While anyone can learn to prepare Chinese food, it helps to master a few basic techniques. Whether you're stir-frying chicken for four or making egg rolls for twenty, here are a few general tips to keep in mind when cooking Chinese food:
Start small. Try preparing a stir-fry entrée accompanied by steamed rice, or a vegetable side dish to serve with your main meal. Later, you can work up to an entire Chinese meal complete with appetizer, soup, and dessert.
Try to create meals that provide an interesting variety of textures, colors, and flavors. The goal of Chinese cooking is to strike a pleasing balance, with no one ingredient overpowering the others.
Use fresh ingredients wherever possible. If a recipe calls for a certain ingredient that is out of season, substitute whatever is available locally.
Think about texture as well as color when making substitutions. Zucchini stands in nicely for a Chinese gourd, while crisp broccoli makes a good substitute for bok choy.
Be creative with leftovers. Leftover vegetables can liven up a dish of fried rice, while chicken bones can be used to make chicken stock.
Leaving the meat partially frozen will make it easier to cut.
Always marinate fresh meat before cooking. Use the time while the meat is marinating to cut vegetables and mix sauces.
Keep a supply of paper towels on hand to drain stir-fried and deep-fried food.
Don't use dark soy sauce unless the recipe specifically calls for it. Light soy sauce has a higher salt content than dark; substituting one for the other will affect the flavor of the dish.
Never use more cornstarch than the recipe calls for; a little goes a long way.
Trust your judgment. Something as minor as varying salt levels between different brands of soy sauce can affect the flavor of a dish. Always do a taste test at the end of cooking and adjust the seasonings if you think it is necessary.
It may look daunting when we watch a television chef skillfully maneuvering food in a wok, but anyone can learn to stir-fry. The key to successful stir-frying is high heat combined with vigorous stirring.
Make sure all your ingredients are prepared ahead of time. The average stir-fry takes less than seven minutes, leaving little time for last minute slicing and dicing. Always leave stir-frying until the end of cooking. Stir-fries are meant to go straight from wok to table.
Cut all the ingredients to a uniform size, to ensure that they cook at the same rate. If you're improvising instead of following a recipe, a good rule of thumb is to cut everything into bite-sized pieces.
If you are using a carbon steel wok, preheat the wok for 1 minute before adding oil. If you are using a wok made out of a different type of material, or a wok or frying pan with a nonstick coating, check the manufacturer's instructions first to ensure that preheating will not cause any damage.
Stir-frying may be China's most famous cooking technique, but it was not the first. Stir-frying came into vogue during the Han dynasty, when fuel shortages forced people to adopt a speedy cooking method that used oil sparingly.
When adding oil, pour it so that it swirls around the sides of the wok before reaching the bottom. Test to see if the oil is hot by standing a cooking chopstick straight up in the wok's center. If the oil sizzles all the way around the chopstick, you can start cooking. If you don't have a chopstick, a small piece of bread works also.
Before adding other ingredients, try flavoring the oil with a few slices of ginger and/or garlic. Stir-fry until they are aromatic. Then, add other ingredients. To stir-fry, simply move the spatula through the wok and stir the ingredients every few seconds.
When you cook meat, sear it briefly before stir-frying. To make sure all of it comes into contact with the pan, it's important not to overcrowd the wok. Cook meat in batches, if necessary.
When it comes to cooking temperatures for stir-frying, be prepared to do a bit of experimenting. Every stove is different, and it may take a few attempts before you find the optimum temperature for stir-frying on your make and model.
Never pour a cornstarch-and-water mixture directly over the food in the wok. Instead, push the food up to the sides of the wok and add the cornstarch and water in the middle. Turn up the heat and stir vigorously to thicken. Once it has thickened you can mix it with the other ingredients.
Most importantly, don't panic. If you feel things are moving too fast, just take the wok or frying pan off the heat and give yourself a moment to relax and refocus. Stir-frying is a very forgiving art.
Deep-frying has gotten a bad rap in recent years, thanks to visions of oil-splattered stoves and concern over high cholesterol levels. But there is nothing like deep-frying for sealing in meat's juices and adding a crispy coating to dishes such as Ginger Beef (page 127).
The trick to deep-frying is keeping the temperature constant during cooking. Too low temperatures will lead to greasy food loaded with extra fat and calories. The following tips will help you prepare deep-fried dishes that are crisp and full of flavor.
First of all, make sure the wok is securely attached to the stand. Next, pour in enough oil to completely cover the food being cooked, while leaving a couple of inches of room at the top of the wok. Unless the recipe states otherwise, the temperature of the oil should rise to about 350–375°F.
Slide the food in carefully, so that it doesn't splatter when it meets the hot oil. Leave plenty of room in the wok for the food to move around. Deep-fry in batches, if necessary. As soon as the food is added, check the temperature of the oil. Turn and separate the individual pieces of food while they are cooking.
Continue to monitor the oil temperature while deep-frying. The easiest way to do this is with a deep-fry thermometer with a clamp that can attach to the side of the wok. That way, your hands remain free for cooking while you're checking the temperature.
Use a slotted spoon or a mesh skimmer to carefully remove the deep-fried food from the wok. Drain the deep-fried food on paper towels. If the recipe calls for food to be deep-fried twice, retest the temperature and make sure the oil is hot enough before you begin deep-frying the second time.
To reuse cooked oil, let it cool and then strain and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Cooked oil can be reused up to five times. Throw it out if the color darkens or it begins to smell rancid.
Even with these tips, you may find that using a wok to deep-fry is not for you. Wok deep-frying demands your undivided attention. If you have small children at home, or frequent interruptions are the norm, consider using a deep-fat fryer instead.
Steaming, or cooking food by placing it over boiling or simmering water, is the third and the simplest Chinese cooking technique. The key to successful steaming lies in ensuring that the hot water never touches the food.
When it comes to equipment, a set of bamboo steamers is ideal. Bamboo steamers allow you to prepare multiple layers of food at the same time. In contrast to aluminum steamers, the natural texture of bamboo acts to prevent condensation from getting into the food. The cooked food can move straight from wok to table, with the steaming baskets doing double duty as cooking utensil and serving dish.
Steaming is the least intrusive cooking technique; the flavor, color, and texture of the steamed food remain closer to what nature intended. Nutritionally speaking, steamed food retains more nutrients and vitamins, and is generally lower in fat and calories, than food cooked by other methods.
Steaming with bamboo is easy if you keep the following tips in mind:
Before placing the food in the bamboo steamer, line the steamer with cabbage leaves, bamboo or banana leaves, or cheesecloth. This prevents the food from sticking.
Be sure to leave approximately an inch between the water and food to be steamed.
For smaller items such as dumplings, place the bamboo base or trivet in the water, with the steaming basket on top. Place the food in the basket, cover, and cook. For larger items such as meat and seafood dishes, either move to a larger set of bamboo steamers or substitute a heatproof dish. Also placed on the bamboo base, the heatproof dish can be anything from a dinner plate to an aluminum pie plate. The wok lid makes an ideal cover.
When choosing a bamboo steamer, inspect it carefully to make sure none of the parts are connected with staples. If you find staples, choose another brand.
Prior to its first use, give the steamer a thorough washing with soap and hot water. Dry completely before using.
For best results, always use the freshest ingredients possible.