Maybe it’s because all the winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve spent at home surrounded by loved ones) are behind us, leaving thoughts that are filled with fond memories of family that I’ve had a craving for all things “down home”. All I know is that I have been yearning for some good, old fashion home-spun cooking and nothing screams home-spun louder than simple Southern suppers. (And this from a Yankee no less). It could also be because today is Ash Wednesday, and cravings naturally rear their ugly head whenever something is “forbidden” – like meat for instance. Or a big, filling meal.
Which brings me to the burning question – is it Chicken-Fried or Country-Fried Steak? Are the two interchangeable names for the same dish? Are the differences a “Southern” thing, depending upon which part of the south you hail from or is there really a difference? As it turns out, the answer to all these questions is yes, depending upon who you ask. Some food historians claim the names are a regional thing – “Chicken-Fried” steak as it is commonly called in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, is a pan-fried steak served with gravy. While in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and the Carolinas, “Country-Fried” steak is on the menu. And that much is correct – be it Chicken-Fried or Country-Fried, it’s generally a cheap cut of meat that has been pounded, coated and pan-fried. Above all else, the pan-fried steak is always served with gravy. The concept of Country-Fried Steak is thought to have been brought to the Southern United States by German immigrants in the mid-1800’s. The name “country-fried steak” goes back at least that long, while the name “chicken-fried steak” has only been around since around the mid-20th century.
Besides the names, it turns out that there are other subtle difference between the two. Country-Fried Steak is moistened with milk, dredged in seasoned flour and then pan-fried. When the steaks are finished, a brown gravy is created in the skillet, and the steaks are returned to the pan cook a bit longer in the gravy. Sometimes caramelized onions are included as part of the gravy – similar to Salisbury Steak gravy. Chicken-Fried Steak on the other hand is double-dipped in seasoned flour, with the use of egg as part of the breading process. The peppery gravy accompanying Chicken-Fried Steak is creamy, made with milk rather than beef broth, and can be served over the steaks or on the side. Personally, I like my Chicken-Fried Steak smothered in gravy, with more on the side. And a big helping of mashed potatoes and buttery corn. Oh, and maybe some biscuits with honey butter or a big pan of cornbread. Now we’re talking . . .
Chicken-Fried Steak with Creamy Gravy
1 1⁄2 lbs cube steaks (about 4 steaks)
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 1⁄4 teaspoons pepper, divided
1 teaspoon paprika
3 1⁄2 cups milk, divided
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter, chopped
Place 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, and eggs in 3 separate shallow bowls on your work area or counter. Pie pans work great for this purpose.
To the flour, add 1 teaspoon each salt, pepper and paprika. Mix well.
Season both sides of cube steaks with additional salt and pepper, if desired.
Dip cube steaks in milk, then dredge in seasoned flour.
Dip floured steaks in egg wash, then again in the seasoned flour.
Heat 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a large cast iron skillet on medium heat.
Brown the cube steaks on each side, about 8-10 minutes total cooking time; remove from heat and set the steaks aside. (A platter in a warm oven works well).
If skillet is oily, drain oil without removing the brown bits left behind from the steaks. Add butter to the skillet and allow the butter to melt without browning. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of flour over the melted butter to make a roux, and cook for a few minutes on low heat. Do not allow roux to burn.
Increase heat to medium-low and slowly add the remaining 3 cups milk, and stir or whisk constantly until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Lower heat and continue to cook for a few minutes longer, until the desired gravy consistency is reach. Season well with pepper.
Remove steaks from oven, smother with about half of the gravy, reserving the other half for the potatoes.