The Dish

Chicken-fried steak is the great equalizer. Its very preparation—the energetic pounding with a mallet, the vigorous dredging in flour, the immersion in splattering hot grease—puts all who make it on the same messy plane. It is also democratic to the core: The tenderized steak at its center can be as high-grade as a ribeye or as lowly as a round steak. And then there’s its broad appeal. In small towns, the best chicken-fried steak is found at the cafe with the most pickup trucks parked out front. But big-city owners of Cadillacs and Lexuses relish the dish just as much. Cowboys, hairdressers, bankers, lawyers—is there anyone who can resist that golden crunchy crust, that fork-tender beef, or that luxurious blanket of peppery white gravy? Chicken-fried steak is our shared birthright.

How to Make It

You’re lucky if you can brag about the righteous chicken-fried steaks your mother used to make and how she passed along her secrets to you. If Mom was a lousy cook, your cherished memories may come from a favorite cafe. Grady Spears has made a career of CFS, perfecting the recipe he first learned in 1992 as a newbie chef at the Gage Hotel, in Marathon. Through his tenure at various Fort Worth restaurants, including Reata; the late Chisholm Club; his namesake, Grady’s; and a new venture, Clear Fork Station (the initialism, CFS, a sheer coincidence, he says), his trademark chicken-fried steak has “never left any menu where I’ve been working.” Spears’s formula has always been his own Texas two-step, in that he flours and batters the tenderized steak twice. First, he says, pound the meat—a tenderloin, a ribeye, any good cut—between two pieces of plastic wrap until it’s barely more than 1/4-inch thick. While you heat peanut or vegetable oil in a cast-iron skillet to 350 degrees, dredge your steak through flour that’s been seasoned with plenty of kosher salt and pepper (use your fingers to really make the flour adhere). Then dunk the meat in a wash of two beaten eggs, buttermilk, and some Shiner Bock (or club soda for a lighter batter). Repeat the flour-and-egg-wash process. Cook your steak in the hot oil for about three minutes, flip it carefully, and cook for another three minutes. Drain the steak on paper towels and season it with additional salt. Cream gravy, naturally, is a must. —JN

Chicken-Fried Steak
from Grady Spears

1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons paprika
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup Shiner Bock or other bock beer
peanut oil, enough to cover meat halfway
4 tenderized round steaks (about 1/2 pound each)
2 cups Cracked-Pepper Gravy

Mix first 4 ingredients and set aside on a plate or wax paper. Whisk eggs in a large bowl, then add buttermilk and beer and whisk to blend. Set aside. In a deep, heavy skillet, heat oil to 350 degrees. While oil is heating, prepare the steaks by dredging them in flour mixture, coating evenly. Shake off any excess. Dip in egg batter, and then again in flour, evenly coating the batter so it is dry on the outside. When oil temperature reaches 350 (a drop of batter will sizzle when dropped into it), gently slide one steak into the oil. Cook about 3 minutes, then turn it, taking care not to break the crust, and cook 3 more minutes, or until nicely browned. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the other steaks. Hold cooked steaks in a 225-degree oven until all are done. Serve with Cracked-Pepper Gravy. Serves 4.

Cracked-Pepper Gravy

1/2 cup unsalted butter
5 tablespoons flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons cracked pepper

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low to medium-low heat. When foam subsides, add flour, whisking continuously until it cooks, becoming a fragrant light brown. Slowly add milk, whisking to keep lumps from forming. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 10 minutes. Makes about 3 cups.