An unofficial state dish

June 08, 2005|by TOMMY C. SIMMONS

BATON ROUGE, La. - Country food restaurants in small towns can be evaluated by the number of cars or trucks parked in front at lunch time. If there are fewer than four or five cars in the parking lot, drive on.

In Texas, restaurants serving chicken-fried steak, an entree that many Texans say is their unofficial state dish, have a similar unique rating system for their "star" fare. CFS (chicken-fried steak) eateries are rated by the number of pickup trucks parked out front.

According to the Web site, "never stop at a one pickup place, as the steak will have been frozen and factory breaded. A two and three pickup restaurant is not much better. A four and five pickup place is a must stop restaurant, where the CFS will be fresh and tender with good sopping gravy."

The Texas Restaurant Association estimates that 800,000 orders of chicken-fried steak are served in Texas every day, not counting any prepared at home.


Outside Texas, chicken-fried steak might go by another name, country-fried steak. It's a home-cooking style of dish, not fancy, no expensive ingredients, a hearty entree that is served in homes and restaurants with rice or potatoes, peas or green beans, occasionally squash and usually sliced tomatoes or an iceberg-lettuce tossed salad.

What confuses people who have never eaten or cooked chicken-fried steak is the name. There is no chicken in this dish. The chicken designation refers to the gravy served with the steak. It's a milk or cream gravy, the type of gravy you serve with chicken. The gravy is made from the meat drippings left in the pan after you have fried the breaded steak. Instead of making the usual rich, dark-brown steak gravy, you make a milk gravy and thicken it with a light roux.

If all this talk of gravy and roux sounds both fattening and complicated to make, the answer to both concerns is yes and no. Chicken-fried steak is not low-calorie fare, but smaller portions and eating this satisfying dish only on special occasions will remedy your diet and health concerns.

In regard to being complicated to make, it's not. The recipes are straightforward. Follow each step, and even an inexperienced cook can make a fine tasting chicken-fried steak.

Basic chicken-fried steak recipes call for using round steak, a cheap and tough piece of beef, and then tenderizing it. To speed up this step, use a cubed steak, which has already been tenderized at the meat market. You can also use a higher-quality cut, like sirloin, if you want to be sure that the steak gets tender enough to easily cut and eat. But, chicken-fried steak is meant to be cut with a knife. This isn't fork-cutting steak.

According to the chicken-fried steak Web site, Texans think that the origin of chicken-fried steak can be traced to the German immigrants who settled in Texas from 1844 to 1850. Chicken-fried steak is similar to German Wiener schnitzel, a popular breaded German meat dish made from veal. Tougher, more inexpensive cuts of beef were widely available to the new settlers, and they most likely adapted their recipes to use the tougher beef cuts.

Sharon Hudgins, moderator of a recent program on chuck-wagon cooking at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Dallas, noted that chicken-fried steak is the favorite dish prepared at modern chuck-wagon shows.

The shows, which feature programs on historical research, competitions, exhibits and more, often display 20 or more authentically restored chuck wagons. During the shows, chuck-wagon cooks will compete against one another to determine who would have served the best chuck-wagon food on the trail.

Chicken-fried steak is a popular competition dish, Hudgins said, though it was seldom served on the trail. The cowboys didn't have time to butcher beef on the trail drive, and each cow or steer was cash on the hoof, not food, in their eyes, she explained.

The chicken-fried steaks' fame spread in the ranch-house cooking days, from the 1890s on, when chuck-house (referring to the outside kitchen) cooks did pound the tough steaks to make them tender and perfected pan-fried gravies to serve with biscuits as well as steaks, she added.

The following recipe is from Sharon Hudgins. Chicken-fried steak with gravy, Hudgins says, is considered a quintessential Texas dish, whether cooked outdoors over an open fire (chuck-wagon style), fried on the stove in a home kitchen or served in restaurants and cafs all over the state.

Texas Chicken-Fried Steak with Cream Gravy


3 pounds round steak, 1/2-inch thick

2 cups all-purpose white flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

Vegetable oil (corn, peanut, safflower oil) for frying (see note)


1/4 cup pan drippings

1/4 cup all-purpose white flour

3 cups warm milk


Black pepper

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