I wish I didn’t have an issue with egg rolls.
On paper, it’s an appealing idea: a savory filling of meat and vegetables—and shrimp if the chef is feeling fancy—encased in a thin dough wrapper and deep-fried until it emerges a crispy tube.
The problem, at least for this Chinese food writer, is that I believe most people have only experienced a B-minus egg roll. Deep frying anything until golden can mask a lot of flaws. Often the ratio of meat-to-vegetable is off (too much of the latter, not enough of the former). And because most recipes involve precooking the filling, I’ve had countless versions where the meat ends up pebbly, dry, and flavorless.
I’ve had decent egg rolls but never one that knocked me back.
That changed in September 2022.
The Best Egg Roll I've Ever Tasted
In my hometown, Chicago, there exists an American Chinese restaurant called Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar. The chefs behind the operation are not Chinese but instead are two white men with fine-dining pedigrees.
Although the preceding sentence might be cause for permanent revocation of my Asian card, discovering this restaurant has helped evolve my previously dismissive stance on American Chinese cooking.
I used to think: “This stuff isn’t real Chinese food!” But what is? The Chinese food of Hong Kong, where I was born, is wholly different from the Chinese food in Beijing and different from the dishes in Xinjiang, Shanghai, and Chengdu.
Likewise for American Chinese food—I now view it as a separate, free-standing genre, not in competition with the Cantonese food I grew up eating.
The culinary minds behind Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar are Aaron Kabot and Jason Vincent, who have applied the precise execution of a Michelin-starred restaurant to dishes such as cashew chicken and walnut shrimp. You won’t find highfalutin additions such as foie gras or shaved truffles.
What they do serve are dishes cooked with incredible care and scholarship. Dining there has shown me the delicious possibilities of the American Chinese genre or, really, any misunderstood cuisine—source great ingredients, season properly, and cook at the right time and temperature, and the results can be glorious. Even the Chicago Tribune’s restaurant critic, herself a Chinese American, gave Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar a glowing review.
Singled out in her review were the egg rolls, of which she wrote: “The egg rolls, with bubbly crunchy wrappers, hold tight around a beautiful, bountiful filling.”
The first bite I took when I finally visited Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar in September 2022 were those egg rolls. Within 2 seconds, I knew this was the apotheosis of what a top-notch egg roll could taste like.
The pork-and-shrimp filling was generous and flavorful, with that bouncy and toothsome quality that yielded incredible juiciness. The exterior wrapper was not at all doughy (like many mediocre versions) but was cooked through and straddled that crisp-crunchy divide. It was, stated baldly, the best egg roll I’ve ever tasted.
When I asked the chefs if they’d consider sharing the recipe (to be included in my book, A Very Chinese Cookbook), they understandably declined. “It took me two years to perfect the recipe,” said Jason Vincent.
What’s a guy to do? Well, I do work at America’s Test Kitchen, and we’ve been developing recipes for 30-plus years.
And thus began my mission to engineer an egg roll that could wow even the most cynical critic.
A Very Chinese CookbookFeaturing 100+ Chinese recipes, from Sichuan street food to Hong Kong dim sum parlors to American Chinese classics.
My First Egg Roll Discovery
I must have sampled that egg roll at Chef’s Special a half dozen times, each bite inching closer to its crispy secrets.
As I did in my restaurant reviewing days, I jotted tasting notes on my phone:
Shumai filling ... salted shrimp, bigger pieces ... not a lot of carrots and cabbage, good ratio ... vermicelli ... thinner wrapper
That my instinct was “shumai filling” was a crucial discovery.
Shumai is the open-topped pork-and-shrimp dumpling that’s fantastically juicy. Cantonese chefs achieve this by whipping ground pork and chopped shrimp in a stand mixer, releasing myosins and helping achieve that meatloaf-like texture.
I called Cook’s Country editor Bryan Roof, who developed ATK’s shumai recipe. He thought it was possible to cook through the raw filling during the deep fry but that I may have to introduce additional fat to stop the meat from drying out. Bryan noted how dim sum chefs he visited would use a paddle mixer to whip the pork for shumai. The chefs would also add lard to the pork mixture, which gave it a snowy white hue.
Next: Folding in large chunks of shrimp, rather than minced, prevented the meat filling from being too texturally homogeneous. Rehydrated mung bean noodles (also called cellophane noodles or bean threads) serve as a kind of panade—they add juicy texture to every bite.
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Achieving Maximum Flavors
A moist, unctuous filling won’t mean much if there are no flavors. I find most restaurant egg rolls suffer from blandness. The quality I’m looking for is how I’ve heard ramen broth once described: It should be one notch below too-salty. Which is to say, aggressive, but not overly seasoned.
I experimented with a dozen methods of seasoning the filling. Getting it to seasoned was no issue; it was achieving well-seasoned that was tougher.
I realized salt and soy sauce only get me part of the way. Here, I decided to employ two of the most umami-rich ingredients in Chinese cooking: chicken bouillon powder and oyster sauce. Both attack savoriness from different angles, and with this recipe, I want that flavor coming from multiple fronts. Toasted sesame oil, Chinese rice vinegar, Shaoxing wine, white pepper, and five-spice powder round out the classically Chinese marinade.
Then there’s the cabbage-carrot part of the filling, which does require parcooking. This too gets seasoned, with soy sauce and sugar as it softens in the skillet.
Next to sogginess, there’s no greater insult impugned on an egg roll than calling it flavorless.
The Wrap and the Fry
A few insights about wrapping and frying these egg rolls:
- The egg roll should be bulbous, so we can’t skimp on the filling. We went with a rounded ¼ cup of filling, shaped into a 4-inch-long cylinder.
- It’s important the egg roll be wrapped and sealed very tightly. If not, the edges of the fried wrapper fray and curl up, making the egg roll aesthetically unappealing. Visually, you should be able to load these smooth, crisp, seamless egg roll bullets into the chamber.
- I experimented with different frying times and temperatures, between 325 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit, from 4 up to 11 minutes. Ultimately, I found that a drop temp of 350 degrees and maintaining it between 350 and 375 was ideal, with a fry time between 4–8 minutes (depending on how much the oil temperature drops). I found the best possible results frying six rolls at a time at 350 degrees for 6 minutes.
After a month of experimenting and 17 batches of egg rolls, I submitted my recipe to the editors of A Very Chinese Cookbook.
The team back in Boston continued refining the recipe over many weeks, making tweaks here and there, taste-testing the results along the way.
By March 2023, we had landed on a recipe that satisfied our egg roll requirements:
- It had that blistered, crackly exterior that creates an audible crunch when you bite down.
- The filling was well-seasoned, emphasis on "well," but not overly salty.
- The pork-and-shrimp filling wasn't pebbly and dry but incredibly juicy and tender with a toothsome texture.
Here's the video recipe from our Chinese cooking series Hunger Pangs, with the written recipe below.
Egg Rolls 春卷
Makes 12 egg rolls, recipe featured in A Very Chinese Cookbook
- 12 ounces ground pork
- 2 tablespoons lard, cut into 4 pieces, room temperature (optional)
- 4 ounces shrimp (any size), peeled, deveined, tails removed, and coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
- 4 teaspoons sugar, divided
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon chicken bouillon powder
- 1½ teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1½ teaspoons Shaoxing wine
- 1½ teaspoons Chinese white rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- ½ teaspoon white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 2 cups chopped green cabbage
- 1 carrot, peeled and shredded
- 1½ ounces dried mung bean glass noodles
- 12 (8-inch) square egg roll wrappers
- 2 quarts peanut or vegetable oil for frying
1. Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat pork and lard, if using, on medium speed until well combined and mixture has lightened in color, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add shrimp, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sugar, oyster sauce, bouillon powder, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, vinegar, salt, pepper, and five-spice powder. Mix until just combined, about 30 seconds. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. Heat empty 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until just beginning to smoke. Reduce heat to medium-high, drizzle vegetable oil around perimeter of wok, and heat until just smoking. Add cabbage, carrot, remaining 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and remaining 1 teaspoon sugar and cook, tossing slowly but constantly, until cabbage is just softened, about 2 minutes. Transfer vegetable mixture to large plate, spread into even layer, and refrigerate until cooled slightly, about 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, soak noodles in 4 cups hot water in bowl for 15 minutes. Drain noodles and rinse under cold running water until chilled. Drain noodles again, then transfer to cutting board and chop into rough 1-inch lengths. Return bowl with pork mixture to mixer fitted with paddle. Add vegetable mixture and noodles and mix on low speed until well combined, about 1 minute.
4. Fill small bowl with water. Working with 1 wrapper at a time, arrange on counter so 1 corner points toward edge of counter. Place rounded ¼ cup filling on lower half of wrapper and mold it with your fingers into neat 4-inch-long cylinder parallel to edge of counter. Dip your fingertip in water and moisten entire border of wrapper with thin film of water.
5. Fold bottom corner of wrapper over filling and press gently along length of filling to remove air pockets. Fold side corners over to enclose filling snugly; gently roll to form tight cylinder and press edges to seal. Transfer egg roll seam side down to parchment paper–lined plate and cover with damp paper towel while shaping remaining egg rolls. Stack egg rolls as needed, separating layers with additional parchment. (Egg rolls can be frozen until solid, then transferred to zipper-lock bag and stored in freezer for up to 1 month. Do not thaw before frying; increase frying time by 2 minutes.)
6. Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet and line rack with triple layer of paper towels. Add peanut oil to clean, dry, 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or large Dutch oven until it measures about 1½ inches deep and heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Using tongs, carefully add 6 egg rolls seam side down to hot oil and cook until deep golden brown, 4 to 8 minutes, flipping egg rolls halfway through frying. Adjust burner, if necessary, to maintain oil temperature around 350 degrees. Using tongs, transfer egg rolls to prepared rack and let drain. Return oil to 350 degrees and repeat with remaining 6 egg rolls; transfer to prepared rack and let drain. Serve.