Chef Mike reveals the secret of perfect home-cooked stir-fry meat
Trying to reproduce your favorite Chinese restaurant’s stir-fry in the comfort of your home kitchen can often result in a big pile of fail.
Even if you manage to round up all the necessary ingredients, ditch your “cute” Rachael Ray pastel-handled wok for a good carbon-steel version, and find a way to crank your stove to the recommended heat-of-a-thousand-suns temperature, your home-cooked beef and broccoli always falls a bit short of the restaurant dish, especially when it comes to the meat.
Somehow, the meat in a good Chinese restaurant stir-fry turns out tender, silky and succulent while your home-cooked version usually has the texture of a dog’s chew toy. Personally, I have tried pounding, slicing, and even buying high-quality cuts of meat—all of which resulted in varying degrees of chewy, dry or mushy proteins that barely rise above the quality of Panda Express take-out. The secret behind the tender and juicy beef, chicken or shrimp in good Chinese stir-fry is not really a secret at all. It’s a technique that’s common in Chinese cooking, but is virtually unheard of in U.S. kitchens: velveting.
Learning how to velvet meat is as important to Chinese cooking as Van Gogh is to David Lynch. Velveting involves coating and marinating thinly sliced pieces of beef, chicken, pork or whole shrimp in a mixture of egg white, salt, cornstarch and an acid for about 30-45 minutes.
The meat is then immersed in barely simmering water or warm oil for 30-45 seconds until it is almost cooked through before being added to a screaming hot wok to finish.
It’s widely believed that velveting meat somehow tenderizes it. Science, however, begs to differ. While the vinegar or other acid will slightly denature the proteins in the meat (making them softer), the heavy lifting is done by the coating. The marinade (or velvet) clings to the outer surfaces of the meat, creating a layer of hydrated starch that lubricates it, much like the fats in a nicely marbled steak or the gelatins in a braised pork shoulder. This tricks our palate into thinking there is moisture present, even when the actual meat may be a bit dry or overcooked.
To help with tenderness, the coating also serves as insulation, protecting the meat from the direct heat of the wok. This keeps the outer layer of proteins from turning into chewy, microscopic rubber bands, like you get whenever you stir-fry meat without such a coating.
One other advantage to this layer of insulation is that it lowers the rate of heat transfer to the meat itself. This allows the coating to brown very quickly without exposing the meat to as much heat as it takes to achieve browning without the velvet. If the starches brown, the meat is protected by a Federation-style heat shield, keeping it nice and moist, while the surface turns to a delicious Maillard-browned crust.
Additionally, when the starches gelatinize, they form a moisture-resistant barrier around the outside of the meat that may help prevent moisture from escaping as it gets squeezed out of the cells during denaturing.
Without the velvet coating, all of that moisture may leach out into your wok and you’ll end up with tough, off-color, boiled meat that will have all the flavor of a piece of old duct tape.
When you’re ready to make your next stir-fry, refer to the recipe below. In fact, tape it to your fridge and never make the mistake of cooking another Chinese stir-fry without velveting your meat first!
Velvet Pork, Chicken, Beef or Shrimp
1 lb. very thinly sliced pork, chicken, beef, or whole shrimp, patted dry
4 tsp. cornstarch
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. rice vinegar
1 egg white
1 tbsp. coarse salt
1 tbsp. sesame oil
Whisk together cornstarch, soy sauce, and rice vinegar until no lumps remain. Add egg white and whisk until combined but not frothy.
Pour the egg white mixture over the meat and toss together with your hands until the meat is thoroughly coated. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to one hour.
Meanwhile, bring four cups of water, salt and sesame oil to a boil in a saucepan. Working in batches, poach the meat for about 30 seconds, then remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and place into a colander. Be sure to let the water come back to a boil between batches.
You can either refrigerate the meat for another use, or use it immediately.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits