Anatomy of a Classic

Chicken-Fried Steak the Lone-Star State Way

How does a Texas chef do the Southern classic? Bigger and better, of course

photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry


In the late 1800s, when chicken-fried steak started to catch on in Texas and beyond, cooks did what they could to tame tough, inferior cuts of meat into fork-tender submission. They pounded them with hammers, smacked them with mallets, or even took to them with the edges of sturdy plates—just as they do today.

At Emma + Ollie, a restaurant in a charming little house in Fredericksburg, Texas, Rebecca Rather cuts to the chase: She starts with slices of grass-fed beef tenderloin. Because the tenderloin is so soft, it takes only a few whacks with a rolling pin or the side of a heavy knife to flatten the slices enough so they cook quickly in hot oil, the batter forming a crust that helps keep the meat moist.

Although chicken-fried steak is the stuff of diners and ranch-hand suppers, there is no reason not to elevate it with quality ingredients and a little finesse. “You don’t have to, but if you can, why wouldn’t you?” Rather asks.

Johnny Autry

A baker by training and a cookbook author known as the Pastry Queen, Rather builds the menu at her restaurant from as many local and sustainable ingredients as she can. She landed in the Hill Country town about twenty years ago after a high-flying career cooking in Houston, Austin, and New York. She wanted to slow things down for herself and for her daughter, who was a teenager.

Rather ran a few other restaurants in Fredericksburg before recently settling into Emma + Ollie. As a native Texan, she grew up on chicken-fried steak, learning the ropes from her mother. She refined her technique after a tutorial from “Cowboy Chef” Grady Spears, who most consider to be Texas’s chicken- fried steak Jedi Master. “I thought I knew a lot about it,” Rather says, “but he came in one weekend and showed me how to really work the flour into the meat with your fingertips before and especially after you dip the meat in the egg.”

Johnny Autry

Although in some parts of Texas bread crumbs are the preferred steak coating, Rather seasons flour with a little smoked paprika and then uses what’s left over to thicken the gravy. The staff at Emma + Ollie serves the steak over crispy hash browns with a ladleful of peppered cream gravy and over-easy eggs. The dish is nicknamed the Papa’s Plate “because only a papa could eat it,” but Rather says some people also call it the Texas hangover cure.

You could get fussy and make the hash browns with fresh potatoes, but she says a good-quality frozen version works just fine. Use clarified butter for a nuttier taste and more even browning. Fry the eggs gently in clarified butter, too, she advises. And try to find really fresh eggs, preferably from someone you know. (Rather keeps her own flock of chickens, along with a rooster named Robert Redford.)

“There is no reason in the world to not use the best ingredients you can,” she says. “Even chicken-fried steak deserves that.” 


Ingredients

  • Chicken-Fried Tenderloin with Cream Gravy, Hash Browns, and Eggs (Yield: 4 servings)

  • For the tenderloin

    • 1 lb. beef tenderloin

    • 1½ cups flour

    • 2 tsp. kosher salt

    • 2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

    • 1 tsp. smoked paprika

    • 1 egg

    • ½ cup milk

    • ½ to 1 cup vegetable oil (enough to cover the steaks halfway up their sides when frying)

  • For the gravy

    • ½ cup pan drippings

    • ½ cup flour (feel free to use leftover dredging flour)

    • 3 cups whole milk

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt

    • 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

  • For the hashbrowns and eggs

    • 8 tbsp. clarified butter, divided

    • 4 cups frozen hash browns

    • 4 eggs

    • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste


Preparation

  1. For the tenderloin: Cut the beef tenderloin into 4 pieces, each weighing 4 ounces. Put the steaks in a resealable plastic bag or between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and gently pound to about ¼ inch thick using the flat side of a mallet or the bottom of a pan.

  2. Mix flour, salt, pepper, and paprika in one wide, shallow bowl or pie plate. In another, whisk egg, then add milk and whisk to blend.

  3. Dip each steak in flour mixture to coat both sides, and shake off excess. Then dip in the egg mixture and back into the flour mixture, using your fingers to gently work the flour into the surface of the steak.

  4. Pour oil into a cast-iron skillet and heat on medium-high to about 350°F. Using tongs, gently slip each steak into the oil. Depending on the size of your skillet, you can cook 2 at the same time. The meat should start to bubble around the edges. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until the crust is golden brown.

  5. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and hold in 225°F oven. Reserve drippings for gravy.

  6. For the gravy: Using the same skillet, heat the drippings over medium. Sprinkle flour over fat, stirring continuously for a minute or two, forming a roux. Lower the heat and slowly add milk, whisking for about 5 or 6 minutes until the gravy thickens. Season with salt and pepper. (If gravy is too thick, you can thin it by adding more milk.)

  7. For the hash browns and eggs:  Heat 4 tbsp. clarified butter in a large nonstick skillet set over medium-high. Divide the hash browns into 4 portions, and form them into patties. Cook for about 5 minutes until the outside edges are beginning to brown, pressing down occasionally with a spatula. Season with salt and pepper and flip, continuing to cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, until the bottoms are browned and crispy. Remove patties to plates, fry the eggs to desired doneness in remaining clarified butter, and season to taste.

  8. To serve, top each hash brown patty with 1 warm steak. Spoon gravy over each steak, and top with egg.

Meet the Chef: Rebecca Rather

Hometown:  Beaumont, Texas

Favorite culinary collection: Her rolling pins. She has more than a hundred, including one with turquoise inlays.

Second-favorite culinary collection: Recipes. “I always ask people for recipes. It’s interesting to find out what people love to bake and cook for their families.”

Baking tool she couldn’t live without: “My torch from the hardware store.”


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