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The Secret To Oddly Tender Chinese Meat

July 6, 2009

A while back, before I learned the secret, trying to cook a stir-fry at home was confounding.  What I made never tasted like Chinese food.  It tasted like American food with a Chinese sauce.

There was just something about the texture of the meat that wasn’t quite right.

You know what I’m talking about.  Think about the most quintessential of East Coast Chinese-American classic dishes: Beef with Broccoli.  And think about the beef.  Think how it feels in your mouth, and how it just gives way when you bite into it.

Unless you know the secret, there is no way you can achieve this at home.  And once I tell you, you are never going to believe it.

Cornstarch.

Yep.  That’s it.  I would have sworn it was some kind of commercial meat tenderizer.  But it’s not.  And you will probably need to try it out before you really believe it can be that simple.

So take the crappiest cut of beef you can find or some old frozen chicken.  Chill them down until just frozen so you can slice the meat very thin.

In a bowl, mix together cornstarch, oil of your choosing (I often use peanut oil, but canola oil would be perfectly fine) and soy sauce in about equal quantities to make a runny paste.  Add whatever Asian seasonings you like.  I will generally put in fresh ground white pepper, dried ginger or galangal, and powdered garlic.

But you could use anything.

Stir the thinly-sliced near-frozen meat into the runny, seasoned cornstarch paste, and let sit covered for as long as you can stand.  At least 15 minutes, but an hour or two is best.  Although I bet it’s even better if you let it marinate overnight.  I am just generally not that prepared.

When you are ready, take the marinated meat and cook the hell out of it in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or other very nonstick pan on high heat in a little oil.  When the crust of the meat is burnished, flip the meat over, and do the same to the other side.

You will cook this meat so long, you will never believe it will be edible.

Put the meat aside.  Stir-fry your vegetables in the hot skillet.  Before you sauce the vegetables, return the meat to the pan.  Then sauce the entire dish.

If you want to feel incredibly virtuous, serve your stir-fry over brown rice.  It’s easier than you think.

I can’t vouch for your skills at cooking stir-fry or for the recipe you use.  But if you use this technique, at least the meat in your stir-fry will be authentic and improbably fantastic.

You may like it so much that you adapt this technique for inclusion in other cuisines.  But if you do, please don’t call it fusion.  I used the method with beef for a Tuscan white bean stew.  I used olive oil for the fat, omitted the soy, and seasoned with salt, black pepper, crushed rosemary and powdered garlic.

I cooked the beef and removed it from the pot.  Then I sautéed my aromatics in plenty of olive oil and stirred in the beans to coat.  The beef was added back to the pot before adding stock and Parmesan rinds.  And it was delicious.

Just don’t go crazy and use the miracle of the cornstarch to tenderize meat in Indian recipes.  There is an entirely different technique for Indian food.  But that will have to wait for another day.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Mama Ass permalink
    July 6, 2009 8:01 am

    I’ve found that the cornstarch made a nasty paste on the pan and stirfry has never really worked well for me. Maybe I’ll try your method. I guess I need to get some cast iron pans.

    • April 2, 2014 7:23 pm

      yo pan isn’t hot enough. Once you get cast iron, let that ho heat up for a while, you want that pan damned hot before you add anything. Also, you may have to work in batches if you are using an electric stove

  2. joni permalink
    July 6, 2009 8:11 am

    that’s interesting. i always thought the cornstarch was for thickening the sauce.

  3. brownie permalink
    July 6, 2009 9:49 am

    Mmm, tender beef. It looks terrible, but has that unique chew that I can’t get enough of. I always assumed the texture was due to the “beef” actually being cat, or other small mammal.

  4. omaxwell permalink
    July 6, 2009 10:06 am

    Profusser, I was with you till “cook the hell out of it.” My experience is that you barely cook it, just sear both sides to get a nice crust on the cornstarch in really hot oil. The meat stays tender for the same reason a rare London broil is tender: it doesn’t cook long enough for the muscles and connective tissue to tighten up.

    Also, this is a good excuse to run down to Kim’s or that new Oriental Supermarket on the other side of 87 and buy a spun steel (not stainless or nonstick) wok–they’ve very inexpensive for what you get. Season it by generously coating the inside all over with peanut or canola oil, heat to the smoking point, cool so you don’t burn yourself touching it, then wipe out the oil with paper towels and you’re good to go. Much better for stir fry cooking and it heats up a lot faster than a cast iron pan.

  5. Raf permalink
    July 6, 2009 2:48 pm

    No need to marinate the meat more than 30 min in cornstarch. The cornstarch just makes a velvety, slightly slick coating on the meat, it doesn’t actually tenderize. You tenderize it plenty when you cut it all tiny.

    I’m going to agree with omaxwell on the wok vs cast iron. The iron is the wrong pan for the job. A thin aluminum or steel pan would be preferable. No need to worry about hot spots during stir fry, just keep it moving. The wok is also even cheaper than the cast iron (i paid $12 for my 16″ spun steel wok).

    One interesting note on seasoning – my thai cooking teacher told me to use lard or palm oil for seasoning woks because peanut oil or other unsaturated oils would flake off.

    • April 2, 2014 7:25 pm

      Nonsense. Chemistry makes it damned clear that cornstarch tenderizes meat. However, you are right that 30 min. is sufficient.

      • April 2, 2014 7:26 pm

        baking soda* I mean, not cornstarch.

  6. July 6, 2009 6:39 pm

    yummy, yummy secrets – i was watching ming or america’s test kitchen and one of them said that a pan on high heat is fine if you don’t have a wok since the elevation of the wok can = lower heat. a pan is super close to the heat, so you’ll get more char and it will cook quicker.

    unless you have a restaurant burner at home, of course.

  7. Raf permalink
    July 7, 2009 1:44 pm

    It was ATK. If the goal is purely heat, they are right, but the elevation in a wok is good because you can move the food up the sides to get lower heat. I was skeptical of woks for a while until I learned how to use one.

    I have a high output burner on my gas stove and use a wok ring to direct the flames. That gets the wok plenty hot.

    I’ll give the perfessor some lessons when he comes out to visit.

  8. moon permalink
    January 7, 2012 4:46 am

    The secret is baking soda solution. Soak and rinse very well – that’s it.

  9. Libby permalink
    May 17, 2014 7:38 pm

    Just tried this tonight and it worked perfectly, thanks for the tip! I was using beef stew meat to make a cheap and quick pho. Used lime juice as my acid, canola oil, crushed red pepper, ginger, sriracha, dried basil, and of course the secret ingredient corn starch. Tastes awesome and is super tender. Thanks!

  10. Anna permalink
    June 30, 2014 9:11 am

    the technique is called velveting meat.usually involves egg white cornstarch and water. As ”Moon” said the other technique you can use to achieve the same effect is baking soda.

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