Here it is: The secret to stir-fried chicken
It's all about the soak and the poach.
WHEN WE are young, we have no way of knowing what we don't know. When I was still in my late teens, I volunteered to cook a Chinese meal for a hundred people to raise money for a small volunteer fire department. No one, least of all myself, bothered to ask if I knew anything about cooking Chinese food. In fact, I did not.
But, armed with the confidence of youth and a basic understanding of stir-fry technique I picked up by experimenting with a wok someone gave me, I forged ahead. Despite my lack of knowledge and experience, the food was pretty good. But one diner noted that the chicken lacked the subtle, tender texture of the chicken stir-fry in Chinese restaurants; and this bothered me for years. I knew it was true, but I didn't have any idea how to solve the problem.
Protein like chicken, seared against the hot surface of a wok or a skillet, takes on a distracting toughness, and some kind of coating is needed to prevent a leathery texture from forming. Traditional coating methods, like rolling in flour, were too intrusive. The coatings dominated, and the subtle texture of the protein itself was lost.
In those days, there was no World Wide Web and, as a teenager, I was not well-connected to the Food Establishment, so I had no way of solving the problem. Eventually, though, I stumbled upon the "secret technique" in a cookbook, "The Key to Chinese Cooking," by Irene Kuo, edited by Judith Jones. Bolstered by the phenomenal success of "Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Jones was in the process of grooming a "Julia Child" for every cuisine. The book flap to my 1977 edition of Kuo's book says, "A cookbook that would make Americans feel as secure and comfortable with Chinese cooking as they are with French cooking, thanks to 'Mastering the Art.' "
But while "Mastering the Art" can be overwhelming in its almost maniacal attention to detail, the techniques outlined by Kuo are less likely to scare cooks away. "Velveting" is a fairly elaborate technique that involves soaking pieces of chicken breast — or other meats — in egg white and cornstarch, then lightly frying or poaching before any actual stir-frying begins. The coating blends seamlessly with the meat, preserving the moisture of potentially dry, lean protein and giving the finished dish a compelling texture that makes diners wonder how in the world it got that way.
Grace Young, author of "Breath of a Wok" and "Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge," tested Kuo's recipes and wonders if the technique might be too complicated and demanding for today's home cooks "because it requires the extra step of water or oil blanching."
Nevertheless, her book includes a wonderfully detailed discussion of the technique with several pointers for success and a handful of tempting recipes that prove its merits. If you ask me, "velveting" is more than worth the extra effort, and if I could go back in time and correct that tough chicken I stir-fried for that fundraiser in the '70s, I would. As it is, I can move forward with complete confidence in stir-frying the most tender chicken imaginable.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace Young's Velvet Chicken with Asparagus
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as part of a multicourse meal
If asparagus is out of season or unavailable, the same formula can be applied to long-stemmed broccoli such as Chinese broccoli or broccolini, but asparagus has a subtler flavor.
1 pound medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/4-inch-thick, bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons egg white (about 1 large), lightly beaten
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon salt, divided
3 tablespoons peanut or corn oil, divided
1/3 cup chicken broth
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1. In a 2-quart saucepan, bring one quart of water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus and cook, stirring until the asparagus is bright green and the water has almost returned to a boil, about 1 minute. Use a skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer the asparagus from the water to a bowl, reserving the pot of boiling water.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the egg white, 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch, 2 teaspoons of the rice wine and 3/4 teaspoon of the salt. Stir until smooth. Stir in the chicken and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Keep the chicken in this mixture, refrigerated, for 30 minutes.
3. In a small bowl, combine the broth and the white pepper with the remaining tablespoon of rice wine and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of cornstarch.
4. Bring the pot of water back to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Reduce the heat to low and add the chicken to the simmering water, stirring to prevent the pieces of chicken from clumping together. Cook until the chicken is opaque, but not cooked through, about 1 minute. Drain the chicken in a colander.
5. Heat a 14-inch, flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water evaporates in one or two seconds. Swirl the remaining tablespoon of oil into the wok and stir fry the ginger and garlic, just until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the asparagus and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and sauté for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken. Re-stir the broth mixture and pour it over the chicken. Stir fry, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Serve immediately with rice or other Chinese dishes.
— "Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge"