One of the best reasons to get Chinese takeout is the tender, juicy beef. Whether you order Mongolian beef, beef and broccoli, or a stir-fry with noodles, the meat always seems to be soft and succulent. How do Chinese restaurants make beef so tender?
Chinese restaurants make meat tender by a technique called velveting. First, soak the beef in baking soda, then marinate it in a cornflour slurry. Finally, par-cook the meat in oil or water. Prepare the beef by slicing it against the grain, partially freezing it to slice it thinly, or using chemical tenderizers.
It’s common to soften chewy beef by slow-cooking, but Chinese cuisine tends to use fast-cooked, stir-fried beef recipes. Let’s look at the secret techniques that allow Chinese restaurants to use inexpensive beef cuts but produce tender, delicious beef every time.
How Chinese Restaurants Make Their Beef Tender
Chinese restaurants and home cooks use a couple of simple techniques to tenderize beef before cooking. While cutting the meat in certain ways helps, the primary tenderizing process is called velveting.
What Is Velveting?
Velveting is a traditional Chinese cooking technique that makes meat tender and locks in moisture even when stir-frying in a hot wok or using imperfect cuts of beef. Despite the quick cooking, velveted beef remains soft and juicy.
Velveting is a three-step process: tenderizing, marinating, and pre-cooking.
Step 1: Tenderizing With The Baking Soda Method
The first step in velveting involves tenderizing the beef using baking soda.
Velveting is a simple method and can be undertaken at home quite easily, especially when you have an economical cut of beef that isn’t as tender as it could be. Here’s how to velvet beef:
- Slice the beef into bite-sized pieces. The small pieces absorb the baking soda more easily and soften more quickly. This method isn’t suitable for large chunks of meat as only the outside will soften, leaving the inside tough.
- Use ½ teaspoon baking soda or bicarbonate of soda per 8 oz (250g) of beef.
- Add ¼ cup of water.
- Place the meat in a bowl.
- Sprinkle it with the baking soda mixture and use your fingers to toss and massage the baking soda into the beef.
- Leave the beef to soak for 30 minutes if it is flank, hangar steak, or rump roast. Soak for longer if you’re working with tougher cuts of meat.
- Place the beef in a colander. Rinse the meat under running water until the water runs clear. Thorough rinsing is essential, or else the bitter flavor of baking soda will ruin your dish.
- Drain the beef in the colander.
Step 2: Marinating Using The Cornstarch Method
The second step in the velveting process involves marinating the beef in a cornstarch slurry (a term for a paste of flour and water).
This process adds further moisture to the meat and forms a smooth, soft outer layer to which the sauce will cling.
Many home cooks use only this step when velveting, although traditional chefs will follow all three steps. Here’s how to marinate with cornstarch:
- Place the rinsed, drained beef in a bowl.
- Make a cornstarch slurry: combine cornstarch with soy sauce, sesame oil, and egg whites. Depending on the flavor choice, add other seasonings as well.
- Pour cornstarch slurry over the beef.
- Cover the bowl. Allow the beef to marinate for 60 minutes.
Step 3: Pre-cooking
The final step in the velveting process is pre-cooking, which activates the layer of starch and creates the slippery, smooth texture that characterizes Chinese beef dishes.
The method of pre-cooking you choose depends on the dish being made and is typically done in restaurants rather than by home cooks.
- For stir-fried dishes, chefs will deep fry the beef in hot oil.
- A second method is to plunge the beef into enough boiling water to cover it. Let the beef cook until it becomes opaque.
- Drain the meat and use it in your recipe.
Cutting Meat Against The Grain
Apart from velveting, another way Chinese restaurants ensure that their beef is tender is to cut it against the grain.
The grain refers to the long, parallel muscle strands you can see in a piece of meat, like a grain in a bit of wood. When you cut against the grain, you cut perpendicular to or across the muscle strands.
Cutting against the grain doesn’t tenderize the meat but means the long muscle fibers are broken into smaller pieces. A bit like if you cut a tough rope into small chunks – it’s easier to chew.
Ideally, cut pieces ¼ inch thick to keep them bite-sized.
Freezing Meat Before Cutting
If you use meat that is too soft and slippery to cut into small, thin pieces, it helps to freeze it partially first. This allows the knife to cut thin strips with ease.
Place the beef in the freezer for 30 to 60 minutes, and you will find it firm enough to slice precisely and without slipping.
Using Chemical Tenderizers
Another method of tenderizing beef is to use chemical meat tenderizers.
Some restaurants marinate their meat in tenderizers with active ingredients like papain or bromelain. These fruit enzymes break down the connective tissue that makes beef tough, especially in cheaper cuts.
How To Make Your Beef Tender At Home
It’s easy to adapt the techniques used by Chinese restaurants to make tender beef at home. Skip the tenderizing chemicals and try the baking soda and cornstarch steps. Remember to start with some thinly sliced beef which is sliced against the grain.
It’s convenient to tenderize more cheap and fibrous cuts, like brisket, round, chuck, and shank.
Whether you want to replicate your favorite beef chop suey or chow fun, or make luscious beef stroganoff, use these handy tips to tenderize beef like a Chinese chef.
Method 1: Tenderizing With The Baking Soda Method
Even if you don’t marinate the beef afterward to add flavor and texture, baking soda is a powerful tenderizer that will soften any meat.
However, baking soda has an unpleasant flavor, so you must ensure you don’t use too much, and you must rinse it off. Here are some guidelines:
- Place your thinly chopped beef in a bowl.
- Combine ½ teaspoon of baking soda and ¼ cup of water.
- Pour the baking soda mixture over the beef and massage it in with your fingers.
- Allow the meat to soak for 45 minutes to an hour.
- Rinse the beef thoroughly and drain in a colander.
- Use the meat as is or marinate it as below.
Method 2: Marinating Using The Cornstarch Method
Letting the beef sit in a tasty marinade will add lots of flavors and create a velvety coating that gives your beef that restaurant edge.
- Create a marinade combining one tablespoon of cornstarch, one tablespoon of soy sauce, one tablespoon of light sesame oil, and an egg white. Add other seasonings like a tablespoon of Shaoxing wine, rice vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, finely chopped onion, puréed ginger, or crushed garlic to the marinade.
- Pour the marinade over the chopped, rinsed, and drained beef.
- Marinate for 15 minutes to an hour.
- Cook the meat as desired.
The secret techniques Chinese restaurants use to tenderize beef are easy to replicate at home: cut the meat against the grain, then velvet the beef. Velveting involves soaking the beef in baking soda, rinsing it off, and marinating it in a cornflour-egg white slurry. Quick pre-cooking is the final step in ensuring juicy, succulent meat.
Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.
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