• Using cornstarch in Chinese cuisine brings together the whole dish. (Adam Liaw)Source: Adam Liaw
Chefs Adam Liaw and Sarah Tiong give SBS Food the low down on how to cook ever-so-tender stir-fry.
Seraphina Seow

2 Dec 2020 - 10:42 AM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2022 - 3:38 AM

Chances are that when you visit a Chinese restaurant, you inhale the food in record-breaking time. But if you were to slow down and observe your food, you'd realise that each dish is sealed with a wealth of cooking techniques — some of which have probably never crossed your mind, but if they had, they would markedly elevate your home cooking.

Perhaps I was savouring my meal more mindfully after months of lockdown in Melbourne, so a question crossed my mind when finally dining at a Chinese restaurant in early November: How did the chefs cook such soft and tender beef slices? The answer is: velveting. 

Cornstarch is a very common ingredient in Asian cuisine and culture, particularly in Cantonese cuisine.

What is velveting?

Commonly used in Chinese cooking, velveting is a technique that tenderises meat either by coating in starch and eggwhite/liquid or marinating in bicarb soda. 

Sarah Tiong, the author of cookbook Sweet, Savory, Spicy, and 2020 MasterChef Australia Back to Win contestant, tells SBS that the technique is used for beef and more delicate meat such as chicken, fish and shellfish. Use it with secondary cuts of meat (those that don't cost you an arm and a leg), or meat that dries out quickly at high heat, like beef rump or chicken breast.

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Billy Kee pork

Not all Chinese food comes from China. Billy Kee chicken is a dish that hails from Sydney's Chinatown in the 1950s. Named after local identity, Billy Kee, the Aussie influence of red wine and tomato sauce is plain to see. I also add five spice and garlic, and replace the chicken with pork belly, but you could easily use chicken if you wanted.

Honey chicken

Honey chicken was one of my favourite restaurant dishes growing up. This version uses Kangaroo Island's unique Ligurian honey but you can easily substitute your own preferred honey instead.

Velveting not only seals in moisture while the meat is exposed to high temperatures, but adds more flavour. Tiong says it also preserves the bright, white flesh of scallops or fish, which gives dishes a visual contrast.

Aside from stir-fries, Adam Liaw, host of the brand-new series Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good, says you can also 'velvet' a protein before coating it in a batter to deep fry or before boiling. "There's a water-blanched beef dish where you do your velveting process to beef, very quickly boil it, and then it's topped with chilli oil and other ingredients," he says.

Tiong describes velveting as "an embodiment of putting the diner first ...[it's about] transforming something that's ordinarily tough or not as pleasant into something that is soft, delicate, and pleasing to eat."

The best part? It's simple to do. 

Garlic butter prawns

Choose your own velveting adventure

Tiong says the starch velveting method helps give meat extra flavour. Begin by mixing soy sauce, cornstarch or potato starch, and oil with meat. You could jazz up this marinade with minced garlic, spiced salts and sugar.

After you mix these ingredients together, set it aside for around 15 to 30 minutes before blanching in hot oil or boiling water.

"The idea of velveting is to coat something in a starch and pass it through very high heat for a limited amount of time without too much movement," says Tiong. "When heat is applied to the starch, it starts reacting and creates an outer coating, and that's what gives a velvety mouthfeel."

"[It's] an embodiment of putting the diner first ...[it's about] transforming something that's ordinarily tough or not as pleasant into something that is soft, delicate, and pleasing to eat."

When your meat is about 70 per cent cooked, take it out of the oil or water. If you're making a stir fry, start frying the rest of your vegetables. When you add the par-cooked meat to the vegetables, the liquids at the bottom of the wok react with the starch coating, creating a glossy and almost sticky sauce.

A more stripped-back version of this method involves adding cornflour into a bowl of meat, then placing the bowl in the sink under a slow, trickling stream of water, Liaw explains. "Between your thumb and your forefinger, you're rubbing the cornflour onto the protein and washing it off at the same time. You're kind of massaging the meat or seafood with the flour and water mixture," he says.

Many years ago, Chinese people recognised that water, not flour, was crucial to velveting. "Before water from a well was treated, it would often be filtered through bedrock and limestone, and that would make the water slightly alkaline," says Liaw.

Beef with noodles

Option B

The bonds that form the structure of a protein such as beef weaken in alkaline environments to create a soft texture. For this reason, another velveting method uses bi-carb soda can be very effective. According to Liaw, pre-cut meat should be soaked in a solution of bi-carb soda and water for around 15 to 20 minutes before it's rinsed and ready to cook.

Tiong soaks her beef in a ratio of 1 teaspoon of bi-carb to 250g of meat for 20-30 minutes. "There's no hard and fast rule," she says, "but you don't need massive amounts to tenderise the meat."

"You use this method to maintain the white flesh of chicken or seafood while still achieving a fluffy, silky mouthfeel," Tiong explains. After mixing, she recommends thoroughly washing the meat to remove the flavour of bi-carb soda. Be careful not to soak for too long, however, or it can end up too soft with an unpleasant texture.

Garlic butter prawns

This simple stir-fried dish uses fresh Australian garlic in a buttery sauce to coat delicious and tender prawns. If you want to make things even easier, you can skip the deep-frying step and just cook the prawns directly in the garlic butter sauce.

Looking vibrant on the plate is one thing, but historically, including bright colours likely had another purpose, according to Liaw.

"Before we knew about modern medicine and proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins, Chinese cuisine was a practical way of communicating what was the appropriate scientific advice at the time."

Li Hongzhang's chop suey

White is one of the five main colours in Chinese cuisine, along with red, green, black and yellow. Dishes with a combination of these colours were deemed healthy, like a vibrant stir-fry dish filled with veg, chicken, ginger, chilli and salted black beans.

The velveting technique is for anyone who wants to take the next step forward in their home cooking, especially if you've always loved the tender beef you've tasted at Chinese restaurants. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @s.seraphina.

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