The Chinese ‘Velveting’ Technique
One of the secrets of Chinese Restaurant cookery is a process known as ‘velveting’ which gives meat or fish a silky, tender quality that many people find hard to reproduce at home. Basically, the idea is that the chosen ingredient, say, beef, or chicken, is first marinated in a mixture of egg-white, cornstarch, and some liquid (often rice wine or rice vinegar), and then briefly blanched in deep-fry oil, or sometimes water, before being cooked with the other ingredients of a (usually stir-fried) dish.
Quite honestly, I often don’t bother with a strictly proper velveting when making Chinese dishes as I usually wish to avoid trying to find a use of the leftover egg-yolks, but I frequently do a modified version where the egg-white, and sometimes the other liquid, is omitted. Indeed, you can find many, many any recipes here on my blog where I have done just that (Beef with Leek, for instance), but the effect is not quite the same as with the true technique. Accordingly, I am going to take a look at using the process (both oil-fried and water-blanched) here in this post today…
Here you can see a velveting mixture all ready for use. The ingredients are a bit difficult to give amounts for with great precision but, basically, one egg white will require anywhere from 2 – 3 level tablespoons of cornstarch, and generally a tablespoon or two of Rice Wine (or regular wine, or vinegar, or what have you). The amount of cornstarch will depend on the size of the egg white and the amount of other liquid but the idea is to produce a mix that is thick enough to coat your meat or sea food. Often I end up adding a little more cornstarch after putting the main ingredient in the mix so as to produce the right consistency.
The amounts given here are about what you need for anything up to a pound of meat, or so. First, add your secondary liquid to your cornstarch and stir until smooth, then whisk in your egg white, again until just smooth (you aren’t trying to make the egg white frothy, or anything). Now you can add your meat (or fish) and stir to coat. If necessary, sprinkle in a little more cornstarch and stir some more until the thickness is about that of a medium thick pancake batter. Finally, you can add a teaspoon or so of oil as well. This will help the pieces of meat separate more easily in the frying oil (or water), but I also occasionally take the opportunity to also add a bit more flavor by using sesame oil.
For our first example (oil blanching), I am using beef. Here you can see the strips of beef already stirred in to the mix. You should it sit for at least 20 minutes or so. You can leave it quite a bit longer but, at some point, some of the liquid will separate out again. This is not a problem, and I usually just pour away the excess.
To oil blanch, you want to use good clean oil as old dark bits of previously fried food will spoil the finished appearance and the taste will suffer too. The heat should be a bit cooler than you would normally use for, say, frying chicken wings, and a good way of testing the temperature is to hold the tip of a wooden chopstick against the bottom of the pot. At normal frying temperatures, you will see bubbles quickly gather on the stick and travel up it quite quickly. At the preferred temperature for this technique, the bubble will gather more slowly and rise more lazily.
When you are ready, add your beef slowly and carefully and use a chopstick, or spoon to separate them so they do not stick together (which can be difficult if the oil is too hot and you haven’t use any oil in the velveting mix). You only need to fry briefly as the idea is just to ‘fix’ the coating… you will be cooking the meat a second time so it doesn’t need to be cooked all the way through just yet. Once the meat is cooked lightly on the surface, remove it, draining away excess oil and set aside to keep warm.
Normally, when I do proper velveting (as opposed to my usual non-egg white style) I prefer to take the meat from the oil before it browns very much. Here, I left the meat in the oil a little longer than I would usually as I had to take a picture of the process and those extra few moments made a difference.
Now you can, if you want, allow the meat (or what have you) to cool completely and use it later but, usually (and a much better practice in my opinion), is to proceed to the next step of your dish while the main ingredient is fresh from the oil. For today’s post, I produced the dish you see in the very first picture. Basically, I sautéed a little ginger in oil (taken from the deep-fry pot) then quickly stir-fried some black Chinese Mushrooms with water blanched green pepper, and, after adding in the beef, rounded everything out with some sweet bean sauce and a little more rice wine.
Water blanching velveted foods is pretty much exactly the same as the in the oil process except (duh) that you use water instead of oil. The trick, though, is to not use too high a boil as, with water, the coating takes a bit more time to fix and may be stripped away if the bubbling is too vigorous. What you need to do is get the water just to a low boil and then add the velveted ingredient all at once so as to drop the temperature suddenly. You need to separate the pieces still but generally, they will be done before the water starts actively bubbling again.
For this exercise, I planned to use chicken (which is the meat I most commonly use in water velveting) but the last piece I had turned out to be a little freezer burned and so I used some pork I had thinly sliced and set aside to use for something else. Here you can see the nice silky texture of the coating on the almost fully cooked meat.
I used the water blanched pork in the dish you see above. Here, I quick fried some tomato slices with garlic, added the meat and some scallions, and finished it with some Oyster Sauce.
Anyway, that should cover the rudiments of the technique. I prefer oil blanching in the main, especially for tougher cuts of beef and the like, but water blanching is great with lighter meats like chicken breast. I haven’t actually ever used it for fish myself, but I have read that water works just as well as oil. As for shell fish… well, you could use either technique, I suppose, but I don’t see that velveting is ever likely to provide much of an enhancement to most varieties.