This morning a friend chimed in on social media and asked me about a post she’d seen, adding ‘Eben, I know there is some kind of science behind this – re baking soda breaking down the meat fibers, but?’ the post she referenced referred to using baking soda, and only baking soda, to act as a velveting agent. I’m not going to reprint that post here, because, well…. My response might seem rude, and I don’t want to do that – but I have to respond to the concept, without a doubt.
What we really need to be talking about is velveting, a Chinese cooking method that softens texture and retains moisture in proteins to a delightful degree. For things like chicken breast, lean beef or pork that might not go through the high heat of grilling or stir frying in a wok as well as they could, it’s the secret behind the tender, juicy stuff you expect at good restaurants – and they do not use baking soda, period.
Why not, then? Baking soda is bicarbonate of soda, an alkaline salt – it will indeed dissolve cell walls in proteins, but there’s a heavy price to pay. Even when done ‘correctly’ (i.e. according to that recipe my friend posted about), what you end up with is a protein that tastes kind of soapy, with a texture from slightly rubbery to mushy – it’s absolutely unpleasant, and it is not, repeat not how proper velveting is done.
So my overall response to the author of that piece is this – I’m glad you like it, but I’ll pass – The baking soda method is a crude chemical process, and nothing like the real thing. Fortunately, the right way is out there. Like all good things, it requires a bit more work, but not too much – and it’s very much worth it.
If you’ve ever had really good Chinese stir fry, it’s likely been velveted. The real deal process deploys a mix of egg whites, starch, (usually cornstarch), and a little wetting agent – most often plain old water, but sometimes rice vinegar or rice wine. The process does not marinate the protein, it simply adds a bit of additional moisture, allows time for that to integrate, and then lets the starch seal all that in.
My friend Grace Young writes, in her wonderful book Stir-Frying To The Sky’s Edge, that the technique is called waat, 滑, meaning smooth or slippery, (anglicized as velveting). The process implies proteins being ‘passed through’ water or oil, meaning blanching in oil or water.
While a fair number of American Chinese restaurants deep fry after deploying velveting, we at home are far better off blanching in water – less calories, less kitchen danger, and very tasty results. That’s what I do at home, and so can you. In any event, that blanching step is important – that’s what gets everything sealed in prior to stir frying or grilling.
So with Grace’s blessing, and rather than trying to rephrase what’s already been written very well, I’m going to simply point you to a link for a recent article that quotes her and several other notable experts, and let them tell you how to do it right at home.
My only add is this – I’ve taken to using arrowroot instead of cornstarch when I velvet. Cornstarch is made from, well – corn, so it does impart a bit of a cereal taste to thing. Arrowroot is a more potent starch, and doesn’t add any flavor note I can detect – It’s strong enough that I use about half the volume called for cornstarch, with excellent, consistent results.
Finally, if you don’t have Stir-Frying To The Sky’s Edge, get it – and when you do, flip it open to pages 100 and 101 and you’ll find great in-depth tips for velveting pretty much everything, the right way.