It’s not your mama’s cube steak – and it’s delicious!

January 13, 2023

Do you remember cube steak?

My mother used to serve it simmered in reconstituted Lipton’s onion soup mix. We dreaded dinner on those days – a watery gravy that was salty and gritty, served over tough and chewy meat.

In fact, you can still find recipes on the internet that call for long cooking times (often in a crock pot) and the addition of onion soup mix. When I saw cube steak at Lloyd’s Market, I wondered if I could rework mom’s recipe and create something more appetizing.

To begin, a cube steak (sometimes called cubed steak) is a cut of beef from the top round or top sirloin. The roundish pieces are mechanically tenderized to create cube-shaped indentations on both sides. In the event you are unable to find cube steaks, you can start with a beef round steak or rump steak. Instead of the cube-shaped indentations made by the grocery butcher, you can tenderize the pieces with a meat mallet, pounding them until 1/2-inch thick.

Cube steaks are typically used to make the recipe in the photo, called country-fried steak. Seasoned steaks are quickly sautéed, then returned to the pan to briefly simmer in a rich gravy of onions and mushrooms. The flavor and texture of cube steak is often compared to that of ground beef, but there is virtually no fat or marbling in this cut, so cooking times should be kept to a minimum to avoid a tough result. Food historians believe the dish originated with German immigrants who were creating an inexpensive, beef-based variation of wiener schnitzel.

Some recipes instruct you to sauté the steaks, then set them aside while you caramelize onions for the gravy. In order to not let the meat become too cold, I prefer to cook the onions and mushrooms first and remove them to a plate. Next, cook the cube steaks in the same pan and remove them to the same plate as the onions. Then prepare the gravy, starting with a roux of butter and flour. The tasty steak is served smothered in the rich gravy.

Although the names of two dishes, chicken-fried steak and country-fried steak, are sometimes used interchangeably, they’re not the same. In the first preparation, the piece of beef is covered in a batter similar to one you would use to make fried chicken. Once cooked and crisp, the fried steak is served with a milk-based, peppery gravy made from pan drippings.

Salisbury steak is a dish sometimes confused with country-fried steak. Both are smothered in thick brown gravy, but Salisbury steak is made with ground beef formed into what resembles miniature or personal-sized meat loaves. Unlike the swift cooking times required by cube steak, Salisbury steak can simmer for a longer period of time without toughening the end product.

I’ve included a recipe for chicken-fried steak as well as my reworked version of my mom’s country-fried steak. Looking back, I realize she was trying to economize by using the low-cost cube steaks to feed her family, employing techniques and recipes popular at the time. When I consider that the package of two cube steaks cost just under $3, this was a delicious bargain dinner.

Country-fried Steak

2 T butter
1 sliced onion
1 C sliced mushrooms
4 cube steaks (about 1 lb)
1/2 t pepper
1/2 t salt
1/2 t paprika
1/2 t garlic powder
2 T butter
2 T flour
1 1/2 C chicken stock
1 T Worcestershire sauce

Melt butter in a skillet over low heat. Add onions and mushrooms; cook until mushrooms are softened and onions are caramelized, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer vegetables to a plate. Place cube steaks inside a zip-top bag or between two sheets of waxed paper. Using a meat mallet, pound the steaks on both sides until 1/3-inch thick. Sprinkle both sides of each steak with pepper, salt, paprika and garlic powder. Place the same skillet over high heat. Add steaks in a single layer and cook for 2 minutes on each side. Remove steaks to same plate as onions and mushrooms. Melt butter in skillet over medium low; add flour and cook to form a golden roux, stirring constantly. Pour in stock and scrape up any browned bits; stir until smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Add Worcestershire sauce along with steaks and onion mixture. Serve steaks smothered with gravy. Yield: 4 servings.

Chicken-fried Steak

4 cube steaks (about 1 lb)
1 C flour
2 t pepper
1 t salt
1/2 t ground red pepper
1/4 C milk
1 egg
vegetable oil for frying
2 T flour
1 C milk
dash Tabasco sauce

Wrap the cube steaks in plastic wrap or waxed paper and pound both sides with a meat mallet to 1/3-inch thick; set aside. In a shallow bowl, whisk together flour, pepper, salt and red pepper. In another shallow bowl, whisk together milk and egg. Coat each piece of meat with seasoned flour, dip into egg mixture and dredge once again in flour. Place pieces on a rack to dry. Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high. Add steaks in a single layer and cook until golden, about 3 minutes for each side. Remove to a platter and cover loosely. Discard all but 2 T of fat from the pan. Place over medium heat and stir in 2 T flour. Pour in milk and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add Tabasco and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve steaks with ladles of gravy.
Yield: 4 servings.

Several readers reacted to last week’s column about exotic mushrooms, asking where to find these unique varieties. I have found The Fresh Market off Route 1 near Rehoboth Beach to be a reliable source for many types of mushrooms.

Another question was about mushroom foraging, which is not a widespread activity in Delaware, because of our sandy soil and few old-growth forests. If any of you are foragers, please let us know if there is a group that meets regularly.

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