of cuts like the chuck, round and sirloin for our burgers, which are ground and formed into our hamburger patties.

Why is chicken-fried steak tough? ›

Chicken Fried steak is simply a beef cube steak that is breaded and fried like a piece of fried chicken. Cube steak is a cut of beef that is naturally pretty tough. What is this? You will see that it has been run through the tenderizer (a machine that makes small cuts all over) at the grocery store.

What do you call a steak with an egg on it? ›

Steak tartare or tartar steak is a dish of raw ground (minced) beef. It is usually served with onions, capers, mushrooms, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and other seasonings, often presented separately, to be added to taste. It is often served with a raw egg yolk on top.

What is the coating on fried chicken called? ›

breading

What is it called when you cook a steak in a pan? ›

Pan-searing is a classic technique in which the surface of the food is cooked undisturbed in a very hot pan until a crisp, golden-brown, flavorful crust forms. It's the key to building flavor and texture in a dish.

Should you let breading sit before frying? ›

Too much "glue," and the breading also might fall off during frying. After the final coating in crumbs, allow the cutlets to rest for about 10 minutes before frying, a step that also helps the breading stay attached.

How long should breaded chicken rest before frying? ›

If you fry the chicken immediately after dredging, the coating tends to peel off. While the oil heats, let the dredged chicken rest on a wire cooling rack for at least 10 minutes. The resting time helps the coating stick. You can't call it fried chicken without the crispy skin.

Should you let chicken sit in flour before frying? ›

Advantages to Dredging

You dredge chicken or any other food before pan-frying to help give it an enticing brown crust. Food dredged in flour or another coating will also gain flavor and texture and get an extra punch from the oil or butter you use to cook the food.

Should you fry steak in olive oil or butter? ›

Steak and olive oil

Like butter, olive oil has a distinct taste and low smoke point. It also offers immense moisture and character depending on what kind of oil you buy. Even modestly priced olive oil can give flavour to a steak and if you like that flavour, this is definitely the way to go.

Is it better to pan fry steak in butter or oil? ›

Because of this, if you heat up a pan hot enough to sear your steak, putting a dollop of butter in first means it is likely to burn up. However, that doesn't mean you can't still get the delicious flavors of butter with your steak.
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13 Jul 2020

Is steak better fried in oil or butter? ›

Butter is ideal for continually basting a steak and lends itself perfectly to some cuts and for those who like to be there tenderly managing the cooking. Being there and continually basting means the butter is less likely to burn and mar the flavour.

What is the best oil to fry steak in? ›

What Type of Oil Should I use for Cooking My Steak? When cooking steak in cast iron skillets, you want to use a type of oil that has a high smoke point. For example, peanut oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, and avocado oil are ideal options for cooking steak due to their high smoke points.

Which steak is most tastiest? ›

The rib eye is the ultimate steak-lover's steak. It's the most flavorful cut of the animal, and comes with very rich marbling, which provides superior taste when cooked. The cut itself comes from the rib section, where it gets its name.

What is the tastiest cut of steak? ›

For the ultimate juicy, beefy flavor, a ribeye is a great choice. These ultra-flavorful steaks are essentially individually cut prime rib roasts, and they come from the cow's upper rib area. Ribeyes are super fatty, which allows them to retain their juiciness even when cooked over very high heat.

Is chicken-fried steak meat or chicken? ›

Chicken-fried steak, also known as country-fried steak or CFS, is an American breaded cutlet dish consisting of a piece of beefsteak (most often tenderized cube steak) coated with seasoned flour and either deep-fried or pan-fried. It is sometimes associated with the Southern cuisine of the United States.

Is Chicken Fried about chicken or steak? ›

As for the origin of the name, it is generally agreed that the term is referencing the style of cooking. A “chicken fried steak” is prepared similarly to traditional fried chicken. That is, you season flour, prep the meat with egg before battering it, and fry it in oil.

What is the origin of chicken-fried steak? ›

Chicken-fried steak is commonly thought to have originated in Texas, the product of German and Austrian immigrants who adapted the dish from wiener schnitzel, which is similarly cooked but uses veal and breadcrumbs.

Is steak cow or pig? ›

It's actually muscle from the top of the cow, behind the ribs. Here, you'll get meat cuts such as New York strip, T-bone and Porterhouse steak. ROUND – Round meat comes from the cow's rear end and hind legs. Because these muscles get used a lot, this meat is often one of the toughest of the cow.

Is chicken a meat yes or no? ›

Definition of Meat

The American Meat Science Association defines meat as red meat (beef, pork, and lamb), poultry, fish/seafood, and meat from other managed species (AMSA, 2017).

Why is fried chicken not healthy? ›

Fried foods are high in saturated fat and trans fat, so they promote plaque buildup in arteries that can put you at risk for coronary artery disease, heart failure, heart attack, and stroke. There are small steps you can take to make fried foods healthier or to help limit them altogether.

Which is Healthier fried chicken or steak? ›

Fried chicken

Chicken is considered a healthier alternative to red meats because it's lower in saturated fat than beef and a great source of protein.

Who makes the biggest chicken-fried steak? ›

The Cowtown Diner started serving the world's largest chicken fried steak when it opened in January. Since then, the restaurant has dished up about 15 orders of the bovine behemoth complete with sides: six pounds of mashed potatoes and ten slices of Texas toast.

Did Oklahoma invent chicken-fried steak? ›

Chicken-Fried Steak: A Brief History Lesson

Although chicken-fried steak is a component of Oklahoma's official state dish, most sources say the recipe was actually developed in Texas.

Who invented fried chicken in America? ›

1700s-1900s

The first recipe for American style fried chicken appeared in Hannah Glasse's 'The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy' in the year 1747. The recipe called for floured chicken to be fried in lard. Soon, American Southerners started their standard techniques of frying chicken with similar recipes.

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