You could serve up a fried cow pie for all most folks know of a decent chicken-fried steak. Or maybe they’ve just forgotten what a good one tastes like. Beaten, floured, and bathed in hot fat, the thin round of usually subpar beef is a Texas treasure, a miracle of ingenuity that some think evolved from schnitzel-loving German immigrants and others from scrappy chuck-wagon cooks struggling to address the comestible shortcomings of trail-weary Longhorns. Sadly, a CFS nowadays is often a factory-formed and -breaded meat patty of entirely suspect origins; frozen solid, it hurtles down the highway to the fryer and onto your plate, where it takes its place among dispirited green beans, sullen mashed potatoes, and lethargic cream gravy. Try to cut off a bite and you divest the steak of its grease-sodden jacket in one fell swoop. Ordering one is simply not worth the dashing of hopes and breaking (sometimes literally) of heart.
But with crisis comes opportunity, of course. As Texas State history professor James McWilliams once wrote in this magazine, the difficulty of finding a good chicken-fried steak, “a product of necessity and poverty,” has elevated the humble dish to “the status of a retro gourmet rarity.” Gourmet? You bet—if you make it yourself.
2 cups all-purpose flour
salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
steak seasoning, to taste (optional; we like Saltgrass 7 Steak Spice)
vegetable shortening, for frying
1 1/2 to 2 pounds top round, tenderized by your butcher (or you, if you have the energy), cut into 4 equal portions about 1/4 inch thick
Place flour in a shallow dish and season with salt and pepper. In another dish, whisk together the buttermilk, the egg, and the remaining dry ingredients. If desired, sprinkle the steaks with a little bit of steak seasoning, then dredge them in the flour. Dip each steak into the buttermilk mixture, then once again into the flour, completely coating the steaks.
In a deep cast-iron skillet over medium heat, heat the shortening to about 340 degrees. There should be enough shortening (2 to 4 inches) to almost cover the steaks and allow them to float. Fry the steaks, gently turning every so often, until golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes (don’t crowd the skillet; you can fry in batches, just be sure to bring your shortening back up to temperature). Drain on a wire rack and keep warm in a low oven while you whip up some cream gravy. Serve immediately—they lose their luster rather quickly.