The Counterintuitive Method of “Cooking” in Your Freezer

A freezer can be used to transform the texture and flavor of food: This guide explains some of the best ways to use the power of ice to give food a cooked texture.

Frozen roasted sweet potato with whipped creme fraiche and granola on a plate.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

The wonders of the freezer as a tool for preserving food are obvious, but the freezer can do a lot more than just store food. It can also be used as a cooking instrument. Some of these techniques have been written about on Serious Eats before. There's cryo-shucking clams and other shellfish; cryo-blanching vegetables and herbs like basil; tenderizing octopus; and hardening up squishy pork fat to make slicing easier.

However, there are other possibilities. If you were to consult the Chinese home-cooking playbook, you'd find a whole host of techniques that use the freezer to transform the textures of food and enhance flavors in ways that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.

Many of these techniques predate the use of modern freezers. In Northeast China, it was common practice to store fruits, vegetables, and other ingredients outside the home during the winter, exposed to snowy sub-zero temperatures. Some of the ingredients would be kept there throughout the season and then eaten in the warmer months, but others would be cooked and eaten during the cold season. And when those ingredients were brought back indoors and thawed, they'd be markedly different, altered in fundamental ways. To illustrate how the freezing process can change ingredients, and for ideas for how to take advantage of those changes to produce delicious food, let's look at the specific examples below, each of which has an accompanying recipe.

Roasted Frozen Sweet Potatoes

Frozen roasted sweet potato with whipped creme fraiche and granola
Vicky Wasik

My favorite application of this idea is also one of the simplest. During the winter, in many East Asian cities, including Hong Kong, where I grew up, you’ll find roasted sweet potato vendors parked on street corners. On one end of a small cart is a massive wok filled with pebbles, heated with coal. The vendor continually tosses the pebbles in the wok along with sweet potatoes to produce beautifully caramelized wok-roasted sweet potatoes with bright, fluffy flesh and a thin, papery, toasted skin. In cities with colder climates, the vendors are able to consistently achieve this cloud-like texture by first freezing the whole sweet potatoes before they’re roasted, either by allowing them to naturally freeze on the cart in ambient sub-zero temps or, in at least in a few cases I know of in Hong Kong, by deliberately placing them in a freezer.

As the sweet potato freezes, the water that’s inside the sweet potato forms ice crystals, which have sharp and jagged edges that puncture the cell walls of the flesh, altering the texture of the potato such that when it's roasted, it comes out more tender and fluffy. Based on further testing of this technique by Tim Chin (spoiler: he found this freeze-roast method produces the most delicious bakes sweet potato by far), there's an added benefit to the freezing step. By lowering the potato's starting temperature and then roasting it while still frozen, the potato spends even more time in a very special temperature zone between 135°F to 170°F (57°C to 76°C), the temperature range in which a natural enzyme in the potato called amylase starts working overtime to convert complex starches into sweet maltose sugar. This is something Kenji takes advantage of in his roasted sweet potato and mashed sweet potato recipes as well.

The result is a gorgeously roasted sweet potato with a deep sweetness and a texture reminiscent of sweet potato pie. It's wonderful eaten straight out-of-hand, but I also whipped up a simple but flavorful presentation in which the roasted frozen sweet potato is topped with light and tangy whipped creme fraiche and sprinkled with granola.

I've found that this technique works best on sweeter varieties of sweet potatoes, such as purple-fleshed sweet potatoes or Carolina ruby yams, where the naturally high moisture content exaggerates the effect of the freezing. On the flip side, roasting frozen white-fleshed Okinawan sweet potatoes (and regular Russet potatoes) isn't as effective.

Ice-Poached ("Cryo-Macerated") Fruits

Overhead view of sliced thawed frozen pears with goji berries and Chinese almonds in syrup
Vicky Wasik

The cuisine of Northeast China is deeply rooted in local agricultural practices, one of which is freezing fruits in the winter. One example of this are the Asian pears that are frozen and thawed repeatedly until the once-beige skins turn black and the interiors soften and burst with the juices.

The traditional way of eating the pear is to puncture the skin of the fruit with your teeth and suck up the natural syrup, after which you can eat the fruit in larger bites. The freezing and thawing process transforms the pear, picked when it's hard and sour, into a delight on its own. It still retains its raw pear flavor and tastes almost impossibly fresh, but its texture is soft, with a slight crispness, as if it had been expertly poached.

What happens within the pear is similar to what happens within the sweet potato, but of course the pears aren't subsequently cooked. However, the repeated freezing and thawing causes large, slow-forming ice crystals to break apart the cell walls in the fruit flesh, releasing flavor compounds and sugars. The process also damages the skin, causing it to oxidize (and thus blacken), but the skin remains intact, and I've found that it naturally protects the fruit flesh from freezer burn, making it possible to leave the pears in the freezer for several months with no ill effects. To borrow a term from wine making that describes freezing grapes before fermentation to weaken the skins and extract more tannin and flavor, the pear is effectively “cryo-macerated.”

The technique use for cryo-macerated or ice-poached pears is used for other fruits in Northeast China. Persimmons, peaches, and cherries are all subjected to a similar process to create snacks that are now eaten year around. And the technique has wide applications, such as in my more composed recipe for the ice-poached pears: it's a take on “poached” pears served with a light syrup, in this case flavored with Chinese medicinal ingredients like goji berries, apricot kernels, and osmanthus.

To expand on this idea outside of traditional Chinese cuisine, one can imagine freezing fruits like apples, plums, and apricots to jumpstart the process of extracting sweetness and flavor from them as well, without having to cook them down, for raw jams, jellies, cobblers, or desserts.

Ultra-Absorbent Frozen Tofu

Overhead view of frozen simmered tofu soup with pork and cabbage in a serving bowl
Vicky Wasik

In a savory context, frozen tofu is a popular example of altering the texture of an ingredient by freezing it. Frozen tofu takes on a yellow hue and a more porous texture, which not only gives the tofu chewiness and a meat-like bounce, but also a sponge-like quality that allows it to absorb liquids and deliver more flavor in every bite. The effect is achieved, once again, with the help of ice crystals, which expand as they form, tearing apart the tofu's coagulated protein structure. When the tofu thaws, the water drains out through this web of lacerations, leaving tiny pockets of air throughout.

To enhance this effect, it's best to gently squeeze the thawed tofu between your hands, expressing even more water and increasing the tofu's absorptive potential while concentrating the flavor of the tofu itself.

Frozen tofu is eaten most often in hot pots, braises, soups, and saucy dishes where the spongy texture can soak up the cooking liquid. Even in the simplest of liquids, as in my recipe for frozen tofu simmered with Napa cabbage, pork, and a little ginger and garlic, the tofu becomes juicy and substantial in a way that fresh tofu simply won't.

Cryo-Blanching Vegetables

A group of trimmed green beans, looking lightly cooked though in reality they have been cryo-blanched in a freezer.
Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Blanching vegetables involves very quickly boiling them in salted water until just tender, then shocking them in ice water to chill them down and stop the cooking. The idea is to tenderize the vegetables and cook them just enough while retaining their fresh flavor and bright green color. The freezer, as it turns out, can be used to similar effect.

By freezing thin vegetables such as string beans, peas, asparagus and more, ice crystals quickly form, puncturing cell walls to create a like-cooked texture while maintaining a fresh raw flavor. Read more about the science of the technique here.

Cryo-Shucking Clams

close up of raw clams that are wide open, having been
Serious Eats / Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot

Shucking clams by hand takes a little practice before it becomes a quick and easy process, but even for those who are adept at it, shucking a large number of clams is still a chore. Luckily, the freezer can be put to good use here, and all it takes is a little advanced prep. By placing live clams in a freezer, the cold itself kills them. Once frozen, all you have to do is wait for the clams to defrost and they'll pop open one by one, ready for you to use in whatever dish you desire.

This doesn't make sense to use in all clam-cooking scenarios, since you can also open clams by cooking them, but in any instance where you want to cook the clam meat without the shells, it's a great technique to have in your pocket.

Other Applications

These are just a few examples of how freezers can be used to manipulate both the texture and flavor of foods. When considering how else to use the freezer in similar ways, it's helpful to keep in mind two (related) effects freezing has on ingredients—softening and moisture loss—to determine whether using the freezer might be a good idea.

When considering softening, ask yourself whether there's likely to be any benefit to achieving a looser, more tender, and potentially spongier texture. Root vegetables like beets and taro, for example, might benefit from the softening effects of the freezer, as that’s the ultimate texture we usually look for. But leafy greens, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts, on the other hand, would become limp and unappealing for a stir-fry in which you want the vegetables to retain a bit of crispness.

As for moisture loss, it's an inevitable effect when freezing most ingredients, thanks to all that cellular damage from the ice crystals. While it works wonders with sweet potatoes, pears, tofu, and more, it can be a problem with ingredients like meats, where you want to retain as much moisture as possible. If in doubt, though, remember that there's little harm in experimentation. You may just stumble upon an entirely new way to prepare and enjoy one of your favorite foods.

Cantonese Clay Pot Rice With Velveted Chicken and Mushrooms (北菇滑雞煲仔飯)

When done properly, velveting can render a relatively lean cut of meat moist and tender—even after extended steaming.

Velveted chicken with mushrooms on top of Cantonese clay pot rice.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

There are a few things to consider when deciding what to cook on top of Cantonese clay pot rice, a popular dish of rice that’s steamed then crisped in a clay pot. Because the toppings cook directly on top of the rice, the ideal dishes are ones that are able to retain their moisture even after 20 minutes of steaming—the time it usually takes clay pot rice to cook. (Even at a gentle heat, this is significantly longer than the cooking time required for most steamed Cantonese dishes.) When properly prepared, the toppings should release their juices onto the rice, permeating the grains with fat and flavor. This, however, means that proteins have to be sufficiently protected from drying out—something this classic recipe for clay pot rice topped with tender and juicy velveted chicken demonstrates well. 

One of the brilliant ways to keep meat moist is a method of marinating called velveting. Most commonly, this technique is used to make velveted chicken with shiitake mushrooms (冬菇滑雞), a popular dish for accompanying rice at both dim sum and clay pot rice restaurants. The direct translation of the dish, in fact, is “slippery chicken.” When done properly, velveting can render a relatively lean cut of meat like chicken breast moist and tender—even after extended steaming.

Velveted chicken and mushrooms on top of Cantonese clay pot rice.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

What Is Velveting?

Velveting is a Chinese cooking technique that helps meat develop a silky smooth texture by protecting it in a layer of starch. Typically, proteins are marinated in egg whites and cornstarch, then blanched in hot water or oil to set the protective coating, resulting in incredibly tender meat. Though velveting has been written about extensively in English since it was introduced by Irene Kuo in her 1977 book The Key to Chinese Cooking, most Chinese chefs don’t use the same terminology to describe the technique. Rather than refer to the method as “velveting,” they simply say they are marinating meat in starch.

So in the same vein, there is some leeway to velveting; there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes water velveting. As long as meat is coated in some form of starch and liquid and the meat is then exposed to heat, there are no other major restrictions to the ingredients or the cooking technique. Different chefs from different regions will have their own approaches to the technique. 

In this recipe, the velveting agent is simply cornstarch or potato starch added to a marinade of Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Oil is added as well, which is emulsified into the marinade with the starch, making the chicken more “slippery.” A quick wash of salt and baking soda forms a quick wet brine, helping the chicken retain its moisture. 

Blanching the chicken before steaming it over rice would be excessive, as the meat does not need to be protected in the same way as it would be for a stir-fry. Because the toppings for clay pot rice are steamed directly on top of the rice, they’re cooked more gently than in a stir-fry, which means they don’t need to be blanched separately in water or oil.

Cornstarch being added to raw chicken.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Variations on the Classic

As noted above, the chicken topping on this clay pot rice recipe is often served in other ways. Some families will make velveted chicken with shiitake mushrooms directly on top of their rice in a rice cooker to achieve a similar one-pot meal. For most Chinese households, this dish will stand alone without being steamed over rice, presented with an array of family style braises and stir-fries. A similar technique can be applied to boneless slices of chicken, pork, or beef as well. 

But of all the variations, there's no arguing the dish works particularly well on clay pot rice. The chicken truly makes the rice shine, with its tender texture in contrast with the crispy bottom and its delicate seasoning in concert with a robust seasoned soy sauce.

Shiitake mushrooms being sliced.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Seasoned Soy Sauce: In a small saucepan, melt lard over medium heat until shimmering, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low and add scallions, shallot, cilantro, garlic, and ginger, and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the aromatics are fragrant and begin to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add Shaoxing wine, water, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer for 7 minutes, until thickened. The sauce should be dark, smooth, and slightly thicker than bottled light soy sauce. Pour seasoned soy sauce through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl. Refrigerate until chilled.

Seasoned soy sauce being made in a saucepan.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, Wash the Chicken: In a medium-sized bowl, cover the chicken with water and rinse off as much blood as possible. Add 1 cup water, along with salt and baking soda, and massage the chicken, tenderizing it and removing as much residual blood as possible. Drain well, squeeze gently to remove as much moisture as possible, and set aside.

Chicken sitting in water in a stainless steel bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Rice: In a large bowl, combine short-grain and jasmine rice and cover by 2 inches with cool water. Using your hands, vigorously swish rice until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. (Rinsing the grains just once retains more of the starch and flavors of the rice.) Cover rice with at least double the amount of water and soak for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. When the rice has finished soaking, drain it well through a fine-mesh sieve. (To check if the rice has thoroughly soaked, break a grain in half. There shouldn’t be a visible hard, white center.)

Rice being rinsed in a bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Make the Marinade: In a medium bowl, whisk together Shaoxing wine, salt, oil, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, and potato starch. Add the chicken, gently squeezing it to work the marinade into the meat.

Pouring marinade onto chicken.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add the ginger and shiitake mushrooms, tossing to coat, then transfer to refrigerator and let marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

Shiitake mushrooms and ginger on top of raw chicken in a stainless steel bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Cook the Rice: Set the clay pot over medium-high heat until hot to the touch, about 2 minutes. Add the rice to the pot and top with just enough water to barely cover. Bring the rice and water to a boil, stirring occasionally. When the rice and water begin to bubble, give the rice a final stir to get rid of any clumps, and allow the rice to cook until water is no longer visible above the rice, about 2 minutes.

Four different stages of rice being cooked in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Reduce heat to low. Using a pair of chopsticks, ventilate the rice by poking a few shallow holes on the surface of the rice. Slide the marinated chicken, ginger, and shiitake mushrooms onto the rice in an even layer.

Poking holes in rice that's being cooked in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Cover clay pot with lid and allow rice and chicken to cook on low heat until the rice begins to crackle, about 10 minutes. (Do not open the lid. Listening carefully, you should hear a consistent sizzling crackle; loud, inconsistent pops mean that the heat is too high.)

A Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Drizzle lard, schmaltz, or oil on the rim of the lid and allow it to trickle down into the rice. With the lid still on, angle the clay pot so that a quarter of the bottom of the pot is toasting directly over the flame. Rotate the clay pot every minute, so that another quarter of the pot is being toasted. Repeat this process for another 13 minutes. Be careful not to burn the rice; if the vapor escaping the pot becomes a single, slow wisp or you begin to smell smoke, reduce heat to low. The rice is done when it stops sizzling and the steam slows. Remove clay pot from heat and rest for 2 minutes.

Cantonese clay pot rice being tilted over a gas stove.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Serve: Remove the lid and drizzle with the desired amount of seasoned soy sauce, stirring to mix well. Serve in the clay pot itself, dividing portions up into smaller individual bowls. Once most of the rice has been served, use a metal spoon to scrape up the crispy rice on the bottom, optionally crumbling it into the fluffier rice mixture.

Velveted chicken and mushrooms on top of Cantonese clay pot rice.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Cantonese clay pot (about 1 quart in capacity and 18cm in diameter), gas stove

Notes

Using both jasmine and a short- or medium-grain variety produces rice that’s both fluffy and chewy, a texture I particularly enjoy. However, you’re more than welcome to use just one kind of rice instead of a blend.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The seasoned soy sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Cantonese Clay Pot Rice With Chinese Meatloaf (肉餅煲仔飯)

Pleasantly springy and fragrant with soy sauce, oyster sauce, and Shaoxing wine, Chinese meatloaf is delicious served on its own or atop Cantonese claypot rice.

Chinese meatloaf on top of Cantonese clay pot rice.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Cantonese clay pot rice is one of the most iconic examples of Chinese rice cookery. Prepared slowly and gently in a porous, semi-glazed clay pot, the grains are fluffy and aromatic, with a satisfyingly crisp bottom for textural contrast. The dish is designed to be all about the rice—which isn’t to say that the topping isn't important, only that it's there to uplift the grain itself.

There are numerous toppings you could serve with clay pot rice: velveted chicken with shiitake mushrooms; dried Chinese sausage; freshwater eel in black bean sauce; and cured duck legs are just a few possibilities. The toppings are usually made with moist cuts of meat or seafood that have been treated in some way (like velveting) so they stay tender during the cooking process, and are all steamed directly on top of the rice, which allows the rendered fat and juices to drip down into the rice as the it cooks.  

One of the most popular toppings in Hong Kong is Chinese meatloaf. Like American meatloaf, this is a dish of ground meat mixed with other ingredients to form a delicate cake that retains its moisture as much as possible while it cooks. But while American meatloaf is typically baked and slightly crumbly, Chinese meatloaf is generally steamed and pleasantly springy. For those familiar with the "Q" texture of tapioca pearls or Chinese fish balls, which are often advertised as bouncy enough to play ping pong with,  Chinese meatloaf is not quite that elastic, and should still fall apart when pried open with chopsticks.

Two pots of Cantonese clay pot rice: one with Chinese meatloaf and another with velveted chicken.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Myosin: The Key to Tender Meatloaf

Unlike a hamburger, where the ideal loose and crumbly texture of the patty is achieved with minimal handling of the meat and only salting the exterior of the patty, in a meatloaf we want the opposite—a more cohesive texture that is tender but springy, well seasoned throughout, and very juicy. This is accomplished by seasoning the chopped pork and then mixing it very thoroughly. The salt works to draw out myosin, a muscle protein in the pork, dissolving it into the water content of the mixture. With very aggressive mixing, the myosin binds with both the fat and the protein in the meatloaf, locking them together in a sticky emulsion that, when cooked, produces perfectly bouncy and juicy results.

How do we do such aggressive mixing? That's the fun part. The technique called for here involves a forceful technique of lifting and slapping the meat back down upon itself over and over again until the mixture is blended and sticky and all your pent up anxiety and rage has been vented into the food. Some might claim it's as good as therapy.

Hand-Chopping the Meat vs. Using Pre-Ground Pork

The key to the texture of this meatloaf is to create a duality of textures, which is best achieved by hand-chopping pork shoulder instead of purchasing ground pork. This may feel unnecessarily fussy and labor-intensive, but preparing it this way yields perfectly inconsistent pieces that provide chew and textural contrast. Though you can use pre-ground pork—which is much more convenient—I recommend taking the time to hand-chop the meat, which will allow you to have greater control over the size and consistency of the pork for a more pleasing bite. A food processor is another possible shortcut, but can result in a mince that is a little too stringy, and yield a denser meatloaf. 

To make this process as easy as possible, I recommend chilling the pork shoulder in the freezer for about 15 minutes, as the meat is easier to cut when cold and firm. Then roughly dice the pork into 1/4-inch pieces, lay it all out in a single layer on the cutting board and start mincing with a heavy knife, preferably a cleaver. At this point, you can speed it up by wielding not one but two knives, rapidly alternating the chopping motion to cover a larger surface area at once. (Fun fact: Chinese culinary students are taught a mincing technique called the “gallop chop” that mimics the sound of a horse’s gallop with the two cleavers.) The whole process should take about five minutes, and the mince is done when the pieces are just a hair larger than the size of ground meat you’d find in the store.

The Aromatics

At its most basic, Chinese meatloaf is seasoned with the usual suspects: soy sauce, oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sesame oil. But it’s often also cooked with more assertive flavorings such as salted yolks, dried squid, dried orange peel, preserved meats, and salted fish. Because the pork itself is so mild, these ingredients help elevate the meatloaf and add a deep savoriness.

Here, I suggest using a salted duck egg, which is one of the more approachable ingredients for those unfamiliar with other ingredients that may traditionally be used in meatloaf. The yolk of the salted duck egg, in particular, is creamy, unctuous, and intensely savory—there’s not much like it.

Bouncy and delicately textured, Chinese meatloaf is an excellent accompaniment to clay pot rice, and it’s not hard to see why it’s a favorite among many Hong Kongers. Served with a salted duck egg and seasoned soy sauce, it’s a deeply savory dish that many find themselves returning to over and over again.

For the Seasoned Soy Sauce: In a small saucepan set over medium heat, melt the lard until liquid, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low and add scallions, shallots, cilantro, garlic, and ginger. Gently sauté, swirling the pan occasionally, until the aromatics are fragrant and begin to turn golden brown. Deglaze the pan with the Shaoxing wine, then add water, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat and allow to bubble for 2 minutes. Strain, chill, and set aside; the sauce should be dark, smooth, and slightly thicker than bottled soy sauce.

Seasoned soy sauce being made in a saucepan.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a large bowl, combine short-grain and jasmine rice and cover by 2 inches with cool water. Using your hands, vigorously swish rice until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. (Rinsing the grains just once retains more of the starch and flavors of the rice.) Cover rice with at least double the amount of water and soak for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. When the rice has finished soaking, drain it well through a fine-mesh sieve. (To check if the rice has thoroughly soaked, break a grain in half. There shouldn’t be a visible hard, white center.)

Rice being rinsed in a bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, for the Meatloaf: Dice the pork shoulder into 1/4-inch pieces. Set aside a third of the diced pork. Chop the pork, pushing the mixture around until the pork is as fine as conventionally ground pork. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.

Pork being diced on a cutting board and pork in a stainless steel bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a small bowl, mix together ginger, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, starch, egg white, salt, and sugar, stirring well with a silicone spatula until well-combined.

Ground pork with ginger, cornstarch, and other aromatics in a stainless steel bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Gradually pour the seasoning liquid into the meat mixture. Vigorously stir the meat in one direction to incorporate the liquid. As the meat is being mixed, you will notice that white strands of protein that looks like fine tendons will get longer and longer. Once these strands reach 2 inches in length, begin slapping the meat loaf. Using clean hands, ball up the mixture into one mass and then slap it back into the bowl. Continue to slap the meat until the final mixture holds together and begins to feel bouncy, about 2 minutes.

Close up of pork for Chinese meatloaf.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Cook the Clay Pot Rice: set the clay pot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the rice to the pot and top with just enough water to barely cover. Bring the rice and water to a boil, with the lid off, stirring occasionally. When the rice and water begin to bubble, give the rice a final stir to get rid of any clumps, and allow the rice to cook until water is no longer visible above the rice, about 2 minutes.

Four different stages of rice being cooked in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Reduce heat to low. Using a pair of chopsticks, ventilate the rice by poking a few shallow holes on the surface of the rice. Shape the meat loaf into a 5-inch wide disc and lay it on top of the rice, and using a spoon, make a small indent in the center of the meatloaf and crack in the salted duck egg, if using.

Raw Chinese meatloaf on top of rice in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Cover clay pot with lid and allow rice and meatloaf to cook on low heat until the rice begins to crackle, about 10 minutes. (Do not open the lid. Listening carefully, you should hear a consistent sizzling crackle; loud, inconsistent pops mean that the heat is too high.)

A Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Drizzle lard, schmaltz, or oil on the rim of the lid and allow it to trickle down into the rice. With the lid still on, angle the clay pot so that a quarter of the bottom of the pot is toasting directly over the flame. Rotate the clay pot every minute, so that another quarter of the pot is being toasted. Repeat this process for another 13 minutes. Be careful not to burn the rice; if the vapor escaping the pot becomes a single, slow wisp or you begin to smell smoke, reduce heat to low. The rice is done when it stops sizzling and the steam slows. Remove clay pot from heat and rest for 2 minutes. Check that the meatloaf is fully cooked by poking a chopstick in the center of the meatloaf. The juices that run out should be clear and not pink.

Cantonese clay pot tilted over the flame of a gas stove.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Serve: Remove the lid and drizzle with the desired amount of seasoned soy sauce, stirring to mix well. Serve in the clay pot itself, dividing portions up into smaller individual bowls. Once most of the rice has been served, use a metal spoon to scrape up the crispy rice on the bottom, optionally crumbling it into the fluffier rice mixture.

Chinese meatloaf on top of Cantonese clay pot rice.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Cantonese clay pot (about 1 quart in capacity and 18cm in diameter), gas stove

Notes

Using both jasmine and a short- or medium-grain variety produces rice that’s both fluffy and chewy, a texture I particularly enjoy. However, you’re more than welcome to use just one kind of rice instead of a blend.

The salted duck egg used here should be raw. Salted duck eggs are available to purchase in most Asian grocery stores, but if you can only find cooked duck eggs, I suggest crumbling it into the meatloaf instead of placing it on top, as this will flavor the meatloaf throughout.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The seasoned soy sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

How to Make Cantonese Clay Pot Rice (煲仔飯)

This comforting meal of rice steamed and crisped within a Cantonese clay pot is a favorite in Hong Kong, where it’s served with an assortment of savory toppings and a seasoned soy sauce.

Cantonese clay pot rice with Chinese sausage and greens.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When the first hint of a winter breeze rolls into Hong Kong, everyone’s mind—and appetite—immediately turns to clay pot rice, a comforting meal of rice steamed and crisped within a Cantonese clay pot with an assortment of toppings. Across the city, you’ll find restaurants serving clay pot rice with the usual suspects: spare ribs steamed with fermented black beans, minced beef and a runny egg, Chinese preserved sausages and greens, meatloaf, and slippery chicken, among many more. 

Though the toppings are important, many of the most popular clay pot rice proprietors in Hong Kong will point to the dark, seasoned soy sauce as the “soul” of the dish, though no two proprietors are likely to agree on what the ideal flavor profile of the finishing sauce should be. Some prefer a more savory sauce, others a little sweeter; some prefer a predominant soy flavor, others rice wine; some swear by a trinity of ginger, garlic, and scallions, while others will insist on adding dried scallops, shrimp, and ham. Over the course of my life, I’ve come to accept that there are just some things chefs will claim as absolute when in all honesty it just comes down to regional and personal preferences.

Close-up shot of seasoned soy sauce in a saucepan.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The Importance of the Toppings and Clay Pot

Despite clay pot rice’s popularity, few know the techniques required to nail this simple-seeming dish. The toppings, which cook at the same time as the rice, need to be seasoned and marinated sufficiently, with adequate fat to season the rice below as it renders.

As for the rice itself, the ideal clay pot rice should celebrate a duality of textures: soft, pillowy grains on the top, with an irresistibly crispy layer below. That toasty, golden brown rice at the bottom of the pot is a hallmark of many rice dishes from around the world, and is known by many names: la pega in Colombia, concon in the Dominican Republic, intip nasi in Indonesia, tahdig in Iran, okoge in Japan, nurungji in Korea, and socarrat in Spain. In Hong Kong, we call it faan ziu, or "scorched rice." 

That texture is the result of careful cooking using a clay pot. Compared to cookware made of metal, ceramic, or glass, clay pots heat up both slowly and evenly, and are able to retain and distribute that heat more steadily, resulting in more consistently cooked rice. Cooking rice in traditional clay pots also perfumes the grains with earthy notes from the pot itself, as hot air is pushed into the center of the pot through the porous clay.

Crispy rice made in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Choosing a Clay Pot

Traditional Cantonese clay pots are tan and glazed dark brown within. Smaller pots fit for serving one to two people are about seven inches in diameter and have a single long handle and slightly curved bottom, while larger pots are usually double-handled and feature a slightly flatter bottom. I prefer using the smaller pots for making clay pot rice, as they’re easier to maneuver and have a higher surface area to volume ratio, allowing for more crispy rice per serving.

Still, there are reasons for using other types of clay pots. Glazed clay pots like Japanese donabe or Korean ttukbaegi, for example, are more beginner-friendly. Their smooth surfaces are less prone to cracking, they often feature a thicker bottom that reduces the risk of burning, and their larger sizes are more versatile for soups and stews. The trade off, however, is the earthy perfume you’d otherwise get from cooking with unglazed or partially glazed pots—such as the Cantonese clay pots—which allow for hot air to push through the porous clay and scent the rice with its distinct aroma. In addition, Cantonese clay pots are very inexpensive, which is to say that while they may be trickier to learn how to use, they’re affordable enough to accept occasional breakage as the cost of doing business.

A Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Where to Buy a Cantonese Clay Pot

The best place to buy a Cantonese clay pot is a Chinese kitchen equipment store or an Asian supermarket. Because these pots are mass-produced, each will have its own defects, like scratches, cracks, and ill-fitting lids. For that reason, it’s best to purchase the pot in person so you can pick the best of the bunch. On a recent visit to a Chinese kitchen equipment store in Manhattan, the owners even let me test out the water retention capabilities of the clay pots by asking me to float them in a bucket of water to ensure that they were uncracked and ready for use.

Seasoning a New Clay Pot

New clay pots are prone to cracking if they’re dried out and exposed to sudden temperature changes. Seasoning a clay pot improves its durability by saturating the pot with water, then oil, and finally, starch. Upon purchasing a clay pot, I recommend washing it well with soap, then submerging it in room-temperature water overnight. The next morning, allow the pot to dry fully on a rack, then rub a thin layer of neutral oil over the bottom exterior and let it soak in completely. Finally, as per Chinese cultural wisdom, cook a pot of congee in the clay pot so the starches released from the rice can line the inside of your clay pot. This process only needs to be done once for new pots.

Washing a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez
Seasoning a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Choosing the Rice

It’s most traditional to use jasmine rice to make Cantonese clay pot rice. Texturally, jasmine rice is the easiest to cook in clay pots, as it provides a wider margin of error: its amylose-heavy composition means that it cooks up into naturally distinct grains, reducing the likelihood of gummy rice. 

Jasmine rice is also loved for its subtle floral aroma, which is most obvious in freshly harvested rice and pairs exceptionally well with the clay pot’s earthiness. Though older, aged rice has a less potent aroma, many clay pot rice masters will tell you that it produces fluffier, more distinct grains that are ideal for building that bottom crust. It's not uncommon for these cooks to use a blend of newer and older jasmine rice to get the best qualities of both in the pot.

Beyond jasmine rice, Japonica varieties like koshihikari or short-grain Northeastern Chinese rice also cook well in clay pots. These varieties, usually short- to medium-grain ones higher in amylopectin, are often sweeter and provide a more satisfying chew than jasmine rice.

My practice has been to combine both jasmine and short- or medium-grain varieties when making clay pot rice, which yields rice that’s fragrant and both fluffy and slightly chewy. From my experience, combining two types of rice does not significantly affect the prep or cooking time, so the recipe works the same even when two types of rice are in the pot. That said, you do not have to use a blend of rice varieties. Unless you’re just as picky as I am about my rice, you'll be happy with just one (though there's no harm in trying two if you want to see why I like it like that).

Two bowls of rice.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Preparing the Rice

The ideal texture of clay pot rice is slightly sticky but not mushy, with fluffy, distinct grains that can easily be tossed with the sauce and toppings. Each morsel should be fully cooked, with a soft bite in the center. In order to achieve this, it’s essential to prepare the rice properly: first by washing the grains, which removes some of the surface starch and prevents the grains from becoming gluey; then soaking the rice for at least an hour.

Why soak?  Hydrated grains cook faster and allow the center to finish cooking before the outside becomes mushy. Experienced Cantonese chefs will snap soaked rice in half; a white dot in the center of the grain means it is not sufficiently soaked for cooking.

Rice soaking in a bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Cooking the Rice

There are three main stages to cooking clay pot rice: boiling, steaming, and finally, toasting the bottom of the rice. Making clay pot rice well requires patience and care; during the 30 or so minutes it takes for the clay pot rice to cook, there are times when you can fiddle with it, and times when you should just let it be.

To start, you’ll preheat the clay pot for a minute or two, then add the soaked rice and just enough boiling water to cover, then bring it to a boil. This sequence is all about building momentum: Adding boiling water helps to preserve the heat in the clay pot, and helps the rice come to temperature a little faster. This is also the only part of the process where the rice is cooked with the lid off, so  the grains can be stirred to ensure even heat distribution.

When the rice has absorbed enough hot water and the water line dips below the surface of the rice, the second stage—steaming—begins. To help with ventilation that will allow steam to pass through the center of the rice, I use a chopstick to poke small holes into the rice before I arrange the raw toppings on top. With the lid on and the heat turned to low, the ingredients will cook in a gentler, slower manner. As the saturated grains steam, the fats from the toppings, like Chinese cured sausages or meatloaf, will begin to render and drip down into the rice.

After all the water has been absorbed into the rice, the grains will begin to gently sizzle. Though the time varies depending on the shape and size of the pot and the strength of the flame, most 1-quart clay pots usually take about 10 minutes to reach this point.

Upon hearing this sizzling, crackling sound, everything inside the clay pot should basically be fully cooked, and the only step left is to build an even, golden crust of crispy rice on the bottom. Drizzling oil, lard, or schmaltz around the lid so it drips into the pot and onto the rice helps with that process by allowing the bottom of the rice to fry in the fat. Some toppings will produce enough fat on their own for this to happen, but drizzling additional fat down the sides of the clay pot will make it much easier.

Aside from that fat, the positioning of that clay pot on the flame is key to getting a good, even crispy bottom. The key is to place the clay pot at a steep angle so that a quarter of the base is positioned over the flame at all times. The pot then gets rotated by a quarter-turn every minute until the rice is toasted. 

The tricky part? Knowing when the rice is ready. To preserve all the aromatics and the heat within the clay pot, this entire process needs to be done without opening the lid. Since you shouldn't peek into the clay pot itself, there are only two indicators for doneness: the nature of the vapor that escapes from the top of the pot and the sound of rice sizzling.

Water vapor usually comes out of the opening in clouds, whereas smoke—an indication that the rice is burning—looks thinner and smells burnt. As steam escapes the pot, there should be a fine, consistent sizzle, almost like falling sand. When the rice is properly toasted and dried, the crackle will become louder, more coarse, and the rice may even pop, at which point it will be done.

Cantonese clay pot rice tilted on a burner.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Toppings and Variations

The recipe below is a basic clay pot recipe, featuring perhaps the most typical topping in Southern China: lap cheong, or cured Chinese sausage. These dried, hard sausages are usually smoked, lightly sweetened, and seasoned with rose wine, and pair wonderfully with clay pot rice and the seasoned soy sauce it’s served with. Other preserved meats, like liver sausage, Chinese bacon, and cured duck legs, are also popular additions. As they steam over the rice,  they swell and soften, dripping rendered fat below onto the grains.  

I'm sharing two other clay pot rice recipes—one with velveted chicken and another with Chinese meatloaf—which are emblematic of more composed clay pot meals where the toppings are a little more substantial. Though they are typical, these three recipes are by no means exhaustive of all topping possibilities for clay pot rice.

Making the Seasoned Soy Sauce

Last but not least, there’s the seasoned soy sauce that’s always served with clay pot rice.  Some chefs describe the  sauce as the soul of the dish, and every clay pot rice restaurant will take it upon themselves to make their own. Though there are many store-bought options available in Asian grocery stores, making your own gives you finer control of the flavors, as well as a delicious sauce with which to season and prepare other dishes. Keep a batch on hand at all times, and you’ll be able to have clay pot rice whenever you want.

For the Seasoned Soy Sauce: In a small saucepan, melt lard over medium heat until shimmering, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low and add scallions, shallot, cilantro, garlic, and ginger, and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the aromatics are fragrant and begin to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add Shaoxing wine, water, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer for 7 minutes, until thickened. The sauce should be dark, smooth, and slightly thicker than bottled light soy sauce. Pour seasoned soy sauce through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl. Refrigerate until chilled.

Seasoned soy sauce being made in a saucepan.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Clay Pot Rice: In a large bowl, combine short-grain and jasmine rice and add 3/4 cup water to cover. Using your hands, vigorously swish rice until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. Return rice to bowl and cover by 3 inches. Soak for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. (To check if the rice has been thoroughly soaked, break a grain in half. There shouldn’t be a visible hard, white center.)

Rice being rinsed in a bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Drain rice through a fine-mesh strainer, making sure any excess water is allowed to drip off.

Rice being drained in a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Set the clay pot over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes. Add the rice to the pot and top with just enough boiling water, about 1 cup (240ml) to barely cover. Bring the rice and water to a boil, stirring occasionally. When the rice and water begin to bubble, give the rice a final stir to get rid of any clumps, then allow the rice to cook, undisturbed, until water is no longer visible above the rice, about 4 minutes.

Four different stages of rice being cooked in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Reduce heat to low. Using a pair of chopsticks, ventilate the rice by poking a few shallow holes on the surface. Lay the Chinese sausage and blanched greens in the center of the clay pot in an even layer on top of the rice. Cover clay pot and cook over low heat until you can hear a consistent sizzling crackle, about 10 minutes. (Try not to open the lid to check; inconsistent pops mean that the heat is too high.)

Poking holes in rice that's being cooked in a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Without lifting the lid, drizzle lard, schmaltz, or oil all around the lid's rim, allowing it to trickle down into the rice. Position the clay pot so that a quarter of its base is sitting directly over the flame. Continue to cook, rotating the clay pot a quarter-turn every minute until the sizzling sound stops and the escaping steam slows to thin wisps of smoke, about 13 minutes. Be careful not to burn the rice; if the vapor escaping the pot becomes a single, slow wisp or you begin to smell smoke, remove from heat. Remove clay pot from heat and let stand, covered, for 2 minutes.

Oil being drizzled around the lid of a Cantonese clay pot.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Serve: Remove the lid, place the egg yolk in the center of the rice, and drizzle with the desired amount of seasoned soy sauce, stirring to mix well. Serve in the clay pot itself, dividing portions up into smaller individual bowls. Once most of the rice has been served, use a metal spoon to scrape up the crispy rice on the bottom, optionally crumbling it into the fluffier rice mixture.

Cantonese clay pot rice with Chinese sausage and greens.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Cantonese clay pot (about 1 quart in capacity and 18cm in diameter), gas stove

Notes

Using both jasmine and a short- or medium-grain variety produces rice that’s both fluffy and chewy, a texture I particularly enjoy. However, you’re more than welcome to use just one kind of rice instead of a blend.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The seasoned soy sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.