The Fried Mother of All Misnomers.
If you don’t think there’s anything controversial about a Chicken Fried Steak, click on that link and you will see that even Wikipedia acknowledges the dispute as to the term’s actual meaning. The TRUE definition and origin of Chicken Fried Steak, Deep Fried Steak Fingers, Country Fried This, and even Chicken Fried Chicken, is adamantly debated at length, no doubt, during the bar rush at the Waffle House, along with which gravy is appropriate.
I’ve served thousands of Chicken Fried Things, even though I only worked in a few places that served them. They’re usually pretty popular. We even had Chicken Fried Eggplant in one place.
After I’d learned how the third or fourth place executed their own particular version as part of my training, I realized that all of the methods had at least one thing in common. Not a single one of the crusts bore any resemblance to what people generally associated with fried chicken. There usually wasn’t anything inside that crust that bore any resemblance to the term “steak” either, although we did them in a few places with Top Sirloin and even New York steaks, as sort of a throwback/tribute/reverse chi-chi kind of thing.
I’m Sorry, Sir, We’re all out of Chicken Fried Everything.
Frequently, we used a version of the flour/egg/breadcrumbs coating that I was taught to call “alla Anglaise.” But that doesn’t really work for chicken, esp. if you leave the skin on, and how can you call it fried chicken if it doesn’t have the skin? Sometimes places dip the meat into a pasty egg batter and then into flour, it almost comes out “Doré,” the way we used to serve filet of sole in the 70’s, offensively omelet-like if your hands were heavy. Again, that is not an application many people would associate with fried chicken.
Most places go to the freezer and get the box, shaking off the snow before they throw that bad boy into the deep fryer so it doesn’t spit. I guess that’s more like it. Inevitably, if there was any moisture at all left in the mysterious meat, it would boil out and make the crust soggy.
We won’t go into what kind of breading should be used on fried chicken today. Actually, I think we touch on that elsewhere on the site. I will say, though, that you get complaints on chicken fried steak, no matter how you make it. The most common complaint is that it’s tough. I’ve actually heard servers and cooks and even chefs respond to that complaint by saying “well, it’s SUPPOSED to be tough.” Or, even “Well, what did you expect? FILET?” Why not just say “You should have known it would be bad. Isn’t it always?”
Are we in Kentucky yet?
We all knew they were most likely pretty chewy, especially if we knew what was inside that loaf of bread they were wrapped in. That heavy breading is INTENDED to conceal a very cheap cut of meat. It may be perfectly safe, wholesome, but hardly tender, in spite of the hoops that were jumped through in order to make it so.
The fact is, Sous Vide can elevate Chicken Fried ANYTHING into a cutlet reminiscent of the Old World Viennese “Wienerschnitzel,” (not a hot dog). Not only can you use ANY cut of beef, chicken, pork, or whatever, you can use any breading that you like, and, since you’re not hiding anything any more, you can help this texture driven dish earn the appreciation of almost any diner or family member. Did I mention that you don’t have to worry about discovering any pink inside that package if you use Sous Vide? That, too.
You eat the bread, I’ll take the crust
Breading doesn’t have to be sarcophagal, and some coatings don’t even need to completely seal the meat inside of them. Typically, the overall results are more appealing if the coating is uniform and even around the edges. This has a lot more to do with the method of breading, than the breading itself. Novices usually notice that their hands end up with a more secure coating than the item they are trying to bread. Keeping one hand wet and the other dry is a good model for preventing this, but it’s not always practical either.
Without making any assertions about the relative authenticity of methods, we will start with the assumption that the basic Chicken Fried breading is alla Anglaise, as I mentioned before, with the caveat that it isn’t used for fried chicken. The meat is pounded or sliced thin, seasoned, dipped in flour, then eggwash, then bread crumbs. This is a truly secure and dependable breading, and is the most often used coating for deep fried prawns, scallops, fish, zucchini, mushrooms, onion rings, and myriad other products.
It usually ends up looking more or less like this, and it’s good. Very familiar. Freezes pretty well. Holds up to deep frying well. Industrial strength. I like it.
There are a number of novel approaches to breading that also give desirable results. Panko crumbs can be substituted almost anywhere that bread crumbs are used, but, being a little larger than regular breadcrumbs, they do make onion rings a little bit more clunky.
Mayonnaise. How ordinary. I hate to break the news to my readers, but Hollandaise Sauce, Béarnaise Sauce, Aioli, Remoulade, Saffron Rouille, Mustard Sauce, Blue Cheese dressing, and numerous other cold sauces would not exist without the basic emulsion we call mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is not boring, any more than water is boring. You can’t make stock, or demi-glace, without water.
Mayonnaise can be used as a component of breading. It has just enough egg yolk in it to provide strength of cling, and whatever oil that’s in it melts away in the relatively high heat associated with frying or deep frying a cutlet. Greasy fried items are the result of method, not the result of the presence of oil. Oil is almost ALWAYS present in cooking–the trick is removing it after it has performed it’s invaluable function–the conduction of heat.
Here’s an example…
- This is a breaded pork cutlet, using a breading that is very similar to biscuit dough, without the milk. In simple terms, flour, salt, cut butter, and a little baking powder.
- That’s right. Bisquick. I make my own version, because they really charge you a lot to perform the simple function of cutting shortening into flour. If that doesn’t matter to you, you can use Bisquick.
When using this temperature to pasteurize your pork steaks, you end up with a product that feels almost raw to the touch–still flexible enough to pound out without tearing it apart. I cut the steaks before pasteurizing, but you could process a larger piece of the loin and slice later. Check your penetration times, this method takes closer to 6 hours.
- After lightly coating with the biscuit flour, I used a little parsley aioli that I had from another project. Any simple, mayonnaise based sauce or dressing will work, and a little bit goes a long way. It’s not really there for flavor–it’s there to provide substance to the end product.
- Spread the mayonnaise out quite thin, using a rubber spatula, a dull knife, or your very clean finger.
- Flip the cutlets using a fork, avoid touching them with your fingers, they get pretty sticky, and apply the mayonnaise to the second side.
- Sprinkle generously with the biscuit flour again.
- Wait a few minutes. Haste is the bane of the anxious cook.
Watch out, he’s gonna BLOW.
A side note. I am a very anxious person, by nature, by my upbringing, whatever, we’re not sure. I take anxiety meds, and they work. Not the ones that get you high. I get to take the boring ones. I am anxious when I am NOT in the kitchen. I am anxious when I am in BED. I am anxious when I watch TV. When I worked in restaurants, and the dining room was empty, even between meal periods, I was EXTREMELY anxious.
But, when I am in the kitchen, when I am cooking, I am not the least bit anxious. Habitually opening oven doors cools the oven, running back and forth into the walk-in refrigerator and/or freezer heats them up, and fussing and fidgeting makes the people around you anxious, too. I’m telling you, when you cook, you must CHILL. Totally. No matter how hot the stove, be cool, man. Cool.
- After a while, you will see moisture again, so sprinkle or dip again, just before you put the cutlet in the pan.
- This sounds trivial and tedious, but it becomes a habit.
- Put dry things in pans.
- Do NOT put wet things in pans.
- Well, eggs, sometimes, but, you get the point.
- Fry in a generous 1/2″ of CLEAN oil @300F+. Again, this PREVENTS a greasy result, as opposed to causing one. The hot oil provides the necessary heat to render the fat OUT of the cutlet/breading.
- You will see the edges slowly start to curl up, and a little moisture will collect on the top.
- This is how cooks know when to flip.
- We don’t have X-Ray vision — although we don’t mind letting you THINK we do.
- It’s not magic. It’s practice. It’s discipline. It’s love, it really is.
That’s what they mean when they say that.
This is what Brown can do for you
- The moment of truth is a beautiful thing. If you are relaxed, and in love, you can see the browning occurring along the edges, so you don’t have to fritz with the cutlets to determine color.
- You want to avoid flipping and flipping — that’s another one of those anxiety things. Let it go, breathe. You can do it. It’s pure joy.
- Do not put the cutlets directly on your plate. You have come so far, let’s not be hasty now.
- Remove the cutlets to a cutting board with a paper towel on it, for the obvious reason.
- There won’t really be any drippings in the pan, mostly browned flour, but you can wipe it out and make a pan gravy in that same pan, if that’s yer thang.
- Now you can do whatever you want. This is saffron potatosotto with a ton of parsley and Reggiano, that’s a thing for me.
- For the lady, simply sliced and parsleyed.
- A little bit more sinful, with that parsley garlic aioli drizzled.
Tune in tomorrow!
Sous vide confuses people when they realize that you can’t open the bag and have crispy fried chicken jump out. Sous Vide gets you to a place where you can prepare almost any variation on any dish, and surface treatments are what it’s all about. Since seasonings don’t really do anything during low processing temperatures, we are left with the opportunity to make the most of our Teriyaki, or whatever “marinated” style we have become accustomed to–you just don’t need as much soy sauce or ginger to do it.
It’s a beautiful thing. In this case, breaded items are improved by Sous Vide processing because less moisture leaks out of the meat than when it is prepared from the “raw” state. That’s what causes those gluey, doughy coatings. Sous Vide corrects that. Try it. You’ll like it.
And while we’re at it…
- Here’s another variation of the Bisquick model. I love biscuits, fresh out of the oven, early in the morning, local honey or jam, not much of an argument from most people. Next day, MEH. Hard as rocks, you can fry them, but it’s only the butter that saves them.
- Do this instead. Grind your leftover biscuits (even the supermarket ones) in a food processor, and use them as the crust on your Chicken Fried Thing, whatever it might be. Season, dip in flour, then egg, then the ground biscuit crumbs, LET REST, and fry in a pan or deep fry. Very Crisp.
- I like them like this. The aforementioned aioli, toast, pork, chicken, steak. All good. Or, even,
- Just like downtown, with the steaming pasta and the floods. Biscuits, Berber.