Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Chicken-Fried Procedural

Chances are you’ve heard of chicken-fried steak. You may have even heard of it’s cousin, chicken-friend chicken. Or maybe you know the thin, breaded and pan-friend delicacy as country-fried.

Chicken- or Country-Fried Chicken with Pepper Gravy, on Buttermilk Biscuits, with Turnip "fries"
Chicken-Fried Chicken with Pepper Gravy, on Buttermilk Biscuits, with Turnip “Fries”

It’s all the same thing, really, and if you’ve ever wanted to make your own here’s the good news: you don’t need a recipe. It’s more a technique than an absolute science.

The Meat

You want it thin. End of story.

Except it’s never that simple–you probably want to know why you want it thin. There are a two reasons:

  • Thin meat cooks quickly, meaning the coating won’t burn before the center of the meat is cooked.
  • Traditionally this is done with tougher cuts of beef and pounding it thin breaks up a bunch of those tough muscle fibers, meaning you can eat it without your jaw getting tired.

You can use a mallet or one of those gadgets with all the sharp needles and make a pincushion out of the protein, but I like to place whatever I’m smashing between two sheets of wax paper (the deli-style pop-up packs are great for this) and go to town with my stainless steel omelet pan.

1/4-inch is your goal–thinner and it’ll start to fall apart on you, thicker and you’ll burn the breading.

The Breading

Speaking of which, there are 2 very important parts when it comes to a proper chicken-fried breading:

  • 3-step breading
  • let it stand 10-15 minutes before frying

The 3-step bread goes dry-wet-dry. The first dredge in seasoned flour sticks because of the natural moisture in the meat. This is enough if you’re just going to sear or brown something, but if you want a good coating, you need a little more.

Dry isn’t going to stick to dry, so you have to dip it into something wet in between, For this, 2 eggs & a couple tablespoons water whisked together does the trick. Buttermilk is not a bad way to go, but I save that for regular fried chicken.

Regular, plain, all-purpose flour is what you’ll see referenced most often, and the seasoning is up to you but you do want to season it, otherwise your chicken or steak is going to be bland. After a few months participating in the Indian Cooking Challenge, I’ve become quite enamored of the properties of gram flour (aka besan)–it’s got a great flavor, is high in protein and low in carbs (compared to wheat flour) and makes a great coating and batter.

Using half gram flour and half all purpose, I seasoned my flour with salt, pepper, dried parsley, garlic powder and a little chili powder. Make sure you’re using dried herbs and powdered spices–they disperse through the flours evenly and stand a better chance of making contact with the food and your palate.

The resting times allows the coating to dry out a little and grab hold of the meat. If you were to immediately put it into the hot oil the coating would fall off, you’d have bare spots and the particles left in your flour would burn, smoke and ruin the pan drippings you’ll need for the gravy, later.

The Frying

Pick the oil of your choice (I went with olive oil–not the usual for cooks down here in the South, but I like my comfort food slightly healthier where I can make it) and pour about a quarter of an inch in your pan, give or take a little. We’re not deep-frying, here, folks, you just need enough to convey that heat up into and through the breading and meat.

The actual cooking should take no more than a few minutes on each side. Flip it once, let it cook through the second side, then set it on a spare plate while you cook the rest, covered and stored in a warm oven if your’s isn’t otherwise occupied (mine was–buttermilk biscuits and turnip “fries”–so I popped a dome on it and set it in the microwave just to keep the heat in one small space).

Portion control folks get all flustered when they see an entree of country-fried steak. It looks huge. It takes up most of a good-sized plate. But most of the time it’s a standard 3 oz piece of meat. Pounded to within a quarter-inch of it’s life, sure, but it’s still 3 oz. At least our chicken breasts were, and they still covered some serious real estate in the pan.

The Gravy

Yes, you can eat chicken-fried chicken without the sawmill gravy but why would you?

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons or so of the fat left in your pan and whisk in 1/4- to 1/2-cup of flour to make a paste. One thing I’ve learned making olive-oil roux is that it sometimes takes a bit more flour than the 50/50 ratio you need with butter and other animal fats, so add it in until it looks right.

The more flour you add, the more milk or cream you’re going to need. I started off with 1 cup heavy cream (because we had it in the house) and 1 cup fat free milk (our usual supply–it balances). This worked well to form a stiff sauce but I knew it was going to need to simmer and I still wanted it spoonable by the end, so ended up adding, I think, a cup more milk. You can also use stock for part or all of the liquid, it just won’t be the creamy white gravy that’s the usual.

Season with salt and LOTS of freshly ground black pepper. Now, from the frying you’re going to have some great flavor already, but it’s still going to need salt. Pepper, on the other hand, is what makes this gravy sing so grind a little, stir, taste and repeat until it tastes like what you remember. Depending on the grind of your pepper and the age of your peppercorns it could take a little or a lot. Give it what it needs.

The Verdict

The gram flour was a total success: the color on the chicken was vibrant instead of drab, the coating was thick and crunchy without being tough and the flavor was enhanced by the new ingredient. I think I could go as far as 75/25 next time and still come out with a fabulous country-fried chicken. I would have tried it in the gravy, too, but the color difference (besan is a light yellow that deepens when wet) might have been too much for me. We had leftovers the next day and the breading had not gotten the least bit gummy nor did it fall off–I attribute this to the gram flour, as well.

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker

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