Amanda asked: “What exactly is velveting?”
What Is Velveting?
If you’ve ever eaten stir-fried meat or seafood at a Chinese restaurant and enjoyed its unusually soft and tender texture, the reason is probably a technique known as velveting.
Methods vary, but the basic approach is to lightly coat thin-cut pieces of meat in a cornstarch-based batter and then gently poaching them before stir-frying them.
The technique has existed in various Chinese cooking traditions for centuries, but the poetic English-language name “velveting” was coined by restaurateur and author Irene Kuo in her 1977 book The Key To Chinese Cooking.
And while it’s ubiquitous in restaurant kitchens, velveting is also easy to do at home.
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Velveting Chicken and Other Meats in Oil
The Mandarin word for oil-velveting, "guoyou," translates to passing through oil.
Thin pieces of meat are tossed in a batter made from cornstarch, egg white, salt, and sometimes Shaoxing wine and oil—some cooks add a little baking soda as well—and allowed to sit in the fridge for an hour or more, during which time the starch hydrates and the batter adheres to the meat.
Then the coated pieces of meat get a quick bath in 275°-300°F oil—just 30 seconds is enough—which sets the batter and oh-so-gently cooks the meat. Afterward, the meat is drained thoroughly and allowed to cool.
With the meat thus prepared, you can start stir-frying the rest of the ingredients in a recipe and then at the end of cooking, just give the velveted meat a swift turn in the wok. It picks up flavor and, if desired, a little browning, but it should not be in the wok long enough to overcook.
Velveting Chicken and Other Meats in Water
Instead of oil, the blanching step can also be done in boiling water, sometimes with a splash of oil added to the water. "Guoshui," the Chinese term for this technique, means “passing through water.” Kuo recommends oil-velveting for beef (to retain its flavor) and water-velveting for chicken (to keep it softer).
For many home cooks, the simplicity of water-velveting compared to having to heat up oil makes it the go-to choice.
Other Variations on Velveting
Omitting the egg white from the batter produces a thinner, slicker final coating on the meat but accomplishes the same essential purpose. (Irene Kuo gave this treatment a different name, “slippery-coating,” but nowadays everyone just calls it velveting.)
The easiest method of all could be called semi-velveting: Toss the meat in the cornstarch batter, but skip the oil- or water-based blanching step entirely. Just coat and cook. It provides some of the benefit, but nothing like the silken, soft texture that true velveting can achieve.
The Science Behind Velveting
Velveting, like many traditional techniques, can be considered as a holistic procedure, but it consists of several simultaneous phenomena that produce its unique textural effect.
- Soaking in the batter, especially overnight, chemically tenderizes the protein structure of the meat: The alkalinity of both the egg white and the optional baking soda keep the muscle proteins from squeezing together when they’re cooked, thus maintaining a more tender and juicy final product. Salt also improves the moisture retention of the meat—and seasons it.
- The lightly cooked layer of batter has a slippery texture, making the meat feel more succulent and satiny in the mouth. If it’s oil-velveted, or if oil is added to the water for water-velveting, that fat adds to the sleekness of the texture.
- The layer of batter around the meat insulates it from the high heat of the wok. That means the thin pieces, which would easily overcook and dry out if not protected, remain supple.
- Finally, the meat isn’t at risk for overcooking. Because the meat has already been poached in oil or water before it goes into the wok, it doesn’t need to spend a long time in the wok to cook through, so it can be cooked gently and briefly and come out perfect.