We have a lot of beef recipes in our archives here at The Woks of Life, so we wanted to show everyone how to prepare beef for stir-fry including the step-by-step process for velveting beef for Chinese cooking. We’ll recommend our favorite cuts of beef to use and show you how to properly cut and marinate beef just like it’s done in Chinese restaurants.
We always give important details in all of our recipes, including preparation and cooking, but I thought it was time to write a post focused on preparing beef properly for the wok!
What Cut of Beef is Best for Stir-fry?
Flank steak is by far the most popular cut of meat used by Chinese restaurants in all of their stir-fry dishes. It also happens to be the most recommended cut of beef we use in our stir-fry recipes.
Flank steak is flavorful, reasonably priced, and readily available. With its intense beefy flavor, all you need to do is make sure you slice and marinate it properly to make a great stir-fry. For $6.99 to $8.99 a pound, it won’t break the bank either.
Boneless beef chuck steak is a more economical choice for beef stir fries. We like using beef chuck steak for stewing and braising because of the extra fat that comes with this cut of meat, but it can also work nicely for stir-fries.
At $4.99 to $5.99 per pound, chuck steak is also more economical than flank steak. You can buy a large piece, slice it, divide it into portions for several stir-fries, and freeze it!
A little more trimming and care is required to prepare the beef chuck steak for stir fry. Cut along the fat lines and remove the thick membrane to get some neat chunks of beef for slicing. Use a good chef’s knife and as always, be careful when working with sharp knives!
How to Cut Beef For Stir-fry
If using flank steak, trim off any white muscle membranes, and cut your flank steak along the grain lengthwise into 2 to 2 1/2 inch strips.
It’s easy to identify the long grains of muscle fiber in flank steak. When slicing the flank steak into small pieces, slice against the grain (perpendicular to the long lines of muscle).
Make each slice 1/4″ thick––each piece will be tender and bite-sized.
Now your beef is ready for marinating!
If using boneless beef chuck, check out our instructions for how to slice it below. If not, skip down to the next section.
Cutting Boneless Beef Chuck for Stir-fry
Cutting meat against the grain is very important to yield nice tender pieces in your stir-fry dishes.
Again, the “grain” refers to the long strands of muscle running through the beef parallel to each other. Cutting against the grain means cutting across those strands, so the long strands of muscle can be made shorter to create small, tender pieces.
It’s much harder to identify how the grain runs in beef chuck than for flank steak. In this photo, you can see the pattern of meat and fat where the grain runs vertically.
Since we have to cut cross-wise to the grain, for this piece, we need to cut the long strip into 2-inch wide chunks first.
And then position each piece to cut them so the long fibers are cut short.
See how the knife is positioned where it will cut the beef against the grain?
Now, cut your beef into 1/4″ thick slices
You can see the grain and the slice a bit clearer in this photo, but you can imagine that the soft beef can be difficult to handle and slice.
A chef’s secret to slicing beef quickly is to freeze the meat partially for 30 to 60 minutes until it is firm. This makes slicing much easier and faster, as the firm beef does not slide under your knife and around the cutting board. Partially frozen meat also allows you to be more precise in cutting to your desired thickness.
How to Cut Beef for Lo Mein & Other Noodle Dishes
If using beef for noodle dishes or dishes like Beef and Pepper Stir Fry, an extra step to slice beef into thin strips (julienne) is required.
In Chinese stir-fry cooking, the way ingredients are cut should be consistent with each other. Rectangular slices of beef are used for stir-fries with vegetables like beef and broccoli or beef and tofu. Long strands of noodles like you have in Beef Lo Mein require beef to be cut into similar long thin strips.
Beef fried rice requires small chunks of meat to go with the small grains of rice. Make sense?
How Chinese Restaurants Tenderize Beef
It’s time to share some Chinese restaurant secrets on how to tenderize beef. Tenderizing your beef is the first step of the traditional process of velveting beef practiced by virtually all Chinese chefs.
Chinese restaurant chefs take some extra steps in preparing beef for their stir-fry dishes.
The first step is to add a good amount of baking soda to the beef––about 1 rounded teaspoon per pound of beef.
Next, add 3 tablespoons water until the beef is just covered, and massage the beef so the baking soda and water is uniformly distributed. Set aside for 1-2 hours. This step tenderizes (baking soda) and hydrates (water) the beef.
Next, the beef must be rinsed thoroughly under running water to rid it of any excess baking soda, or you will taste it in the dish.
Use your hands to stir up the beef during the rinsing process.
Once the water runs clear, drain the beef thoroughly in a colander and transfer it to a bowl for the marinating process (details in next section).
Shortcut to Tenderize Beef at Home
If the process used by Chinese restaurants to tenderize beef described above sounds a bit involved and a hassle, you can still tenderize beef using an at-home shortcut. Baking soda is a powerful ingredient for tenderizing beef, but if too much is added, it can add an off-taste to the beef which is why beef is rinsed off after adding larger amounts of baking soda to the beef.
The solution is to add a smaller amount of baking and increase the marinating time. Adding 1/8 teaspoon to 1/4 teaspoon (for tougher cuts) of baking soda and 1 to 2 tablespoons of water to the beef and mixing and working it into the beef before marinating will also do a fine job tenderizing! Increase the marinating time for your beef at least 15 minutes. I will also say that adding water to the beef is a personal choice. I feel there are merits to having a moist hydrated beef or a drier beef for stir fry dishes.
How to Marinate Beef for Stir-fry
Marinating beef for your stir-fry is an important 2nd step of velveting that should never be skipped. The marinade isn’t as much about soaking the beef in a lot of liquid or adding a bunch of different flavorings like you may be used to.
It’s about giving the beef an extra juicy texture. Have you ever tried to make a stir-fry at home, but the meat comes out dry and not at all like what you’ve been served in Asian restaurants? Master this marinating technique, and you’ll successfully prepare Chinese stir-fry dishes at home.
After the beef has been tenderized:
1. Add oyster sauce and/or soy sauce to give your beef an extra flavor boost. Add about 2 teaspoons of each per pound of beef.
2. Add cornstarch and oil to give the meat a velvety texture. Add about 2 teaspoons of each per pound of beef. The cornstarch and oil gives the beef its velvety smooth texture sealing in juices and protecting the meat during the searing or cooking. Adding Shaoxing wine (2 teaspoons per pound) also adds flavor but is totally optional for those of you who are strict about alcohol consumption.
3. Mix everything together and set it aside to marinate for 15-30 minutes while you’re preparing your other ingredients.
What is Chinese Velveting?
Velveting is a process used in traditional Chinese cooking to prepare meats for stir-frying. Chinese velveting techniques vary, depending upon the cut and type of meat used for the dish, and also involve tenderizing, marinating and different cooking methods.
Through the process of velveting, meats retain their moisture and take on a soft and velvety texture that is a signature quality of Chinese cuisine. The velveting of beef is probably most common, since beef benefits more than other meats from this cooking technique.
How to Velvet Beef for Stir Fry
Velveting beef begins with the steps we have explained above (involving tenderizing the beef and then marinating it with seasonings, oil and cornstarch).
The tenderizing step makes any beef soft and moist, while marinating the beef gives it more umami flavor and that velvety coating you experience when eating at Chinese restaurants. Pictured below is the marinated beef before cooking.
The last step of velveting is cooking, which really depends upon the dish you are cooking and the outcome you’re looking for.
The traditional method for velveting beef is to pass the meat through hot oil (essentially deep frying) which is literally referred to as zǒu yóu (走油) in Mandarin or “jau yau” in Cantonese.
In most cases, we prefer to sear the meat in a hot wok, since having a wok full of oil at home is simply not practical. That said, we think searing beef imparts more flavor than the jau yau deep frying method.
Some recipes, including soups, will only require cooking the beef in water as the final step.
And that’s it! Let us know in the comments if you have any questions!
How to Prepare Beef for Stir-fry
- Add baking soda and water to the sliced beef and massage with hands until all of the liquid is absorbed. Let stand 1-2 hours.
- Rinse the beef thoroughly under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.
- Add oil, oyster sauce/soy sauce, Shaoxing wine (optional), and cornstarch to the beef. Set aside to marinate for 15-30 minutes, and then your beef is ready to use.