Crispy fried batter and fork-tender beef are the hallmarks of the classic Southern dish, chicken-fried steak. The deceptively simple directions -- dip cube steak in flour and egg, and pan-fry it until it's golden brown -- hide complexities and techniques that many a Southern cook learned at her grandmother's elbow. If you weren't lucky enough to be raised by a down-home cook, though, you can still make crispy-outside, tender-inside chicken-fried steak if you understand the principles and techniques behind grandma's secret recipe.
Things You'll Need
Cube steak or thin-sliced round steak
Wooden mallet or meat tenderizer
Club soda (optional)
Heavy frying pan
Vegetable oil or shortening
Choose the right cut of steak. Many cookbooks recommend cube (or cubed) steak, a cheaper cut of meat that has already been sliced thin and tenderized by the butcher. Others suggest using round steak or another inexpensive cut. No matter what cut you buy, pick boneless steaks that are cut to a thickness of 1/4 to 1/2 inch.
Place each steak between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and pound it with a wooden mallet or meat tenderizer until it is no more than 1/4 inch thick. Do this even with cubed steak, but take care not to pound so much that the meat is falling apart. If you don't have a mallet, use the side of a heavy plate or any other heavy object. The pounding breaks up the connective fibers that make meat tough, resulting in steak you can cut with a fork.
Season the steak liberally with salt and pepper. Experiment with other seasonings, such as paprika, chili powder, garlic powder or onion powder. Rub the spices into the meat and set it aside while you prepare the batter.
Pour flour onto a flat plate or shallow bowl. Mix in salt, pepper and other spices to taste, using about 1 teaspoon of each spice for each cup of flour. For added flavor and crispness, try mixing in seasoned breadcrumbs, crushed crackers or crushed cornflakes.
Mix together flour, milk and spices in a separate bowl into batter that has the consistency of pancake batter. Substitute club soda for part of the liquid for a light, crisp shell. Use plain milk or buttermilk with no flour for thin, crispy breading; or a beaten egg wash with no milk or flour for classic Southern fried batter.
Heat about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil or melted vegetable shortening in a heavy frying pan over medium heat until it reaches 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the temperature by dripping a drop of batter into the pan. If it sizzles and browns immediately without sticking to the pan, the oil is ready.
Dip each piece of steak into the flour to coat the meat on all sides, working it into the crevices with your fingers if necessary. Dip the floured meat into the batter, then back into the flour. The double-dip results in a crispy batter shell around the steak.
Pan-fry the steaks 1 or 2 at a time in the hot oil. Fry each steak on one side for 2 to 3 minutes, until the edges of the batter are golden brown and you can see the blood from the steak seeping up through the batter on top. Turn the steak over and fry it for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Drain the steaks on a paper towel before serving.
Serve with pan gravy, mashed potatoes and a vegetable side dish.
For a healthier take on this Southern classic, substitute plain, beaten egg whites for the batter and pan-sear the steaks in a tablespoon of vegetable oil, then finish cooking them in a hot oven for 8 to 10 minutes.