Chinese cookbooks often suggest using a technique called “velveting” prior to stir-frying delicate ingredients like shelled shrimp, fish fillets and chicken. When I was first starting to cook Chinese food, I bought a copy of Irene Kuo’s “The Key to Chinese Cooking” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), and the book quickly became my “go-to.” So it wasn't really a surprise when I found the information I was looking for in my well worn copy of Kuo's book.
Quoting directly from the text-“Velveting means coating an ingredient (chicken, fish, shrimp) with egg white, cornstarch and oil after it has been seasoned…The ingredient is given at least 30 minutes to sit in the refrigerator so the coating will adhere to it. It is then scattered into warm oil or hot water to firm and partially cook. After being drained, the ingredient is ready to be stir-fried.”
A few pages later, Kuo gives her master recipe for velveting chicken.
For one pound of boneless chicken-or two pounds of bone-in chicken- she uses 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon dry sherry, 1 large egg white, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, and 1 tablespoon oil.
“Put the cut meat into a bowl, add the salt and sherry, and stir,” she continues. “Beat the egg white only until the gel is completely broken-it should not be frothy, lest the coating puff and disintegrate upon cooking. Add this to the chicken, sprinkle in the cornstarch, and mix well. Add the tablespoon of oil and stir until smooth. Let the chicken sit in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes so that the coating has time to adhere to the meat.”
While the procedure for velveting chicken in oil is as simple as velveting it in water, chicken velveted in water can be refrigerated or frozen before it’s stir-fried. Chicken velveted in oil, on the other hand, has to left at room temperature and used within an hour.
Oil: Heat 2 cups of oil to 275-degrees. Give the chicken a stir and then add it to the oil. “Lower the heat immediately if the chicken begins to sizzle; hot oil will make velveted chicken hard and yellow.”
When the meat turns white, which takes about 30 to 45 seconds, pour the oil and the chicken into a strainer placed over a suitably sized pot. When the oil is cool, it can be strained and rebottled.
Water: “Bring 1 quart water to a boil, add 1 tablespoon oil…and then lower the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer. Scatter in the chicken, stir to separate and keep stirring gently until the coating turns white. Then immediately pour into a strainer to drain.”
After it’s velveted, the coating will be white and fluffy, and the meat will be soft and tender. Kuo adds, “While the oil method gives the meat a firmer texture, the water method produces a softer coating.” In either case, the meat will be on the verge of being fully cooked. Keep this in mind when you add it to the rest of the ingredients. In addition, velveting eliminates the need to add cornstarch to the sauce to thicken it.
My basic stir fry was-and still is- a simple dish that's perfect for weekdays. If you’ve velveted the chicken (in water) ahead of time and then put it in the freezer, this recipe really goes together quickly. Frozen chicken should be defrosted in the refrigerator overnight.
I don’t know where I found this particular recipe, but I think it came from one of Joyce Chen’s books. I didn’t write down the exact amounts for either the chicken (shrimp, fish etc.) or the veggies, but in the beginning, I know I used two large bell peppers. I always doubled the sauce, and -of course- I always served the stir fry with rice and, for some reason, a fruit salad. If you're using velveted chicken, you can delete the cornstarch.
Chicken in Hoisin Sauce
Marinate the chicken in 1 tablespoon sherry (or white wine-don't use cooking wine),1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce and 1 tablespoon cornstarch.
Heat a neutral oil (canola, corn etc.) in the wok. Stir fry the vegetables with fresh garlic and fresh ginger. Remove them from the wok.
Stir fry the chicken, add the cooked vegetables and fold in 2 tablespoons of hoisin sauce mixed with 1/2 teaspoon of hot red pepper flakes.
Note: This recipe can be used with a variety of vegetables and proteins. Velveting is a matter of choice. The half teaspoon of red pepper flakes can be increased, decreased, or eliminated altogether.