Crunchy, piping-hot Chinese restaurant egg rolls, with dipping sauces at the ready, check off a bunch of the boxes that trigger the pleasure sensors in our brains: crispy, salty, sweet, savory, spicy, and meaty. But I wanted to make them at home instead of ordering takeout. Knowing that I'd need to do the work of cooking the filling, wrapping the rolls, and frying them myself, I wanted the egg rolls to be great. And in making my own egg rolls, I also wanted to minimize the prep and mess.
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After preparing and tasting five seemingly promising recipes, I realized I had my work cut out for me. To prep the filling alone, I had to mince fresh pork, thinly slice a mound of cabbage, and laboriously cut carrots and mushrooms into matchsticks. I also had to find dark soy sauce, black vinegar, and Chinese rice wine. And that's just the start. I still had to cook and chill the filling ingredients, wrap and seal the rolls, and do the deep frying. I wanted tasty results with a lot less work.
In an effort to reduce the amount of prep work, I tried using bagged coleslaw mix—shredded cabbage and carrots—in place of the hand-chopped cabbage and carrot, and it worked great. Chopped shiitake mushrooms added a deep savory flavor to the vegetable mix. For the meat, I opted for ground pork, letting the supermarket grinder do the work for me. As for seasoning the filling, I knew from stir-fry recipes I'd developed in the past that I could create a delicious, savory, and balanced sauce with pantry ingredients. I started with a mix of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sugar. Using a measured ⅓ cup of filling per egg roll ensured that the rolls weren't overstuffed and wouldn't rupture in the oil.
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Now to cook them. Did they have to be deep-fried? I tried a move I hadn't seen in any other recipes: shallow-frying the egg rolls in just ½ inch (or so) of 325-degree oil in a skillet (not a big Dutch oven). Using less oil made the cooking easier and the cleanup faster. With a single flip halfway through the roughly 6-minute cooking time, the egg rolls came out nicely crispy and perfectly cooked.
But the filling still needed something. My tasters remarked that it tasted a little too “flat” and “heavy.” So in my next test I cooked the vegetables a little less (until just wilted), preserving their fresh flavor and crunch, and I added a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar to brighten it all up. I also stirred in a bit of potent toasted sesame oil for depth and a hint of nutty sweetness.
Feeling confident while I waited for this batch of egg rolls to cool, I filled a couple small serving bowls with duck sauce and Chinese hot mustard and set them out for my tasters. I knew I had landed on a good recipe when one of my colleagues stopped eating just long enough to exclaim that this was the best egg roll she'd ever had. The rest of them, still chowing down, nodded in agreement.