Some of our followers have requested we expand information on exactly how to cook our recipes and we thought it would be good to start with some basic techniques and add more to the collection as we think of them r if ya’ll request them. Generally, we include step-by-step instructions and pictures in most of our recipes but instead of repeating the basics every time, we decided to expand this page to include more details for all experience levels.
Remember, practice makes perfect whether you’re knitting, ironing, painting, spackling, laying tile or mowing the lawn (yah, I have done all of those) so things will get easier with repetition and experience so here you go!
Proper Chinese cooking methods are essential for making good Chinese food at home. We use these cooking methods and techniques in all of our Chinese recipes whether they are traditional, modern, or fusion dishes. Peruse through these methods and see them in action with step-by-step process photos and directions for each recipe post.
Chinese Wok Cooking
Chinese wok cooking can be confusing these days with all of the wok choices out there. If you are thinking about buying a wok and want a through summary of different wok types, we suggest you read our post on how to buy a wok. If you do select a carbon steel wok or already have one at home, then be sure to read our post on how to season and care for your wok.
Mainly, this section is meant to help you cook with your wok and not end up with a sticky mess so here are some general tips:
- Preheat the wok before you start and make sure all of the water and moisture has evaporated before you add your oil.
- When adding oil to the wok, add it in a circular motion to get the oil around the perimeter of the wok and make sure the wok is hot but not smoking for a non-stick wok. Non-stick woks can be ruined when heated too high in temperature so use caution when searing meats. After all, the non-stick wok won’t stick right? That said, do heat the wok to high because high heat sears the meat and seals in juices,
- Another healthier but probably less tasty method is to pre-cook your meats by blanching in water so it is 80% done and add it later to your stir-fry
- When frying rice like our Vegetable Fried Rice, make sure you and using your spatula to scrape the bottom of the wok clean so the bits sticking to the wok do not burn. Even if you see the rice sticking, do not panic! Keep moving and scraping and as the rice heats, you’ll see it won’t stick any further.
- When stir-frying and you find the sauce is sticking to the sides, you can use your spatula or tilt the wok so the liquid hits the sides of the wok to deglaze it or if there is not enough liquid, you can spread some wine and/or water or stock around the perimeter to deglaze. You’ll get the hang of it when you have tried it a few times.
Chinese Stir Fry:
Ever wonder how Chinese restaurants can cook your order so fast? They have their tricks but first and foremost, if you have not purchased a wok, I suggest you buy a carbon steel wok as it is the best and used by all professional kitchens. It heats up quickly and unlike a non-stick wok, you can heat it until smoking to sear meat and prevent sticking. The same is true for fried rice – start with high heat, no sticking. See our Chinese Cooking tools page where you can get a list of the basic Chinese cooking tools, most of which we use in our own kitchen and Amazon links for further research and purchase.
Back to some basic stir-fry tips – first, ingredients are washed, cut, and placed within arm’s reach. Many of the sauces are made or mixed in advance, and most importantly, many of the dishes are stir fried. Stir-frying utilizes high heat to sear the ingredients quickly. Some of you may have heard of “wok-hay,” which is the special flavor that can make even the most common plate of water spinach a revelation. Here are some tips for stir-frying that will get you to the nirvana of wok-hay flavor!
- Stir-frying requires high heat, so if you have a conventional stove that lacks the extra BTUs you’re looking for make sure you always preheat the wok to as hot as you can before adding the oil and your ingredients. A wok ring will also help contain and direct more heat to the wok.
- Make sure your ingredients are at room temperature or warmer or at least not cold right out of the refrigerator. Cold food in an under-heated wok leads to soggy food.
- Try stir-frying in smaller batches. Large amounts of food cool off a wok too quickly, which dashes your chances of getting a good wok-hay flavor.
- Precook your meats in the wok to about 80% and add them later in the stir-fry process. This warms the meat and also keeps them tender.
- Drain and shake off excess water from your vegetables before stir-frying
Chicken with Garlic Sauce in the wok!
Oil velveting for Chinese Stir-fry:
A technique involving searing meat or poultry by stir-frying it in hot oil very briefly, just until it browns slightly. It is then taken out and later added back to the dish (which may include vegetables, tofu, etc.) and stir-fried until done. Prior to velveting, the meat is usually marinated.
Here’s how you do it:
- Heat the wok on high until it almost smokes – at least 30 seconds for most home stove burners. Add the oil in a circular motion to the wok so you coat the lower half and bottom with oil. For 6 ounces or more of meat, you should use a tablespoon. You can drain some of the oil before adding the meat to the main dish if you think the oil is too excessive. Many Chinese restaurant flash cook the meat in oil – almost a deep fry and then drain it before adding it to the stir-fry.
- Add the meat (should be at room temperature) to the middle of the wok where most of the oil is and use your spatula to spread the meat out. Let the meat sear for 10 sections and stir-fry with your spatula using a bottom up motion.
- Using a seasoned carbon steel wok definitely helps ensure that the meat does not stick to the wok.
Blanching in Chinese food:
1st step: submerge food in boiling water for a brief moment, drain. 2nd step: submerge them in ice cold water and then drain thoroughly to stop cooking and preserve color/crunch. There are a few reasons to use this cooking method:
1) Blanch vegetables like bitter melon or radishes to get rid of strong flavors.
2) Blanch meat like pork and beef to get rid of blood and excess fat. There is no need for the 2nd step in this case because further cooking is needed
3) A lot of leafy vegetables can be blanched. Just add sauce and they’re ready to be served.
A great example of this is our easy-to-make Chicken with Broccoli.
How to Dry Roast in Chinese cooking:
This process is to stir-fry something with no oil or liquid of any kind. Usually, this method is used to make spice mixes and toasted nuts or seeds. We show this in our Traditional wok roasted peanuts recipe as an example. You just gotta be real patience and resist trying to turn up the heat too high, keep moving whatever you’re roasting around the wok or pan, and stay active – don’t walk away during this process.
How to Steam in Chinese cooking:
Cooking food by placing it over boiling water so that the steam reaches and cooks the food. You can use a stainless steel steamer, a bamboo steamer or a metal steam rack sitting inside a wok or pot. See our post on how to set up a steamer if you’re not familiar with steaming foods in Chinese cooking.
Make sure the bowl or the plate used for steaming is heat resistant or you’ll open your pot expecting to see perfectly cooked, fluffy pork buns and instead will be greeted with a mess of broken china and soggy, semi-boiled food. Also, pay special attention to the water level, as water shouldn’t touch the food while boiling. At the same time, you don’t want your pot to boil dry. We prefer the stainless steel steamer; it’s always there, sitting on the stove next to the wok.
Sticky Rice Mushroom Shu Mai in the steamer basket. See our Chinese Cooking Tools page for more information on Bamboo steamers. If you do a lot of steaming, you may want to purchase a multi-level metal steamer.
How to Poach in Chinese cooking:
Poaching is a method of gently cooking food, generally just short of simmering hot water, at about 180 °F which makes for a more tender chicken, fish, or whatever you’re cooking. The application we use this method for mostly is for poached chicken. Once the chicken is properly cooked, cold water is poured over the chicken or even an ice bath is used to yield a “crunchy skin” which indicates a high quality poached chicken dish. What can I say? Chinese love crunchy chicken skin but it is what I would describe as a soft crunchy rather than a Fried chicken kind of crunchy. It’s king of like eating conch, shrimp, pig’s ear or tripe… Ok, I’ll stop there because I think you get the point and depending upon your eating experiences, the examples may be going down a slippery slope!
If you’re squeamish about poaching a whole chicken, you can use the same method on Chicken thighs or a breast which work just as fine. Whether you serve the chicken with our without the skin, I like to recommend cooking the chicken with the skin which protects the meat and gives it a soft, slippery, supple texture which is when you know you have attained the pinnacle of Chinese poached chicken.
Poaching is also used for fish in lieu of steaming. I am sure there are fine differences between poaching and steaming but I would probably have to attend culinary school to really find out the technical whys and hows of each. Some would say steaming preserves flavor because poaching in water may dilute or wash away some of the flavor but we think either is fine and it does come down to a measure of personal preference and experience. I also like using the poaching method for a whole fish and the method is similar as for the chicken where you boil water (in a large pan or wok for the fish) and then turn the heat to just below simmering and slide in your fish. The fish will lower the temp of the water so it will stop the boil or simmer so you have to maintain the heat without it simmering or boiling. Here are some more concrete details and steps:
1. Size what you’re going to cook whether it is a whole chicken, whole fish, chicken thighs or breasts or fish fillets and select the appropriate pot. You’ll want to be sure that the whatever you’re cooking will have room to be submerged completely in the water or liquid. Got that? Cooking a whole chicken in a shallow pan or wok ain’t gonna cut it.
2. Fill your cooking vessel of choice with enough water to submerge what you’ll be poaching and add your flavorings or aromatics. This step will be determined by your recipe but for Chinese chicken and fish recipes, you’ll most likely be adding fresh ginger and scallion as two of the ingredients.
3. Get the water to boiling and turn the heat down to medium/low and gently slide in whatever you’re poaching and the simmer/boiling should stop. At this stage, keep the heat on low and let the hot liquid do the cooking.
4. Check for doneness using a combination of time and checking for clear juices running out of the chicken. checking the fish is a bit more tricky but generally using a butter knife to gently pierce the fish will tell you if it is done. Fish has a sinewy texture when raw but is totally soft and flaky when done so pushing a dull butter knife very gently through the fish and encountering no resistance at all is a sure indication that it is done. In fact, the hard part is not to overcook the fish and generally, for a bone-in fish, the fish is considered done when the bone is about 70% done because the rest of the heat will cook it through by the time it gets to the table. See our Steamed whole fish recipe for using the steamed method and also for pointers on preparing and cooking the fish.
One last, recommendation is that you should better leave the pot or wok uncovered while you’re poaching so you can keep an eye on the heat and not let it get too hot or you would be simmering or boiling and not poaching! Like everything else, everyone has their own experiences and whatever works for you, keep doing it and share it with us all!
How to Braise in Chinese Cooking:
Browning food and then simmering it in a small amount of seasoned liquid.
Quick and Easy Braised Tofu (Hongshao Dofu) is a good example of a vegan dish that uses this technique and is quick and easy to make. Some common braised meat dishes include Chinese Braised Chicken with Mushrooms which take less than an hour of cooking time and Braised Oxtail Noodles which take hours to get to the right state.
Shown here is Chinese Braised fish where soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, vinegar and sugar are used to braise the fish. The sauce is then reduced to a concentrated and delicious state of pure heaven as are most braised dishes.
Hong-shao – Shanghai style Braising:
This literally translates to “red-cooked.” It is a braising method that imparts a rich, reddish brown color and deep flavor to the dish. Usually prepared with soy sauce, sugar, and Chinese rice wine. Shanghai Braised Pork Belly (Hong Shao Rou) is the most popular red-cooked dish but pictured here is the Cantonese style Braised Pork Belly with Arrowhead Root that we like to enjoy during Chinese New year. Both of these dishes are cooked in a rich braising liquid and the last step is to reduce the liquid to produce a velvety rich coating on the dish that you simply cannot resist!
So what is the difference between red cooking and braising you say? Hongshao or red cooking is a specific type of braising usually used for Shanghai style cooking and uses more sugar, wine, and sometimes vinegar.
Deep Frying Chinese dishes:
Cooking in hot oil until golden brown and crunchy on the outside. There are two kinds of people: those who love fried food, and those who won’t admit that they love fried food. Seriously though, we should all eat any fried foods in moderation but there are some basic techniques and rules to follow:
- Safety, Safety, Safety – when working with boiling oil, always do so with the utmost care and remember that oil and water don’t mix and hot oil and water really don’t mix. When frying food, always try to drain off excess water and use a protective screen if you have one. Good to have a small fire extinguisher or canister of flour nearby in case of emergencies.
- Use the right pot size. I tend to fry things in small batches so I like to use a smaller tall pot for oil filled no more than half way. You don’t want the oil to come close to overflowing the pot because you could have a major grease fire on hand.
- Make sure that you follow the recipe directions for the oil temperature. Ideally you should use a candy thermometer to check the temperature of the oil. If you don’t have one, you can use a small slice of potato or onion or a small drip of batter or whatever you’re frying to test it. Temperature should be controlled if you’re frying on a stove top because the oil temperature will drop as you add items to the oil and will rise when they get close to done. Having an fryer with a temperature control works also if you have one.
- Don’t be afraid of the oil and drop things into the oil from a distance. It will cause a splash and potentially burn you with flying oil. Just hold the item with your fingers (works well with battered stuff) and put it halfway into the oil and swirl it around so a crust starts to form and it does not stick to the bottom.
- Use the spider or slotted spoon to lower things into the oil
- Keep your items moving in the oil and flip them if they start to brown only on one side
Chinese Hot pot:
Sort of the equivalent of a Chinese fondue, but instead of cheese, there’s boiling, savory soup, and instead of bread cubes, there’s a superabundance of boilables. Meat, seafood, tofu, noodles, vegetables, dumplings, the list goes on. Each person assembles his/her favorite dipping sauce (with soy sauce, chili sauce, bean sauce, sesame paste…really whatever you want) and boils their food of choice in the rolling broth. Once cooked (this usually takes anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes), there’s a quick dunk in your hot pot sauce before eating. Check out our other article on how to eat Chinese hot pot, which is all about hot pot meal preparation.
Chinese cooking – Pan-fry and steam combo:
We’re not entirely sure if there’s a proper term for this method, but it’s what we do when making pan-fried dumplings or buns. Oil is heated over medium to medium-high heat, and the dumplings are placed in the pan. Once you get a light brown color on the bottom of the dumplings, you add a splash of water to the pan, cover it, and lower the heat to steam and fully cook the filling. Once the water’s evaporated and the filling is cooked, you can turn the heat back up to brown the dumplings further. Sounds slightly complicated, but it’s easy as pie.
Check out this technique which is used in the potsticker dumpling version of The ONLY Dumpling Recipe You’ll Ever Need and also in the Carrot Ginger Pork Buns, Two Ways recipe. Both of these dumplings and buns start off in an uncooked dough state with a small but of oil in the pan and some steaming. Whoever thought of cooking them this way first is a genius.
Pictured here are the Easiest Pork and Cabbage Pot Sticker recipe you’ll ever come across!
How to Roast in Chinese cooking:
Ovens aren’t really common in Chinese homes. But that doesn’t mean that Chinese people don’t enjoy a lot of roasted goodies. You can get meat roasted over open flames outdoors, or in large, hung ovens. Peking duck, for instance, is often roasted in hung ovens, which are designed to roast up to 20 ducks simultaneously over an open wood-burning fire. While cooking, the chef can use a long pole to crisp the ducks by moving them closer to the fire.
Pictured here is our Braised Roast Duck but roasting is definitely not invented by Chinese and probably the method that is most familiar to western cooks. if you have a minute, check out our Orange Five Spice Roast Goose we made for Christmas dinner.