How Chicken Fried Steak Is Similar To Classic Schnitzel

From its origins in Texas, chicken fried steak has become a common menu item in restaurants serving Southern-style cooking around the country. Chicken fried refers to the process of cooking, similar to fried chicken, and the result is a juicy cut of steak encased in an amazingly flavorful, crispy batter. That may scream Southern cuisine to most, but anyone with an eye for old-school cooking will recognize that technique, even if the results aren't the same. It's nearly identical to German schnitzel, and the two dishes are directly related to each other.

Schnitzel is an entire category of food in Germany. It's any meat, tenderized by pounding thin, then coated with breading and fried. Most Americans would recognize the name wiener-schnitzel, which is made with veal, but pork, chicken, and turkey are also common. It's a simple dish with minimal seasoning, which is made to transform tough, cheap cuts of meat into something filling, hearty, and delicious. While the ingredients may differ, the core recipe is essentially the same as chicken fried steak. Schnitzel even shares the trait of being frequently topped with sauces like mushroom gravy, the same way chicken fried steak is covered with cream gravy. But why?

Chicken fried steak evolved from German immigrant cooking

Like any dish, it's hard to pin down the exact origins of chicken fried steak. Some accounts claim it was invented by a short-order cook in Lamesa, Texas, and others that it came more directly from German immigrants, but there is not much doubt it was influenced by German cuisine. In the 19th century, thousands of immigrants from Germany came over to Texas, forming a "German Belt," from the Gulf Coast to Texas Hill Country. Pork and veal may have been the schnitzel meats of choice back home, but Texas, even back then, was cattle country, and beef was abundant. Cuts of beef eventually supplanted other meats in schnitzel, and using similar methods like pounding to tenderize the beef, chicken fried steak was born.

There are regional differences in Texas' chicken fried steak, some more similar to schnitzel than others. East Texas uses an egg and flour batter that feels the closest to fried chicken. Central Texas uses eggs and bread crumbs, which is how schnitzel is usually made in Germany. West Texas does away with the egg and opts to pan-fry the steak. No matter how it's prepared, like schnitzel, chicken fried steak is a way to help cheaper, less desirable cuts of meat taste good, so it should be made with something like round steak. Like schnitzel, there is no one right way to make it, but the spirit should stay the same.