Sunday, November 07, 2004

Secrets of Chinese Deep-Frying

(Editor's updates 2009-09-08: I've learned a few things, so I'll be adding some information to clarify).

My quest for the perfect Chinese deep-fried meat is neverending and insatiable. I have not yet been able to replicate the perfect coating to deep fry chicken or beef like I've had in Chinese restaurants. I have tried lots of different approaches. Here are some ideas I have so far.

The goal for my optimum Chinese deep-fry coating would be described as crispy, crunchy and smooth.

Ingredients for Coated Deep Frying
The coating ingredients are some combination of the following dry and wet ingredients

Dry ingredients
starch (cornstarch, water chestnut starch, potato starch, arrowroot starch)
flour (all-purpose or bread flour)
breadcrumbs (regular unseasoned or panko)
baking powder
baking soda

Wet ingredients
beaten eggs (whole eggs or just egg whites)
baking powder
ice water
seltzer water (club soda)

This is where it gets tricky. One thing is for sure: you want to use a lot of oil (at least 2" or so), and you need to make sure your oil is heated to at least 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest is "magic" as far as I'm concerned. Here are some possibilities.

1. Coat meat in dry ingredients. Shake off excess; dip meat in beaten egg, then coat in dry ingredients again. Fry.
2. Combine all dry and wet ingredients to make batter (thick or thin). Dip meat in batter & fry.
3. Use method 1 or 2 above. Fry meat at a lower temperature (325-35) for a minute or two, remove & let cool. Then refry at high temp (375-380) for another minute or two. This is a traditional Chinese technique called double-frying. If you do double-fry, the first fry should be short (1 minute or so, it's really just blanching, but using oil) and relatively cool, and the second fry should be both hotter and longer.

You also have the option of re-coating meat using method 1 or 2 above and re-fry.

About Coatings and Batters
Too thick of a batter & the coated food will taste too "bready". Too thin and it may become soggy/greasy and lose its "crunch", especially when sauce is applied. The key here is frying at high temperatures so that as little oil soaks into the batter/meat as possible. What the right thickness to achieve the proper crunch is still escapes me. I do believe Chinese restaurants use some kind of batter. If you look closely at a deep fried piece of meat in a Chinese dish, you'll notice the coating is very even across the item, and is very crunchy, yet it is not too thick.

What the Ingredients Do
Eggs: they act as glue to hold the batter together. Especially if you use beaten egg whites, these will add a lot of "lift" and "puff" to the batter.

Baking Powder/Baking Soda: adds lift, albeit through a chemical reaction with the flour. I've seen this in some recipes, but it's not that widespread. Which should you use, baking soda or baking powder? Baking soda uses acid in the liquid to produce leavening; whereas baking powder (which is usually double-acting baking powder) includes baking soda and dry acids (one of which is likely cream of tartar) which will not only produce leavening via heat but also via contact with liquid acid. Baking soda will tend to taste sour, and baking powder tastes more neutral. Perhaps a 50/50 combo? The sourness of the baking soda might help in a batter which is being used in a sweet-flavor dish, such as orange chicken. Otherwise, probably err on the side of baking powder, I would think.

Starch/Flour. The basis of the coating, in all cases. Some people like plain cornstarch, some people like 3-to-1 ratio of Cornstarch to Flour. By themselves, flour & starch have "stickiness" properties when wetted that enable them to hold together in a mass, as in a batter. Starch will taste lighter than flour, because it is finer. If you coat meat in flour/starch before dipping in a batter, the flour/starch will help create a "pocket" of air between the meat and the coating, if you like this sort of thing. I personally like the batter to stick closely to the meat, but to be crispy, crunchy and smooth.

Water. Should be cold (ice water preferred). If your local water is bad, try bottled water. Some people use cold seltzer water (club soda), because it adds additional lift and lightness, kind of like the way beer does in a beer batter.

Salt: really the salt is only for enhancing the flavor of the batter. For each cup of flour/cornstarch, you should use about 2 tsp of table salt. Be aware that the more salt comes in contact with the oil, it will tend to cause the oil to degrade more quickly.

Oil: adds depth of flavor & richness, also helps smooth out a batter.

Vinegar: I've seen this in some recipes; this is most useful when used in recipes with baking soda or baking powder. When they combine, they create a gas effect that can help create lift.

If you find something that works really well for you, post a comment!

A Note About Oil

  • Vegetable oil, canola oil, or corn oil should be used, because it has a high smoke point. Olive oils just won't cut it. Veg/canola oils have a lighter, cleaner flavor; corn oil has a slightly sweeter flavor.
  • Oil can (and should!) be re-used. Only time it shouldn't is if you fry some really stinky fish. Even fish that's battered (as long as it's well battered and mild) won't flavor the oil. In general, save fish frying for the end of your fry process!
  • Strain used oil through a few layers of cheesecloth in a fine mesh strainer or chinois.
  • Store in a clean glass container (like a Mason jar or a bottle), and refrigerate.
  • Shortening and lard can be re-used in the same way, if you work with it while it's warm.

Here are some possible recipes to experiment with deep-frying techniques in Chinese cooking:
Szechuan Dry-Fried Beef:
Sweet and Sour Pork:
Cantonese Sweet & Sour Pork:
Sweet & Sour Chicken:

Other Chinese Recipes to Try:
How about Beef and Broccoli? Try this one:
Making your own Chinese chili paste can be an adventure. Try it with this recipe here:
Also, one of my favorites with any Chinese meal is Hot and Sour soup. Try this recipe here:

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