Three Broad Categories of Chicken Fried Steak
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In Texas, there are three broad categories of Chicken Fried Steak: Western, Central and Eastern.


In West Texas, Chicken Fried Steak is made without eggs. The meat is dragged through a seasoned flour-and-breadcrumb mixture before the breading is literally pounded into the meat with a hammer, plate, etc. Finally, when tenderized, the steak is then pan fried.  In our opinion, this version is likely the authentic, historical Chicken Fried Steak but we are willing to call it a Cowboy Fried Steak if it helps avoid a dust-up.

We don’t want to get into a range war about fried steak names but we do feel an obligation to name and codify the different styles of cooking so that we can teach them. It seems reasonable to us that cowboys and chuck wagon cooks on constantly moving trail drives would fry beef in greasy skillets over a camp fire. It makes sense too that these antique food trucks without refrigeration would not have had fresh milk or fresh eggs on their treks, because before cold storage milk and eggs could only be procured from domesticated and foraging animals. Cattle drives would have had beef, flour, fat, and buffalo chip fires in abundance.  We know that the image of a cowboy grilling a steak over a campfire is romantic but we have to recall, as Tom Perini of Perini’s Steak House in Buffalo Gap, TX points out, that on the earliest trail drives buffalo chips were “the only fuel to be found.” There were no trees on the Texas prairie of the early 1800’s. The now familiar Mesquite Trees did not appear until barbed wire allowed the range to be fenced in, and prevented the Buffalos and range fires from keeping down the mesquite trees. “Imagine what a steak grilled over buffalo dung would taste like” Perini says.  We visited Perini’s Steakhouse in 2010 on our Summer Food Drive, and if we can judge a food historian by the quality of his fare, we will believe Tom’s direction on this one.  Mary’s Café in StrawnTx, (west of Fort Worth) is reported to make a great Western style Chicken Fried Steak, and has been called the “Mother Church” of the pan fried steak.

Central Texas makes a German style Chicken Fried Steak with Breadcrumbs and ladled on Gravy which is likely, according to Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food fame, a depression-era iteration of the Hill Country German-Texans trying to emulate their native Schnitzel, even Rahmschnitzel, which is also garnished with a cream gravy.

In Central Texas, the steaks are dipped in bread crumbs or cracker meal, allowing the breading to lie flat, making its texture more like that of a Teutonic Schnitzel. The Central Texas Chicken Fried Steak can be made more like a Country Fried Steak, with a liquid dip used to help the heavier breading adhere to the meat. Dipping the meat in Milk (or Buttermilk) is one option, using a Whisked Egg Dip is another, as is adding a beaten egg to the Milk before dipping the meat. Which method is used depends on the chef’s traditions and preferences. Using more egg in the coating will sweeten the exterior crust and give it a more golden color. Heitmiller Family Steakhouse outside Waco, TX in Elm Mott, TX makes a very good example of this Central Texas Chicken Fried Steak variant.

Eastern Texas Style (including Houston) requires that the steak be Tenderized, lightly coated in flour, dunked in an Egg Wash and then finally Dredged again in the Flour. Once coated it is then pan fried in a cast iron skillet and served with a creamy White Gravy or Pepper Gravy. Brown Gravy is not used very much west of the Sabine River that separates Texas from Louisiana.  Goodson’s Café in Tomball, TX and The Ranchman’s Café in Ponder, TX both make great examples of East Texas Chicken Fried Steak. At Smart Kitchen we can appreciate all three types and try to whenever we can, but according to Crystal Hessong, writing for the Houston Examiner, “West Texans consider the heavily battered and deep-fried Southern style, to be indulgent, overwrought and sinfully rich. They don't care if we eat them over our way, (sic) but when East Texans start impugning the simple, flour-dipped West Texas version of chuck wagon fame, those are fighting words.”

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