06- Techniques of Chinese Cooking

Serves: 5



This technique is used with meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Although similar to sautéing, it is much more rapid and fascinating. The ingredients are sliced, diced or minced, then tossed vigorously at very high temperatures in a small amount of oil. (The hot oil seals in the juices, preserves color, texture and flavor.) Next a small amount of liquid is added and the ingredients are cooked in it as quickly as possible. When done, the food not only looks good but also retains its nutritional values and is highly digestible.

The key to stir-frying is the intensity of the cooking heat. This differs, however, from stove to stove. Gas stoves are preferable to electric since their flames can be raised or lowered instantaneously. (Electric stoves work best when used as follows: Set the heat where you want it in advance. Then instead of adjusting switches, lift the pan on and off the heat to regulate the temperature.) Yet gas stoves vary considerably in the amount of heat they generate. Cooking pots also vary considerably. Generally speaking, the thinner the metal, the faster they conduct the heat. There are other heat-intensity variables, too. These include the freshness of the food (the fresher it is, the less cooking it needs) and the way it's cut (the smaller it's cut, the faster it cooks). Because of these variables, cooking times for stir-fried dishes can be standardized only up to a point and should be considered guideposts rather than absolutes. The cook must always keep her eye on the food, not the clock.

Success in stir-frying (more so than in virtually any other cooking technique) depends on knowing what you're doing and why. It's based on the simple principle that each ingredient has its own cooking time-that tender ingredients need less heat, while tougher ones need more-that each must be added to the pan separately and in sequence so all can emerge done together at the end. Stir-frying calls for split-second timing, a sense of sequence, and sensitivity to the right amount of heat, the right amount of doneness.

Stir-frying cannot be done casually. Since many ingredients are involved, the challenge becomes one of coordination: to add each to the pot separately but at the proper moment. Once the fat is literally on the fire, the tempo accelerates rapidly. Every minute counts. Ingredients must be tossed into the pan without delay, often seconds apart. Things must be stirred constantly. There is no time for hesitation or second thoughts. The hand must be on the stirring, the eye on the food, the mind on the next step. All the senses are involved, particularly common sense. (If, for example, a vegetable starts to scorch, the heat obviously should be lowered at once if it begins to wilt, it should be taken out of the pan.)

Although timing is the key to stir-frying, it's not exactly a matter of door-die. If at any point the cook feels things are moving too fast for her, all she has to do is lift the skillet off the heat, catch her breath, get her bearings for a minute or two, then pick up where she left off.

Success in stir-frying also depends on good preparation. (This includes cutting, soaking, parboiling, measuring and mixing ingredients.) Once cooking begins, there isn't time to dash around hunting for this ingredient or that. Once the heat is turned on, everything must be on hand and ready for the pot.

Stir-frying may seem difficult at first, but practice and experience make it increasingly easy and enjoyable. Eventually it becomes a kind of freewheeling technique, done almost intuitively and with a great sense of exhilaration. To master stir-frying is to master Chinese cooking. (A step-by-step guide to stir-frying appears in the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION chapter.)

NOTE: When serving stir-fried dishes, it is well to remember an old Chinese proverb which says: It is better that a man wait for his meal, than the meal wait for the man. Stir-fried dishes cannot wait. They must be served as soon as they're cooked. If left on the stove even a minute or two longer, they go on cooking in their own steam. Bright green vegetables lose their color. Food that was crisp, delicious and fragrant quickly becomes overcooked, soggy and tasteless. (The dish that gets cold loses its flavor if reheated, it gets tough.) Stir-fried dishes should never be put on the stove until the diners are seated at the table. Since actual cooking time averages only about five minutes, the waiting will be negligible. (Should soup be served first, the brief time gap won't even be noticed.)

This technique is used with meat, poultry, seafood and sometimes vegetables. Deep-frying calls for ingredients to be cut in medium-size pieces, * dredged in cornstarch or coated with egg-flour batter and immersed in hot oil until done. (This coating process protects the food's surfaces, keeps its juices in during cooking.) Chinese deep-frying differs from the Western variety in two ways: ingredients are often marinated first, in soy sauce and sherry, to improve flavor and aroma and the frying is done in stages instead of all at once. In the frying process, ingredients are briefly immersed in hot oil until they are pale golden, then removed and cooled while the oil itself is reheated. The ingredients are then returned to the oil until the cooking is completed. This makes them more crisp, yet keeps the outside from cooking too quickly before the inside is done. As a result, they're done equally inside and out. If they're removed from the pot once, the technique is known as double-frying. If they're removed twice, it's called triple-frying. (If only single-frying is used, the heat should be reduced slightly once the ingredients are in the pot. Otherwise, they will char on the outside before being cooked inside.

NOTE: Many Chinese restaurants use double-frying for egg rolls, fish and pork-draining and refrigerating them after the initial frying, and then, just before serving, briefly deep-frying them again. The home cook, who likes to get as much advance preparation done as possible, can do the same.

The oil itself is used in two degrees of heat: It's ready for fish, kidneys and the white meat of chicken when it just begins to bubble. (A slice of ginger or crust of bread floated on its surface will cause the oil to foam actively along its edge.) When it begins to smoke, it's ready for beef and pork. Cooking time is determined by the size and density of the ingredients. Generally speaking, the ingredients are done when dry, crisp and golden outside but tender and still moist inside. If large amounts of oil are used, the ingredients will rise to the surface and float when done. Large quantities of oil are not necessary however. For cut-up ingredients usually one cup, or a depth of two inches, is sufficient. Ingredients should never be added to the pan all at once, but only a few at a time. This keeps the temperature of the oil from dropping too fast allows for plenty of cooking room and keeps batter-coated ingredients from sticking together. When ingredients are added to boiling oil, they must be completely dry or they'll spatter dangerously. Should this happen, the pot can be covered with a lid until the spattering stops.

When done, deep-fried foods are removed from the oil immediately and drained thoroughly. Some are served with salt-and-pepper dips others with sweet-and-pungent sauces.

Fish and poultry may be left whole, but the latter needs additional cooking either before or after deep-frying. A whole chicken can be deep-fried, however, if it's basted frequently with hot oil. Some cooks pour the oil through the rear cavity and drain it out through the neck they do this five times, then immerse the entire bird in the oil until its skin is crisp and golden.

This technique is used with rice, meat, poultry, buns, dumplings, pastries and custards. It's also a favorite way of keeping fish moist and tender. Steamed foods, cooked right in their serving dishes, go directly from stove to table, with all their natural juices, flavors and nutrients preserved. Chinese steaming is known as wet or direct steaming. It calls for live steam which rises from boiling water to circulate around the food and cook it by direct contact. (The more familiar double-boiler steaming does not permit actual contact between steam and food and is known as dry or indirect steaming.)

Chinese wet steaming is done in two ways: either by rack or by bowl. Both require a covered pot containing boiling water. In rack steaming, the rack stands above 2 or 3 inches of water. The ingredients are then placed in a shallow dish (a Pyrex pie pan is fine for this) and set on the rack. The bowl method, also known as a pot-within-a-pot, calls for a bowl to sit not on a rack but on the bottom of the pan itself. The bowl is then surrounded by boiling water to about two-thirds of its height. (A greater amount will either boil over into the food or cause the bowl to float and spill its contents. A lesser amount will produce too little steam.) Both the circulating steam and the boiling water do the cooking here. The bowl method is used in steaming large cuts of meat, whole ducks and chickens.

In either case, the shallow dish or bowl should be heatproof and slightly pre-warmed before steaming begins. The water should be at a vigorous rolling boil. After the food is added and the pan covered, the heat can be reduced to medium, just enough to maintain the boiling. The pan should be big enough to permit the stearn to circulate its lid snug enough to contain the stearn, but not so tight that excessive pressure can build up. Depending on the ingredient, steaming can take anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. (Steamed foods should always be cooked slightly underdone because they go on cooking in their hot serving dishes after they've been removed from the heat.) As a rule, the steamer should be opened as little as possible during cooking. With longer-cooking dishes, however, the evaporation of water must be checked from time to time. Whenever it diminishes appreciably, it should always be replenished with boiling water.

This method is used with large cuts of meat and poultry, coarse-fleshed fish and vegetables. It calls for ingredients to be simmered slowly until they become rich, mellow and extremely tender. A Dutch oven or similar heavy pan is always used. Slow-cooking includes braising and stewing. Braising requires the shorter time. It's used with vegetables such as eggplant and turnips, fish such as salmon and cod, young poultry and some cuts of meat. Braising calls for the ingredients to be browned quickly in oil first, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid over very low heat. (Instead of being browned or seared, meat can be scalded by a brief plunge into boiling water. This will also seal in its juices. Vegetables are sometimes deep-fried first, then simmered briefly.)

Stewing has two variations: white-stewing, which doesn't use soy sauce and red-stewing, which does. White-stewing, sometimes called pure-stewing or clear-simmering, is used to cook fish, chicken and other delicate meats. It's usually accompanied by vegetables and produces a clear soup which retains the natural flavor of the ingredients. The soup and meat can be eaten at the same meal, but are usually served separately. (The meat, known as "plain-cooked" meat, is accompanied by a soy-sauce dip and other table condiments.)

Red-stewing gets its name from the rich, red-brown gravy produced by the soy sauce. It's used with whole poultry, large cuts of pork and beef, sometimes leg of lamb. During cooking, the meat is turned several times for even coloring as well as seasoning.

NOTE: Some cooks like to combine light and dark soy sauce for this. (See "Soy Sauce," page 868.) The light imparts a delicate flavor to the gravy the dark gives it a rich color.

Red- and white-stewing can be combined in a technique known as pot-stewing. This calls for one hour of simmering in plain water, then another hour of simmering with soy sauce, sherry and other seasonings added.

Both red-stewed and pot-stewed meats can be served with their sauces, or the sauces can be used as gravies for noodles and rice. Some cooks set the sauce aside to be used as a cooking medium for other meats and poultry. The more frequently a given sauce is used, the more it takes on the flavors of the meats cooked in it and the more rich and subtle it becomes. Tradition tells us of such sauces, known as "Master Sauces" in China, which were kept going for two or three hundred years and, like a legacy, passed from one generation to the next.

Red-stewed dishes, prepared in advance, will keep nearly a week under refrigeration. As is the case with most stews, their flavor is improved by rewarming. They may also be extended and varied by the addition of fresh vegetables. Enough of these for a single meal should be added. If the vegetables are tender, they are stir-fried separately and added to the sauce at the last minute to preserve crispness. Longer-cooking vegetables such as carrots and turnips are added to the sauce for the last half-hour or so of cooking.

Red-stewed meats can also be served chilled. Their sauces then become jellied, like aspic. (Vegetables should be omitted here altogether because the aspic ruins their texture makes them soggy.)

This method is used with whole poultry and large cuts of pork. (Roast beef and lamb are rarely used.) First the skin is rubbed with sesame oil or lard then the meat is seared briefly in the oven or over an open flame to form a crust. The temperature is then reduced and the meat is roasted slowly until done. During this time it's basted frequently with soy sauce or a highly seasoned marinade. The meat is always elevated in some way, either on a rack or prongs, with a pan of water underneath to catch the drippings and prevent them from burning. It is always surrounded by as much air as possible and touches as little surface as possible. (Meat that sits in a flat roasting pan, stewing in its own juices, tends to become tough.) Originally in China, roasting was done in large outdoor ovens with meat either turned on a spit or hung high over the fire. These methods can be approximated today in home ovens, electric rotisseries, charcoal grills and barbecues. Chinese roasted meats are always crisp on the outside, juicy inside.

Sautéing or pan-frying is used mainly for fish and omelets. It calls for medium heat, a longer cooking time than stir-frying and very little stirring. Dry-frying is not so much a cooking technique as a way of preserving meat. It calls for the meat to be cut up, simmered slowly until most of the stock is absorbed, then stirred constantly over low heat until it dries out completely. The result is a meat that needs no refrigeration, is rich, reddish-brown, velvety and tender.

Boiling as such is rarely used because it destroys both flavor and nutritional value. Rice, although boiled the first few minutes, is actually steamed. Soups and stews, also brought to a boil at first, are actually simmered. Boiling liquids, however, are used in poaching, blanching and parboiling.

Poaching is related to white-stewing or clear-simmering in its absence of soy sauce, but is a quicker cooking method. It's used with delicate ingredients such as fish, chicken breast, etc. It calls for ingredients to be submerged in barely boiling liquid (with only an occasional bubble breaking through the surface) and simmered briefly until done.

Blanching and parboiling are precooking techniques.

Blanching loosens tomato skins so that they peel off easily, removes the skins of almonds and other nuts, and precooks tender young vegetables. It calls for boiling water to be poured over the ingredients, then drained off immediately, or after a minute or two.

Parboiling calls for the ingredients to be plunged into boiling water and cooked rapidly for several minutes. It is used primarily for vegetables, particularly the tougher varieties such as string beans, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, etc. It reduces their cooking time so that the vegetables can be used in stir-fried dishes or quick-cooked soups. (If the vegetables were introduced raw, the dishes would have to cook too long.) Widely differing ingredients can be parboiled separately to bring them up to the same level of tenderness, and then added to the pot together for the final cooking. Parboiling is also useful in removing the strong or bitter tastes of certain vegetables, such as cabbage, onion, green pepper and bitter melon. Occasionally this precooking technique is used with poultry: to seal in the juices of chicken, or reduce the fattiness of duck.

NOTE: The cooking techniques described above can be-and are-used in various combinations. Thus, a chicken may be deep-fried first, cut up, then stir-fried with vegetables or it may be steamed first, then deep-fried for a crisp, crackling surface.

Smoking is not so much a cooking technique as a way of flavoring certain foods (such as beef, chicken and fish) after they've been cooked by other methods. Smoking calls for the burning of brown sugar such seasonings as ground anise and cinnamon and, sometimes, used black tea leaves. The burning produces a thick, strong smoke that chars the food and flavors it.

The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. ©1994 by Gloria Bley Miller.

This 06- Techniques of Chinese Cooking recipe is from the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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