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How to Debone a Chicken Thigh

Removing the bone from chicken thighs is a useful culinary skill that’s quick to learn. Here’s how. Here we show you how to remove the bone to create either skin-on or skinless, boneless thighs that are quick-cooking and delicious.

Overhead view of deboning
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Recipes often call for boneless chicken thighs, yet finding them in supermarkets can sometimes be hard. You're far more likely to find bone-in thighs or even whole legs. Knowing how to take that bone out yourself will save you some hassle and provide you with good bones that you can save for the stockpot.

I've tried dozens of methods of boning chicken thighs. As it turns out, the easiest is also the one that provides the best yield: Cutting and scraping every last bit of meat from the bone. Here are the steps to remove the bone to create either skin-on or skinless, boneless chicken thighs.

If using skin-on thighs that you want to be skinless, peel the skin off the thighs using your hands (you can also use the side of your knife to hold the thigh down as you go). Otherwise proceed with the skin attached.

Removing skin from a Chicken thigh
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

On a work surface, set the thigh rough side up and locate the single bone that runs through it just under the flesh. Your goal is to remove this bone with minimal damage to the meat.

Overhead view of locating the bone
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Keeping the fingers of your non-knife hand curled for protection (raw chicken can be slippery!), and using the tip of the knife, score a line through the meat along the length of the bone.

Overhead view of scoring the thigh along the bone
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Continue to carefully work the knife along the bone until the bone is fully exposed.

Overhead view of cutting meat away from the bone
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Grasp one end of the bone with your non-knife hand (a little piece of paper towel can help if it's very slippery), then, scrape and cut the meat off of the bone in short, firm flicks; a boning knife should have a curved bolster at the base of the blade designed for this task.

Overhead view of pulling the thigh bone away from the meat
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When the meat has been mostly scraped off the bone, separate the end of the bone completely from the meat. Trim away any gristle or bits of bone or cartilage that may have remained on the meat.

Overhead view of deboned chicken thigh
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Trim off any excess fat and/or skin and discard.

Overhead view of trimming fat off chicken thigh
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Notes

If you have whole chicken legs, begin by using a sharp knife to split the drumsticks from the thighs at their natural seam; if the knife meets resistance, reposition it until it slides through easily—you want to go through the joint, not the bone. Reserve drumsticks as needed or for another use.

Chinese Stir-Fried Tiger-Skin Peppers

Blistered in a dry wok, these stir-fried green chile peppers are fragrant, tender, and hot, hot, hot.

Tiger peppers on a serving platter with ground pork
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I remember driving through Hatch, New Mexico, during chile season one summer on a cross-country road trip. The area is famous for the quality (and heat level) of the various cultivars of New Mexico chile it grows, and every summer during chile season you’ll find chiles tumbling around inside iron cages like bingo balls as farmers, gas station attendants, grocery store clerks, and families roast the chiles over open gas flames for sale or for their freezers. The smell that permeated the air was intoxicating. Smoky, charred, sweet, grassy, and hot.

A few summers later, on the opposite side of the planet, I smelled the same aroma again at a restaurant in Chongqing, where I’d asked the chef to prepare their specialties. I was working my way through a delicious salad of chopped rabbit with chiles and peanuts, dutifully popping pieces into my mouth, sucking off the succulent, chile-laced meat, and depositing the tiny bones in a bowl, when the server dropped the next dish at my little table, his back already turned to me as he hurriedly made his way back to the kitchen. As soon as the smell hit me, I was transported back to that summer driving through New Mexico. I guess charred, blackened chiles are a universally appealing aroma.

Green chiles on a work surface, stems removed

The dish was hupi qingjiao, or “tiger-skin peppers,” so called because of the way pepper skins will split as they char, forming stripes like a tiger’s coat. Just as the best way to enjoy Hatch chiles is in chile-forward dishes like New Mexico chile verde, so too tiger-skin peppers is a simple, chile-forward dish with only a few auxiliary ingredients to complement the pepper flavor. In Chongqing, the dish was made with small, moderately hot Hunan peppers called xiao qingjiao (literally “small green pepper,”) but back here in the United States I use whatever I can get my hands on. When Hatch chile season rolls around and I can find them locally in California, I snatch them up. Otherwise, regular old Anaheims (a milder California cultivar of the same New Mexico chiles) or long green peppers from the Asian supermarket work well. If you are a chile-head who can handle the heat, even serrano or jalapeño chiles will work in this recipe.

There are a number of different techniques I’ve found for how to cook this. Some recipes recommend stir-frying the chiles in a little oil. Some suggest deep-frying until the chiles split open. My favorite technique is the one that produces the most char: cooking the chiles in a dry wok, pressing on them firmly with the bottom of my wok spatula to get really good contact between the chiles and the metal. When the wok is the right temperature, you should be able to feel the vibrations in your spatula (just like a video game rumble pack) as the chiles bubble and split under the heat and pressure.

Once the chiles are tender and charred, the rest is a quick stir-fry of garlic seasoned with soy sauce. The recipe includes directions for adding pork to the stir-fry, but the pork is completely optional. I leave it out most of the time. The chiles are the real star here.

Heat a dry wok over medium-high heat until lightly smoking. Add the chiles, spread them into a single layer, and cook, tossing and turning occasionally and pressing firmly on the chiles with a spatula to make good contact between the chiles and the wok, until the chiles are blistered and browned on all sides and slightly softened, about 8 to 10 minutes total. Transfer the chiles to a bowl and set aside.

Charring the green peppers in the wok while pressing down with a spatula for good contact

Return the wok to medium-high heat until lightly smoking. Add the oil, swirl to coat, and immediately add pork (if using). Stir-fry, using the spatula to break up larger chunks, until the pork is no longer pink, about 30 seconds, then immediately add the garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Return the chiles to the wok and toss to combine. Splash in the soy sauce around the edges of the wok and season with a pinch of salt and sugar. Toss to combine, transfer to a serving platter, and serve with steamed rice.

A collage showing the sequence of stir-frying the pork (if using), then adding the garlic, the peppers, and finally the finished peppers on a serving plate

How to Cook Asparagus

All the basics you need to know before buying, prepping, storing, and cooking asparagus.

Overhead view of asparagus on a plate
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

If ramps are the harbingers of spring, then asparagus is certainly its king. Among the vegetables that are available year-round from the supermarket, there are very few that show as drastic a change in flavor between the imported, year-round stuff, and the fresh-from-the-earth spring variety. Like peas and corn, asparagus contains a lot of sugar at the moment of harvest. As it sits around waiting to be cooked, this sugar quite rapidly begins to form starch molecules, turning a once tender and sweet stalk bland.

But the best part of asparagus is how darn easy it is to prepare. It's a great gateway vegetable for anyone who has been too intimidated to get into vegetable cookery (I know you're out there). There's almost no way, short of incinerating or canning it, to completely mess it up. And even if you do manage to mess it up, it's still pretty delicious.

Tips for Buying Asparagus

Whether you choose bright green stalks, mild white stalks (which are grown underground to prevent chlorophyll development), or any one of the purple varieties, you should always look for the same things: firm, crisp stalks with tight, fully closed budding tips. As the asparagus ages, the petals on the tip will slowly open up, dry out, or fall off. Asparagus should appear moist, but not wet. Fresh cut and bright, not dry or woody.

Your best bet for good asparagus is at a local farmers market or direct from a farm. The asparagus you get in most supermarkets, even during peak season, have been out of the earth for too long to really let their flavor shine. Unless it comes direct from the farmer, asparagus' point of origin is always written either on a label or rubber band affixed to the bunch. Do me, your farmer, and your tastebuds a favor: if you live in North America, don't buy Peruvian asparagus in the middle of May—there's surely a more local source with much better asparagus available then.

Side view of a bunch of asparagus
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Asparagus comes in all sizes, from slim, pencil-width stalks to big fat ones as thick as your thumb, and believe it or not, the size has nothing to do with their age (I would believe it). Asparagus stalks grow from an underground base from which scores of stalks shoot forth. It takes about three seasons for this crown to begin producing edible stalks, and after that, it'll continue to produce stalks for at least a couple of decades. It's the age and variety of this crown that determines the thickness of a stalk—that is, a farmer can't simply wait for a thin stalk to grow into a thicker one. It won't happen.

While both can be fantastic, I do generally choose one size over the other depending on how I'm going to cook it (or, more likely, I choose my cooking method based on the size of asparagus I happened to pick up from the farmers' market).

  • Thin spears about 1/3 of an inch or less tend to be more intense in flavor and less watery. They're also a little bit tougher and snappier, due to their higher ratio of fibrous skin to softer interior. This makes them ideal for blanching, serving cold, stir-frying, or even just as a raw snack. Higher-heat methods like broiling or grilling tend to dry them out a little too much, though if you like that charred asparagus flavor, you might still consider cooking them with these methods.
  • Fat spears thicker than 1/3 of an inch are considerably more tender than small stalks, but can get a little watery if you steam or boil them. High heat cooking methods like grilling, broiling, stir-frying, and pan-searing are best, allowing you to get them nice and caramelized on their exterior while still maintaining a bit of bite. I always use large spears for braising.

How to Prep Asparagus

Depending on its age, the bottom part of a stalk of asparagus can get unpleasantly woody or fibrous, and usually needs to be trimmed. But what's the best way to do this?

Traditional wisdom will tell you that the best "foolproof" way is to simply grasp the stalk at both ends and snap it. The asparagus will magically break exactly where it needs to. This question is often debated, and generally most people come down on the side of snapping. But is it really the best method, or merely an old wives' tale?

After some pretty extensive testing, I've come to realize that it's all a bunch of hokum. Depending on exactly how you apply force to the stalk, you can get it to snap pretty much anywhere along its length, even when your hands are in the exact same position. Check this out:

Asparagus lined up, showing the stalks snapped off unevenly.
Serious Eats

I snapped every one of these stalks with my bare hands, holding each of them at the exact same point, and was still able to make them break wherever I wanted to along their length—quite easily, I might add. For a method to be foolproof, it cannot be so strongly dependent on user input. How do I know I'm going to snap my stalks the same way my wife will? Or even if I snap stalks the same way day after day? The bigger problem than variations from user to user is that you're more likely to accidentally remove too much good asparagus stalk with this method. The goal is simply to remove the woody bottom part, nothing more, and snapping is not a reliable way to do that.

Far easier is to simply line them up, visually examine where most of the stalks appear to become woody (the stalk will begin to fade to white at that point), then slice them all at once, picking out any outliers and trimming them as necessary on a case-by-case basis.

Does this mean that you can't snap them? Of course not. There's more than one way to trim a stalk. Just know that you don't have to, and that most likely, you're not actually doing a better job of finding the "sweet spot" than you would do with a knife.

Overhead view of asparagus
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

If you want to get extra fancy with your asparagus, you can peel the stalks in order to improve their texture. Even when properly trimmed, the outer layers can have a fibrousness that is apparently upsetting to the palates of people who do things like write Michelin guides.

For me, it's a skinless vs. skin-on hot dog thing. Sometimes I want that decisive snap and thin film-like layer that skin-on asparagus gives me, just like biting into a good Sabrett's. Other times, I'm content for tender, skinless franks. If you do decide to peel, don't throw them out! The peels are still plenty flavorful and can be used to make a creamy asparagus soup or in a vegetable stock.

How to Store Asparagus

The best way to store asparagus is to not. As I said, its flavor dramatically diminishes over time, so the sooner you get it in the pan and into your belly, the better.

If you absolutely must store asparagus, treat it like you would a bunch of flowers.* Place the trimmed ends into a cup of water with the stalks standing straight up, then loosely cover the tips with a plastic bag to prevent evaporation. Set the whole thing in the fridge.

Some people recommend adding salt or sugar to the water the stalks are held in, but I've never been able to detect any difference in flavor when you do this. Don't bother.

*Which it in fact isn't, despite what you may have read. Asparagus "flowers"—the part you eat—are actually modified stem structures. True asparagus flowers are six-tepaled (not to be confused with petaled, though they are, in fact, also six-petaled), bell-shaped affairs with poisonous red berries.

How to Cook Asparagus

Asparagus is an extremely versatile vegetable and can be cooked in dozens of ways, though unlike, say, onions or spinach, it pretty much always takes center stage in whatever preparation you use it in. For a while, the fashion was to barely cook it so that the exterior was bright green while the interior was still essentially raw. Thankfully, we've passed that stage and have once again embraced asparagus in all its forms from raw and crunchy to braised, olive-green, and totally tender.

However you cook it, it almost always benefits from a period of hard, fast cooking which can then be followed (or not) by a slower-paced session to tenderize it. Like many vegetables, asparagus is high in sugar (even more so when it's completely fresh), and high heat takes advantage of this by caramelizing those sugars and adding complexity to its flavors.

Raw

If your stalks are slender enough, you're in luck. You can just chop them into segments and toss them directly into a salad dressed with a light, lemony vinaigrette, but if you've got big fat stalks, you've got to do a little more work (don't worry, the end result is worth it). Slice the stalks lengthwise using a vegetable peeler or a mandolin (be very careful if you do this) into strips about as thick as a piece of card stock. If you then store these in a bowl of iced water for about 30 minutes, they'll curl up into beautiful tangles that you can toss with other greens, or simply dress and eat on their own (or top a pizza with it.)

20110525-food-lab-asparagus-11.jpg

Blanched or Steamed

Blanched or steamed asparagus is a great way to let its natural, delicate flavors come through, and it's what I usually do to very thin stalks (such as in this vibrant spring salad). You can eat it hot, but I actually prefer it cold, dunking it in a bowl of ice water direct from the boiling pot as soon as its hit the tenderness level I'm looking for. When boiling asparagus, use a large amount of well-salted water at a rolling boil. The goal is to tenderize the stalk through to its center before naturally occurring enzymes have enough to time rob it of its bright green color. Unless you're going to serve your asparagus hot and immediately, shocking it in ice water* right after cooking will prevent these same enzymes from continuing to work.

* Despite what a certain six-volume cookbook says, an ice water bath does indeed prevent blanched green vegetables from turning drab (try it out for yourself!).

I'm also a fan of using the microwave to rapidly steam asparagus. The technique works well because of asparagus' high water content.

Grilled

Grilling some steaks and don't know what to serve on the side? Asparagus is a no-brainer. It cooks in the time that it takes for your steaks to rest, it's healthy, and it's dead simple to do. The high heat of a grill instantly starts caramelizing and charring asparagus' sugars while allowing the bulk of it to remain crisp and sweet. Smoky + sweet + crisp + easy = huge win for all backyard chefs. In order to make sure that they cook relatively easily and don't dry out on the grill, it's essential to toss them with a thin coating of oil before they hit the grates. Oil is not only a better heat-distribution medium that the naked air, it also keeps the stalks lubricated, filling in all the microscopic nooks and crannies left behind by evaporating moisture and preventing the 'gus from turning shriveled or leathery.

20150421-asparagus-three-ways-2.jpg
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

You can serve them any number of ways, such as drizzling with melted herb butter or lemon juice, or grating cheese on top, but in all honesty, the best way to eat them is straight off the grill with your fingers.

Another grilling-adjacent method worth having in your toolbelt is "charcoal-chimney" grilling, in which the asparagus is set atop a grate directly on top of a charcoal chimney starter instead of the grill itself. The chimney starter has a conical design that generates a terrific blast of extremely intense heat flowing right up to the asparagus. The effect is rapid and impressive, with a deep char combined with a still-fresh green hue, thanks to the quick cooking time.

Broiled, Oven-Roasted, or Air-Fried

Very similar to grilling, the key here is to use crazy high heat to maximize caramelization while still maintaining a pleasant crispness. The best way to do this is to use a relatively heavy rimmed baking sheet which you allow to preheat for at least 10 minutes or so in a 500°F oven on the bottom rack. Toss your asparagus with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and throw it on the pan. If everything went right (and there should be no reason it didn't), the asparagus will sizzle and start browning as soon as it hits the pan. Alternatively, place the stalks on a rimmed baking sheet a few inches away from a broiler element heated to high. A few minutes in the oven, and you're good to go. Sprinkle with some lemon or a good cheese, or try it with a fried egg.

Overhead view of broiled asparagus
J. Kenji López-Alt

An air-fryer is another great tool for a similar high-heat roasting effect. Since an air-fryer doesn't actually fry, but instead roasts using a powerful convection fan (relative to the small cooking chamber), the food inside roasts and browns deeply and evenly.

Pan-Roasted or Stir-Fried

Another high-heat method that is wonderful when applied to asparagus, pan-roasting asparagus becomes wonderfully tender inside while developing a deeply woodsy char outside. It's essentially a form a sautéing, but the "roasting" verbiage here is meant to really impress upon you the importance of not being shy with the heat, as you really want the asparagus to blister and char where it's in contact with the pan. Similarly, don't crowd the pan, which will generate more steam than is ideal for this method.

20160504-sauteed-asparagus-vicky-wasik--4.jpg

Seen through another lens, this is also closely related to the high-heat approach of stir-frying, except that I often pan-roast asparagus whole, while stir-frying is easier done with the asparagus cut down into shorter lengths.

Braised

This is my absolute favorite way to prepare it, and the one that was looked down upon for so many years. Why would you want to eat drab green vegetables?, people would say. Because they taste as awesome as MacGyver was cool, that's why. I sear my stalks in a bit of oil first to develop flavor, then deglaze the pan with either water or stock, add a big knob of butter, put a lid on the whole thing, and let the asparagus cook in the liquid as it reduced. By the time the stalks are tender, with good luck, your stock and butter will have emulsified into a slick, stalk-coating sauce that adds richness and sweet flavor to each bite—you can find my recipe here. It's awesome.

One last thing that you probably notice after your asparagus has been done eaten: That haunting smell—haunting as in it comes back and surprises you long after you thought it was gone—is caused by S-methyl thioacrylate and S-methyl 3-(methylthio)thiopropionate, chemicals identified in 1975 at the University of California at San Diego. It's not known exactly why some people seem unable to digest it, but it is known that the degree of Post-Asparagus Stinky-Urine Disorder (PASUD) is related to your genealogy. Fewer than half of Britons suffer from it, while almost 100% of the French do.

I know which country I'd rather be in for sporting matches during asparagus season.

Blanched Asparagus

In a large bowl, prepare an ice water bath. In a large pot of salted boiling water, blanch asparagus until crisp-tender, about about 30 seconds to 1 minute for thinner asparagus and 1 to 2 minutes for thicker asparagus. Immediately transfer asparagus to ice bath to chill.

Grilled Asparagus

Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over half of the coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. If using a gas grill, preheat half the grill to high.

Toss asparagus with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add asparagus to hot side of grill and cook, turning occasionally, until well-charred and tender, 5 to 8 minutes.

Broiled Asparagus

Preheat broiler and position rack about 4 to 6 inches from it. On a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle asparagus with oil and toss to coat. Season with salt. Broil asparagus, shaking and rotating pan occasionally to cook them evenly on all sides, until asparagus is blistered, about 6 minutes.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus

In a large cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel skillet, heat 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil over high heat until shimmering. Add half of asparagus and cook, tossing, stirring, and rotating the spears frequently, until browned all over, charred lightly in spots, and crisp-tender within, about 10 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent burning. Using tongs, transfer each spear as it's done to a plate and keep warm. Repeat with remaining vegetable oil and asparagus. Season with salt and pepper.

Braised Asparagus

Heat oil in a 12-inch straight-sided sauté pan over high heat until lightly smoking. Add asparagus in as close to a single layer as possible, season with salt and pepper, and cook without moving until lightly browned, about 1 1/2 minutes. Shake pan and cook until browned again, 1 1/2 minutes longer. Add 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock and 3 tablespoons butter to pan and immediately cover.

Continue to cook until asparagus is completely tender and stock and butter have emulsified and reduced to a shiny glaze, 7 to 10 minutes. If stock completely evaporates and butter starts to burn before asparagus is cooked through, top up with a few tablespoons of water. Serve immediately.

Shack Sauce

A Shake Shack Shack Burger wouldn’t be complete without creamy, tangy Shack Sauce. This versatile condiment is a great fit for a variety of burgers, though, or even a grilled chicken or vegetable sandwich.

Four toasted burger buns open on a baking sheet, each one with three lines of homemade Shack Sauce on the top half of the bun, and lettuce and tomato on the bottom half of the bun.
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

I would argue that Shake Shack's Shack Sauce is almost as important on a Shack Burger as the patty itself—it's what differentiates the Shack Burger from Shake Shack's regular cheeseburger. It's by all accounts a "secret" recipe that was going to take a bit of hard-core investigative journalism to uncover.

My first attempt was to play the Shack-virgin card. When I got to the front of the line at the Upper West Side location one Monday afternoon, I innocently asked the cashier, "So, what's the Shack Sauce?"

Her response: "It's mayo-based. Sweet, sour, hot."

I went fishing: "How spicy is it? Like it's got hot sauce in it or something?"

But she didn't take the bait: "A little spicy. But also sweet and sour."

One last try: "So, sweet like thousand Island? Like it's got relish in it?"

She's an inscrutable blank wall: "No, no relish. Mayo-based, sweet, sour, hot."

I give in: "Okay, give me a Shack Burger, extra Shack Sauce on the side."

Upon tasting it, my immediate thoughts are mayo, ketchup, a little yellow mustard, a hint of garlic and paprika, perhaps a touch of cayenne pepper, and an elusive sour quality that I can't quite pinpoint. It's definitely not just vinegar or lemon juice, nor does it have the cloying sweetness of relish. Pickle juice? Cornichon? Some other type of vinegar? I can't figure it out. This was going to take a little more effort.

My next strategy was a little more drastic: "accidentally" walking through the hidden door in the downstairs rec-room that leads to the kitchen in the hopes of taking a sneaky glance at their pantry for hints. No good. I got halfway through the door, only catching a glimpse of a few cans lining the right-hand wall before it was pointed out to me by a friendly employee that the restrooms were actually behind the doors clearly labeled "restroom."

I sat on the bench outside contemplating a bit of dumpster diving when a thought struck me: Maybe I was going about this all wrong.

I walked back into the restaurant, went straight up to the manager, and asked point blank: "Is the Shack Sauce a secret, or can you tell me what's in it?"

A little laugh, and then, "It's mostly mayo, with some ketchup, mustard, a few spices, and pickles blended in."

"So, pickle relish, or pickles?"

"Actual pickles—the sliced pickles we serve with the burgers. I couldn't give you exact tablespoon measure or anything because I don't know them off hand, but that's the general idea."

Note to self: Always ask nicely before moving on to breaking-and-entering.

Two white ceramic ramekins holding homemade Shack Sauce and Shack Sauce from a Shake Shack.
Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

The rest was easy: I brought the extra sauce home, then tinkered around with a blender and my spice rack until I got a pretty damn-close approximation. Can you pick out which is the real sauce in the pic above?

As for applying the sauce, the key here is generous, even coverage. For the sake of absolute authenticity, I transferred the sauce to a squeeze bottle, and squeezed out three lines onto the top half of the bun, going back and forth three times along each line.

Four toasted burger buns open on a baking sheet, each one with three lines of homemade Shack Sauce on them.
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Combine all ingredients in a countertop blender jar and blend on high until smooth, scraping down sides of blender with rubber spatula as necessary, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer sauce to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use (sauce can be refrigerated for up to 5 days).

A two-image collage. The left image shows the Shack Sauce ingredients in the bowl of a blender, not yet combined, and the right image shows the blended sauce.
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Make-Ahead and Storage

Store sauce in an air tight container and refrigerate until ready to use. Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Read More

The Importance of the Wok

Kenji López-Alt discusses how the wok became such a crucial cooking tool and introduces Serious Eats’ first digital issue.

A lid being removed off a smoking wok
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Why the wok? That's the question I get asked more than any other by readers and interviewers alike while on tour in support of my new book, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques.

The answer is easy. Far from being a niche tool that I only pull out for special nights, the wok is by far the most-used piece of equipment in my kitchen, and has been for the entirety of my adult life. It’s been my most constant kitchen companion as I've cooked everything from the thickest slab of crispy fried pork belly to the thinnest hand-pulled noodles. As you read through this Serious Eats digital issue, which features the voices of multiple accomplished chefs, educators, and writers, you’ll find that my experience with it is hardly unique.

A portrait of J. Kenji López-Alt holding his new book, The Wok, in his Kitchen
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

So what makes a wok so useful? Of course, it’s the ideal vessel for stir-frying. As far as fast, fresh, flavorful, and family-friendly goes, nothing beats stir-frying. It’s the quintessential weeknight supper technique; vegetables retain their bright color and crunch, proteins come out tender and flavor-packed. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that proper stir-frying requires a high-output, jet engine-style burner—or even a gas range for that matter! I believed this for many years (and my past writing on the subject has at times put an overly heavy emphasis on it), but in reality, across Asia there are hundreds of millions of wok-cooked meals prepared in home kitchens every single day, and very few of them are equipped with restaurant-grade gear.

With the guides and recipes here, you’ll learn how to properly stir-fry no matter what kind of setup you have in your home kitchen. You’ll learn about exactly what gives certain dishes wok hei (the elusive aroma my dad always referred to as “that good smoky flavor”), and how to achieve it, even with an electric or induction cooktop.

But wok cooking is not all stir-fries. When it comes to producing quick, flavorful, and versatile meals, the wok beats every other pan in the kitchen, hands down.

The wok is the ideal vessel for deep frying at home. Its wide, flared sides prevent oil from splattering over your stovetop and make it easy to maneuver a metal spider or strainer under the food, a task that can be difficult in a straight-sided pot or Dutch oven. This same feature makes it the ideal vessel for simmering and poaching. Try poaching delicate foods like eggs or fish in a wok and you’ll never go back.

With a bamboo steamer or a steaming rack, you can steam vegetables, dumplings, whole fish, pork ribs, and, well, anything steamable. Better yet, get a stack of steamers and you can do all of that at the same time.

A wok can double as an indoor quick-smoker (think: mesquite-smoked mozzarella, tea-smoked chicken wings, or hickory-smoked whiskey). It’s great for steaming rice, or for boiling noodles (or pasta). Its wide, flared design also creates lots of surface area of any liquid it contains, which encourages steam to escape, allowing you to rapidly reduce and concentrate sauces for intensely flavorful braised meat, vegetable, and tofu dishes.

Cooking in a wok is also very personal for me. Japanese, Chinese, and Chinese-American foods are the foods of my childhood, and I associate many of them with the wok.

When I was growing up in New York, my Japanese mother kept a wok above the refrigerator, which she mainly used for deep-frying gyoza and tempura, or European-influenced Japan staples like korokke and tonkatsu (always served with sweet-and-savory Bulldog sauce), or to stir-fry her own version of mapo tofu, flavored with Japanese ingredients like sake and mirin.

My father was a Chinese-food fanatic who’d drag me and my sisters around New York’s Chinatown or through the suburbs of Boston in search of smoky beef chow fun or chile-packed Sichuan dishes. On weekend nights he would dip into the Joyce Chen cookbook, showing us how to rehydrate daylily buds and wood-ear mushrooms to cook into moo shu pork with paper-thin Mandarin pancakes, or how to velvet sliced chicken to keep it tender during a stir-fry. One of his specialties was a dish he made for my picky kid sister, which he called “Pico’s Bland Chicken.” There’s a version of this recipe in my book that I’ve updated and dubbed “Pico’s Not-So-Bland Chicken,” to reflect her growing tastes as an adult.

When I say that the wok has been with me through my entire adult life, I don’t just mean the wok as a concept; I also mean one specific wok. I bought it—a flat-bottomed carbon steel number that I picked up at the Target in Somerville, MA—as a college student. It couldn’t have cost more than $30, and for several years it was one of the only two pans that I owned (the other was a $200 Le Creuset Dutch Oven my mother gave me on my 20th birthday).

I scrambled eggs and tomatoes in it to feed myself and my friends after late-night problem sets (or parties) in college. I wilted greens in it when my girlfriend Adri’s family was visiting from Colombia for her college graduation. I used it to simmer fish in chile broth and to stir-fry spring asparagus and fava beans flavored with Sichuan peppercorns after hitting the Brookline farmer’s market while I was sharing an apartment with some other test cooks from Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I brought that same wok into the test kitchen to blind-test whether stir fries taste better when cooked in a seasoned carbon-steel wok versus a flat, Western-style, stainless-steel skillet. (Result: they do taste better).

When Adri and I got married and moved back to New York, that wok came with us. In the summers I’d perch it on top of an inverted charcoal chimney in my Weber kettle grill placed (illegally) on the tiny 17th-story balcony in our Central Harlem apartment. That’s where I developed the early wok guides for Serious Eats (now, thankfully, fully updated and bolstered by other experienced voices) and worked on Chinese-American recipes like kung pow chicken and pepper steak.

Kenji swishing eggs into a wok using Chopsticks
Kenji demonstrates how to drizzle egg while cooking his recipe for tofu with peas and silky egg.Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

In the winters, that wok would be parked on top of the economy-grade range where I’d fill our galley-style New York apartment kitchen with smoke as I’d work out techniques for effectively stir-frying lo mein or beef with broccoli and oyster sauce, even in sub-optimal stir-fry conditions. I used the same wok to fry (or, more precisely, double-fry) chicken for our General Tso’s chicken recipe, a technique that I’ve expanded into a whole slew of recipes on Serious Eats and in my book for those uniquely Chinese-American fried-and-saucy dishes like sesame chicken or orange peel beef.

The wok moved with us when we moved to the Bay Area and had our first child. A California-sized backyard meant that I could finally test the high-output, restaurant-style outdoor burners I’d been keen to try out for so long (unlike my wok, that burner sees only occasional use these days). Every single recipe in my new book was tested and photographed in that same, cheap wok I bought in Somerville. I really ought to give it a name at this point, as it’s been with me longer than members of my immediate family.

Now, at our home in Seattle with another child in the mix, that wok is finally showing its first signs of age. I noticed the little trickle of liquid spilling onto the stovetop last week as I had it filled to the brim to simmer some chicken bones for stock, something I do a couple times a month. While the metal itself is better than ever—indeed, a carbon steel wok will only get better with extended use—one of the rivets holding its handle in place has come loose.

But I’m not ready to say goodbye yet. It’s nothing a few well-placed hammer strikes can’t fix.

I know that my experience with my wok may be unique to me, as your relationships are unique to you, but I truly believe that a single inexpensive tool, some solid know-how, a few pantry staples, and a bit of practice is the simplest and most practical way to explode your cooking repertoire. Whether you’re just starting on your culinary journey, or you’re looking to expand your arsenal of techniques, I hope you’ll find some inspiration and guidance here on Serious Eats and within the pages of my book.

The Science of Woks

Kenji López-Alt answers the question ‘is it possible to cook restaurant style dishes with a home burner’ in this excerpt from his new cookbook ‘The Wok.’

A thermometer pointed at a wok
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Want to know why your at-home stir-fries taste fundamentally different from those from a restaurant? It’s not better ingredients, it’s not ancient Chinese secrets, it’s not even MSG (although all of those things can help). It’s this: ridiculously high heat. And we’re not talking Atlanta-on-a-hot-day high heat; we’re talking campfire-set-by-a-Red-Dragon-who-came-straight from-the-depths-of-Mount-Doom-if-Mount-Doom-were-on-the-sun hot. A Chinese restaurant range puts out about 200k BTU/hour* of heat energy, a good twenty to twenty-five times more powerful than a run of-the-mill home burner.

*A British Thermal Unit (BTU) is a unit of energy equivalent to around one kilojoule. 

Book cover of The Wok by J. Kenji López-Alt
Book cover of The Wok by J. Kenji López-Alt

These days, in the West there seems to be this idea that it’s impossible to make a great stir-fry without one of those high-powered restaurant-style burners. (I’m probably partially responsible for this misconception.) Fortunately, that’s not true. 

For one thing, it’s not like every apartment kitchen in China is outfitted like a restaurant. Most homes are equipped with gear not that different from your own home kitchen, and those work perfectly fine for most stir-fries, especially home-style dishes. But our cravings are colored by our experiences, and as a kid who grew up in the Cantonese-influenced Chinese American food landscape of New York City in the 1980s, when I crave a stir-fry, more often than not it’s going to be a re-creation of a restaurant-style dish, with those distinct flavors that come from a high-octane wok setup.

Take a look at a Chinese restaurant kitchen and you’ll see the wok chef tossing the contents of the wok with one hand while scooping up bits of sauce and seasonings with the wide flat ladle held in the other, all the while using a knee to adjust the gas flow to the burner. It’s a beautiful dance.

These high-output burners allow a skilled cook to sear meat rapidly without overcooking it, to give a hint of smokiness to the vegetables while keeping them bright, fresh, and crisp, or to rapidly reduce added sauces, creating complex new flavors. High heat seems essential to pull off this restaurant style of cooking. If you use the exact same steps with a home burner, you end up with meat that steams in its own juices and vegetables that are drab and dreary rather than bright and crisp.

So the question is, is it possible to cook restaurant style dishes with a home burner?

The answer is an emphatic yes! Let’s wok through some of the science. 

What Metallurgical Qualities Are Important for a Wok's Performance?

Woks come in a variety of materials, thicknesses, and finishes. There are four important qualities to consider in the material for your wok. The first three (specific heat capacity, density, and conductivity) are physical properties of the material itself, while the third (reactivity) is a function of a wok’s material, thickness, and geometry. For now we’ll focus on the first two.

Specific heat capacity is the amount of energy it takes to raise a specific amount of material a specific number of degrees. In metric, this is measured in kilojoules per kilogram per kelvin. For instance, aluminum has a specific heat of .91. That means that it takes .91 kilojoule of energy to raise 1 kilogram of aluminum by 1 kelvin (about 2°F for those who are imperially inclined). Conversely, this means that for every kelvin a kilogram of aluminum is at, it has 1 kilojoule of energy to give up either to the surrounding environment or the food in the pan. Cast iron, with a heat capacity of .46, holds about half as much energy as aluminum per unit weight. This means that given identical weights and starting temperatures, an aluminum pan will contain about twice as much heat energy as a cast iron pan. This gets more complicated when you take into account density. 

The density of a material is the ratio of weight to size. Aluminum has a density of 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter, whereas cast iron has a density of 7.2. This means that given two pans of identical shape and size, a cast iron pan will weigh about 2.5 times more than an aluminum pan. Thus even though cast iron holds about half as much heat energy per unit weight, given identical shapes and sizes, a cast iron pan will hold about 1.25 times as much heat energy as an aluminum pan. These two concepts, heat capacity and density, can be combined into a more useful concept: volumetric heat capacity. 

Volumetric heat capacity is a measure of how much heat energy a given volume of a material will store, given a specific temperature. Conversely, it’s also a measure of how much energy you need to add to a fixed volume of material to raise that material’s temperature by a fixed number of degrees. 

Sound confusing? Here’s an easy way to think of it. Every pan in your kitchen acts as a sort of reservoir or bucket of energy. Preheating a pan on a burner is sort of like pouring water into that bucket. The higher the volumetric heat capacity of the pan, the bigger that bucket, the longer it takes to fill up, and the more energy it will hold. A cast iron wok is a heat-storing bucket about 1.25 times (25 percent) bigger than an aluminum wok of the same shape and size.

Conductivity is a material’s ability to get heat from one area to another. This applies to its ability to efficiently conduct heat from the heat source to the food, but also to its ability to conduct heat evenly throughout its cooking surface. Conductivity is more or less linear: it will take about twice as long for a 2-millimeter-thick pan to conduct heat from the burner to the food than a 1-millimeter-thick pan. 

If we go back to that bucket analogy, you can think of conductivity as the size of the spigot at the bottom of the bucket. The higher the conductivity, the bigger the spigot, and the faster you can pour energy from inside the bucket into the food you are cooking.

If we were to look purely at heat capacity and conductivity, aluminum is the clear winner here. It stores plenty of heat (nothing has it beat!) and transfers energy quickly (only copper is more conductive). However, aluminum hits a snag in the density department. Because it is so light, you’d need a ludicrously thick aluminum pan to achieve the volumetric heat capacity of carbon or stainless steel. 

In other words, all else being equal, a 2-millimeter-thick carbon steel pan will hold about 60 percent more energy at a given temperature than a 2-millimeter-thick aluminum pan, though an aluminum pan will be about four times more conductive.

So What About This Reactivity Thing?

Reactivity is a pan’s ability to react quickly to changes in heat input. If I switch off the heat, do the contents of the pan continue to sizzle and sweat, or do they cool rapidly? If I need a quick blast of heat, does the wok react fast enough when I turn the dial up?

With a Western-style pan, we typically value consistency over reactivity. We want the pan to maintain a slow, steady sizzle as we add finely diced vegetables to sauté, and we want it to maintain a vigorous sizzle as we sear. Rarely in Western cuisine do you find yourself needing to go from a simmer to a sear to a gentle bubble in the course of a few moments. With wok cooking, this is a frequent occurrence. 

This quality is related to the conductivity of a wok’s material (the more conductive the more reactive) and its thickness (the thinner the more reactive), but more importantly, the geometry of your wok and how it fits with your burner can have a big impact. Ideally, your wok should fit over your hottest burner with a wide enough flat-bottomed area that the ring of flames heats mostly the bottom with a little bit of flame riding up the flared sides. This maximizes reactivity in the center of the pan, where you need it the most.

Stored Heat vs. Heat Input

When talking about stir-fries, there’s one important distinction to learn: the difference between stored heat energy and heat flux.

Stored heat energy is precisely what it sounds like: the energy that is stored in the pan itself. We measure this energy in degrees. When people ask you what the temperature of a given object is, they are really asking how much energy that object has stored up inside its molecules. Most cooking vessels we use are made of metal, and the amount of heat energy it can store is based on its specific heat capacity (the amount of energy a specific weight of the material contains per degree of temperature), and its mass (that is, functionally, its weight).

Now, with Western cooking vessels, the stored energy in a pan is of vital importance. Most of the highest-quality Western cookware is thick and made of dense metals like cast iron or steel. The idea is that with proper preheating a Western pan will have enough energy stored in it that even when you add food to it—a big fat steak, for example—it won’t drop much in temperature, allowing you to cook your food in an even, predictable manner. If we go back to the bucket metaphor from above, a heavy Western skillet is like a big, fat bucket of energy. It takes a long time to fill that bucket (which translates to lengthy preheating), but once full, it’s got energy to spare—adding food to it will displace relatively little of its overall stored energy.

J. Kenji López-Alt checks the temperature of a wok
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

With a thick enough skillet and enough preheating—say to around 650°F or so—you could completely remove a pan from the heat, throw a steak in it, and still get a good sear from the stored energy. Once you’ve got your pan ripping hot, relatively little additional energy input is required to get good results.

A wok, on the other hand, relies on a different principle. Woks are thin, relatively lightweight vessels. The average wok is about a third the thickness of a standard Western pan. This means that at a given temperature, it’s got relatively little stored heat. It’s a small bucket that will quickly lose its energy stores as soon as you add food to it.

Thus, for good wok cooking, high heat energy input is required. Not only must the pan be ripping hot to start, but with most recipes you need to keep it above a high flame the entire time you cook in order to replenish the energy being pumped into the food.

Stir-Frying in Woks vs. Skillets

So why this distinction between stored heat and heat input/output? How are the two styles functionally different? 

It’s because with Western cooking vessels, even heating is of utmost importance. You want the pan to be of a consistent temperature from the edge to the center. Thick-gauge metals with an aluminum core help achieve this, maintaining a relatively high cooking temperature from start to finish.

J. Kenji López-Alt stir-frying mussels in a wok
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

When you add food to the pan, both a wok and a skillet show a rapid drop in temperature as heat gets transferred to the food. Assuming a starting temperature of 650°F, a Western skillet will drop to around 480°F, while a wok, because of its lower amount of stored heat energy, will drop all the way down to nearly 400°F. As the cooking continues, a Western skillet will slowly regain some of the energy that was lost when the food was added. Remember, a Western skillet is designed to heat and cool very slowly and evenly.

The wok, on the other hand, will regain that lost heat at a faster rate, but it’s beginning with a lower initial temperature—it takes nearly a full two minutes before it makes up for lost time and overtakes the Western skillet.

Aha!, you may be thinking. So a Western skillet is superior to a wok after all for cooking on a low-output burner!

Well, let’s take a look at a different data set, this time focusing only on the temperature of the bottom of the wok—the high-heat searing zone. For these readings, I added food, stir-fried it until it developed a reasonable sear, then pushed it to the sides of the skillet or wok.

Now we see that in fact, in the area where it matters most—the very bottom of the wok where searing is taking place—a wok actually regains its heat significantly faster than a Western skillet does. Again, this is because a Western skillet is designed for even heat, while a wok is designed for reactive heat.

With wok cooking, you want different temperature zones inside the pan. You want a screaming-hot part at the very bottom. You want slightly cooler regions around the edges. You want heat rising up the sides of the wok and curling over the edge so that when you fling food up in the traditional stir-fry method, it hits a column of hot, steamy air. When food is pushed up the sides, the bottom very rapidly comes back up to hard-searing temperatures, priming it for the next ingredients. 

Thermal photos of a wok and western skillet, side by side
At left, a skillet with more even heat distribution; at right, the wok with its hotter zone in the center/bottom. [Image: Courtesy of J. Kenji López-Alt]

To demonstrate this difference, I used a thermal imaging camera to show the heat patterns in a Western skillet vs. in a wok. 

A preheated wok has a high-temperature zone in the very bottom and gets progressively cooler toward the edges. 

So the key to good stir-frying on a home burner is to cook in small enough batches to allow this bottom section of the wok to remain hot throughout cooking. In a traditional Chinese-style meal with multiple small courses, this occurs naturally, as you are only cooking small batches of each dish. If you want to cook fewer dishes but larger portions, this means cooking in batches.

Whether I’m using a skillet or a wok for my stir fry, I divide my meat and vegetables into one-pound portions (or even half-pound portions if I’m working on an especially slow burner) and add them to the wok one at a time, allowing them to sear and begin cooking before transferring them to a bowl on the side. Once the wok has regained some energy and starts smoking again, I cook the next batch, and so on. I can then mix everything back together at the very end just before adding my aromatics and sauce.

Cantonese Slippery Eggs with Tofu and Peas

If you love egg drop soup, you’ll love its comforting, meal-worthy cousin.

Overhead view of slippery eggs with tofu and peas in a blue patterned bowl
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Depending on how you cook them, Western-style scrambled eggs can range from firm and fluffy to soft and creamy or moist and sauce-like. Working on the scrambled egg section of my book, The Wok, made me realize that egg dishes cooked in a wok are, if anything, even more diverse than their Western counterparts.

In their softest, most extreme form, you’ll find eggs scrambled into dishes like Slippery Egg with Beef, in which strips of stir-fried beef are served in a sauce that’s somewhere between a soup and a custard, bound with ribbons of silky poached egg. At the other end of the spectrum are puffy, browned scrambled egg dishes like the deep-fried Thai omelet khai jiao or classic egg foo young.

This particular recipe—silken eggs with tofu and peas—is a dish that I’ve not seen in other cookbooks, but have occasionally seen on menus under various names. My daughter is a huge fan of eggs, tofu, and frozen peas, and my kitchen almost always. has those ingredients, which, combined with a fridge-to-bowl cook time of around seven minutes, makes this an easy win for a weeknight dinner when I’m short on ideas and time. (Sometimes I’ll even pair it with those microwavable bowls of pre-cooked rice when I don’t want to bother turning on the rice cooker).

Mise en place of ingredients for Cantonese slippery eggs with tofu and peas.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

With no existing recipes to work from, my version is one that has just organically evolved over time, adapted from my experiences making other, similar eggs-suspended-in-thickened-broth dishes, such as shrimp with lobster sauce—a Cantonese-American dish developed in the Northeastern United States and Toronto (with not a bit of lobster to be found)—and classic egg drop soup.

I start the dish with a very simple stir-fry of ginger, scallions, and garlic, cooked very briefly in a hot wok to bring out their flavor, which I then immediately douse with Shaoxing wine (a dry sherry, sake, or even a dry vermouth or white wine would work fine, as would completely omitting the alcohol if you prefer) and stock (store-bought chicken stock is good, but I also really enjoy making this dish with dashi). The frozen peas go in along with the chicken stock. I don’t ever like to cook frozen peas for more than a few minutes, so that might give you a clue about how fast this recipe really is.

Once the stock and peas are in, I add a cornstarch slurry—a surprisingly large amount—and cubes of silken tofu. The goal here is not to lightly thicken the sauce, but to turn it almost into a custard sauce, thick enough to coat a spoon. This is part of the key to getting the eggs to stay silky and tender as they cook, and to keep the eggs evenly distributed throughout the sauce instead of floating to the top.

The most difficult part of this recipe (and none of it is difficult) is stirring the simmering wok without breaking up the tender tofu too much. Aim for a gentle folding motion with a wide spatula (wood is better than sharp-edged metal), as opposed to vigorous stirring or shaking.

After the broth has simmered and I’ve seasoned it to taste with salt and pepper, I drizzle in the eggs, which I’ve beaten with a bit of extra cornstarch slurry (the starch interferes with egg proteins binding, which makes the scrambled curds more tender) and seasoned with salt and white pepper. Here you have a little control over the finished dish. The faster you drizzle the eggs into the sauce, the more vigorously they’ll mix, and the smaller the curds will become. Drizzle them in slowly and you end up with wider ribbons (I typically prefer wider ribbons). When and how vigorously you decide to stir them will also affect their texture and appearance—the sooner and rougher you stir them, the more they’ll break up.

Two image, vertical collage. First photo is eggs being drizzled into a wok using chopsticks. Second photo is the finished dish, plated on the counter.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

If you’ve ever made egg drop soup, you should be familiar with the process (and, if you haven’t, there will be an updated version of my recipe in the book). There's a bit of a learning curve for getting the eggs exactly they way you like them, but thankfully the dish is still silky, comforting, and delicious no matter how you cook them.

I typically season the dish with more salt, white pepper, and MSG just before serving it, but of course you can feel free to omit any of the seasonings if you wish. You can eat the eggs and tofu straight out of bowls with a scattering of cilantro and scallions (and a drizzle of chile oil, if you like), or serve them on top of a bed of rice to soak up excess sauce.

Angled view of 4 blue patterned dishes plated with the finished slippery eggs with tofu and peas.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valentine

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch with 1/4 cup (60ml) of the stock, stirring to dissolve the starch. Reserve the remaining stock. 

Cornstarch slurry being mixed in a metal bowl with chopsticks.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch slurry with the eggs and a pinch of salt and white pepper.

Cornstarch and eggs being whisked together in a metallic bowl with chopsticks.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Using a paper towel, rub a thin film of oil into a wok and set it over high heat until smoking. Add the 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat. Add the ginger and let it sizzle for 10 seconds. Immediately add the scallion whites and garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Two pieces of ginger sizzling in a smoking wok.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Add the wine and cook, swirling as it sizzles, for a few seconds, then add the reserved chicken stock and peas. Stir the cornstarch slurry to redistribute, then stir it into the stock. Add the tofu and stir in very gently to avoid breaking it. Bring to a simmer, stirring gently, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 45 seconds. Adjust the seasoning to taste with salt, white pepper, and MSG (if using).

A spatula stirring peas, tofu, and cornstarch slurry together in a wok, showing the thickened consistency of the sauce.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Drizzle the egg mixture into the sauce, then very slowly stir it with a ladle or wok spatula until the eggs form tender ribbons, about 30 seconds, being careful not to break the tofu pieces. Sprinkle with the reserved scallion greens and chopped cilantro (if using). Divide the mixture evenly over bowls of steamed rice and serve immediately.

Eggs being drizzled in a swaying motion from a metallic bowl into the tofu mixture in a wok
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Special Equipment

Wok

Notes

 If you can’t find firm silken tofu, soft tofu will work as well.

Dim Sum–Style Steamed Pork Ribs With Fermented Black Beans

A mineral bath and deep tissue massage can lead to the most tender, flavorful ribs.

Overhead view of Steamed Pork Ribs on a plate of rice placed next to a pair of chopsticks.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

I remember the first time I made dim sum–style steamed spare ribs at home. I was fresh out of college, living with a couple roommates, and had just acquired my very first bamboo steamer, which immediately upgraded my five-year-old wok, Transformers-style, into a brand new cooking vessel. (That wok and that steamer are the same wok and steamer I used to develop the recipes for my book, The Wok. They’re still going strong after more than two decades of near-continuous use.) I don’t remember where I found the recipe for those ribs, but I was shocked to discover that it called for only ten to fifteen minutes of cooking.

Prior to that, I’d only ever cooked pork ribs low-and-slow: simmered in tomato sauce, slow-roasted in the oven, or smoked to tenderness on the grill. Everything I knew about cooking pork ribs, with their large amount of tough connective tissue, suggested that the recipe wouldn't work, that they would be impossibly rubbery after only a few minutes of steaming. But I tried it nonetheless, hacking up ribs with a cleaver into bite-sized chunks, marinating them with wine, sesame oil, white pepper, salt, and fermented black soybeans, tossing them with a cornstarch slurry, and then placing them on a plate set inside the steamer to cook through.

They weren’t the outright disaster I expected them to be—the flavor was decent at least—but they were quite rubbery and difficult to chew, and their appearance was dark and mottled from the juices that seeped out of the bone marrow as they steamed. A far cry from the silky, tender ribs with clean flavor and a pale white complexion that even the most mediocre of dim sum restaurants seemed to be able to pull off.

A bamboo steamer set in a wok holds a plate of fully cooked steamed pork ribs.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Tenderness Technique Test 1: Thorough Washing

What’s the secret? Washing. And when I say washing, I mean washing. The kind of scrubbing that you instruct your toddler to do after an adventure day spent sliding down mud hills. I’d heard about washing meat for stir fries, but it wasn’t until I saw Wang Gang, a Sichuan chef with an excellent YouTube channel washing meat for some of his dishes that I realized exactly how vigorous that washing is. He gets it in a large bowl, grabs it and squeezes as hard as he can, vigorously stirring and massaging it, changing the water as necessary until it is clear, then squeezing the meat tightly to wring out excess moisture.

Watching this in action and incorporating it into my own dishes was revelatory. My sliced meat game hasn’t been the same since!

In stir-fries, the difference between roughly-washed meat and meat that is unwashed or only lightly rinsed is incredible. Roughly washed meat opens up, allowing marinades and sauces to seep in between muscle fibrils. As you bite it, the meat is tender and succulent, as opposed to chewy and dense. (I’ve always found it interesting that these characteristics, the dense meaty chew I work hard to remove in many quick-cooked Chinese dishes, are the very characteristics that are so prized in quick-cooking Western dishes like steaks and chops.)

With chopped ribs, the washing also accomplishes a secondary goal. Because the ribs are chopped straight through the bone, exposing the marrow, myoglobin—the iron-rich pigment that gives muscles their color—will seep out as they cook. This is what had caused my ribs to discolor. Washing the ribs vigorously and thoroughly before cooking eliminates this issue while also making the ribs more tender and more flavorful.

Side by side, there’s really no comparison. Unwashed ribs are chewy and ugly-looking, whereas washed ribs are tender and moist, with a clean, pale appearance. Simply adding this washing step got me a good 90% of the way to the best restaurant-quality steamed ribs.

Tenderness Technique Test 2: Deep-Tissue Massage

My friends Steph Li and Christopher Thomas of the YouTube channel Chinese Cooking Demystified suggest in their steamed rib recipe video that some restaurants go one step further. Rather than hand-washing, some restaurants will use an actual washing machine—the kind used to wash clothes. Chris pointed me towards this article from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, in which restaurant-owner Yi Weirong shows how he washes spare ribs in a clothes washer for ten minutes to tenderize the meat. This re-tasking of a washing machine was actually something I’d heard of before as a method to tenderize octopus before cooking. But it did make me wonder whether I could replicate some mechanical washing action at home.

I wasn’t willing to use our home washer (I suspect my daughter’s teachers would have some questions as to why she always smells like raw pork). Instead, I tried agitating meat in a salad spinner (not particularly effective at washing, as salad spinners are good centrifuges but don’t offer much by way of turbulence—they do, however, make it easy to dry meat after washing, if you don’t mind getting raw meat in your salad spinner), as well as in a stand mixer full of water with the paddle and dough hook attachments. Of those two, the dough hook worked better (the paddle tended to mangle the meat more than simply wash it), but neither was much more effective than some thorough hand-washing.

Maybe next time I’ll spring for a countertop washing machine I could keep on-hand as my dedicated meat washer, but my guess is that the washing-machine treatment is only useful when working at restaurant-scale.

Tenderness Technique Test 3: A Nice Long Soak With Salts

The other secret to tenderization is giving the meat an alkaline treatment before cooking. By adjusting the pH of a marinade or brine to make it mildly alkaline, meat ends up noticeably more tender. This is true whether you’re cooking pork, beef, or chicken, and it helps tenderize meat whether you’re stir-frying, simmering, or steaming. The mechanism by which this works is not fully researched and understood, but at least part of it seems to be that the linking and tightening of meat proteins as they cook—the mechanism that causes meat to become more firm and dry as you heat it—occurs most effectively within a narrow pH range. In the same way that soaking meat in an acidic marinade will chemically “cook” it, soaking in an alkaline marinade will have the opposite effect, keeping it more tender even as it cooks.

As with tenderization through washing, an alkaline bath is not a silver bullet for more tender meat in every situation. I would not recommend us this method for marinating a steak destined for the grill or a whole chicken you plan on roasting. This is because alkaline marinades tend to give meat a sort of slippery texture on their surface, which is a desirable trait in many Chinese stir-fries and steamed or simmered meat dishes, but not one we look for in most Western dishes.

A before and after comparison of two bowls of raw pork showing the change in texture from the brine.
At left, ribs before treatment; at right, ribs that have been washed, brined, and deeply massaged. [Image: Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine]

So the question was: What is the best way to give the ribs an alkaline treatment? Baking soda is the most common strong alkali in the average kitchen, and indeed soaking ribs in a solution of water, salt, and baking soda increases their tenderness. But what about other sources? Egg whites are mildly alkaline (and are common Chinese marinade ingredients). Chinese Cooking Demystified’s recipe suggests using sodium carbonate, a strongly alkaline ingredient you can make at home by baking baking soda in the oven (it’s commonly used to give ramen noodles their springy texture and distinct flavor). They suggest that because dissolved sodium carbonate is much more alkaline than baking soda, you can get away with using less of it—a good thing, as too much baking soda can give a dish an odd, metallic background flavor.

My friend the Australian chef, host, and cookbook author Adam Liaw postulated in an email to me that perhaps the slight alkalinity that dissolved minerals lend to most tap water was actually the secret to why simply washing meats with tap water can also increase their tenderness.

Here’s what I ended up testing, side-by-side:

  • Plain tap water (my tap water in Seattle is not particularly hard, but it’s not totally neutral)
  • Mineral water (Evian, which is quite hard)
  • Distilled water
  • Water with 1.25% baking soda added to it
  • Water with 1.25% sodium carbonate added to it
  • Water with .25% sodium carbonate added to it
  • Plain egg whites

In each case, I also added 3% salt by weight of the liquid. I washed the ribs in distilled water using my vigorous squeeze method, drained and dried them, then soaked the ribs in each solution overnight in the fridge. I also included a batch that was washed but un-soaked. The next day I rinsed them off using distilled water before carefully drying them and transferring them to my fermented black bean marinade, where they rested overnight.

Finally, I finished them off by tossing them with cornstarch and a little oil and steaming them.

Surprisingly, there was not a huge difference between any of the batches. The ribs with baking soda and both batches with sodium carbonate were the most tender, but none of the others were too far behind, including those soaked in distilled water. This was surprising to me, as from previous testing, I knew that treating meat with an alkaline solution can greatly affect its texture if you omit the washing phase.

Even the batch that was washed but un-soaked had a texture that was tender and smooth, though it had a noticeably darker color from pigmentation left behind in the meat and the marrow.

As it turns out, if you wash the meat, you get most of the way to tenderness. The alkaline brine is really just there to push you over the finish line.

"But wait!" you say. "Doesn’t washing strip the meat of its natural flavor? Aren’t you the guy who said NOT to soak your turkey in brine because it loses turkey flavor?"

That’s a good question! A good question that I wish I could give a simple answer to that ties everything together with a little bow. But really there’s no perfect answer here. It's absolutely true that washing meat will leach out juices and meaty flavors—flavors that end up going down the drain. My only explanation is that cuisines have developed in different ways all over the world, and a lot of cooking involves resetting expectations and being open to different standards and goals. We’ve already addressed this with texture, but it holds for flavor as well.

In French haute cuisine, you may carefully reduce and concentrate stocks made from the roasted carcasses of the same animal you cut the meat from, in order to intensify the chickeniness of that chicken or the beefiness of the beef. In the Mediterranean you may be implored to keep the ingredients simple and seasonal, to allow Mother Nature to do the heavy lifting for you. In many Chinese kitchens, on the other hand, the emphasis is often on heightening flavors through the addition and careful balance of intense fermented sauces, dried ingredients, aged seafood, pungent pickled vegetables, hot chiles, sweeteners, and aromatics.

These different approaches don’t make one dish better or worse or one approach more elevated or casual; they're just different ways to think about seasoning and cooking, and a way to open up your own arsenal of techniques and flavors.

A Gnawing Question: What's the Best Cut of Pork for Dim Sum–Style Ribs?

The final outstanding issue with making this dish at home is access to the right cut of pork. Typically this dish is made with the thin, cartilaginous ends of pork ribs, a cut that isn't commonly found in Western meat markets. If you happen to have access to a Chinese supermarket, you will almost certainly find these ribs pre-cut and recipe-ready.

If you’re in a Western supermarket and you really want to get as close to the dim-sum experience as possible, you’ll need a heavy cleaver to do the job. Pick up a pack of St. Louis–cut ribs, separate them into spare ribs by slicing through the meat in between each rib, and then, using your cleaver and as much force as you can muster, chop the ribs into 3/4- to 1-inch sections. It will be loud. It will feel a little dangerous. It will scar your cutting board. I don’t recommend it for anyone not used to working with a heavy cleaver. (If there is a butcher counter, you can ask the butcher to do this for you with a rack of ribs.)

A much better option is to simply forget about the bones and use a boneless cut of pork instead. Virtually any cut with a good network of thin strands of connective tissue will work, including boneless country-style ribs, sirloin chops, or even pork shoulder (make sure to cut out any large swathes of fat or connective tissue). You miss out on the fun of picking every last scrap of meat off the bones in your mouth, but using boneless pork sure does make it easier to wolf down.

When I want to make a simple, no-fuss meal out of these ribs, I stack a second bamboo steamer filled with green vegetables like snap peas, asparagus, or broccoli on top of the pork just a few minutes before it’s done cooking. Slide the pork (juices and all) onto a waiting bowl of rice, and dinner is ready.

In a large bowl, cover the ribs with cold water and set in the sink. Wash the ribs, roughly swirling and squeezing them like you’re wringing out clothes (if the bones are very sharp, use gloves). When the water gets very cloudy, drain and replace it. Repeat this process until the water is mostly clear even after thoroughly agitating and squeezing the ribs, about 5 minutes. (This should take at least 5 to 6 changes of water.) Drain.

Hands vigorously washing pork in a bowl under a faucet
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

For the Brine: In a large bowl, stir together the water, baking soda, and salt until the solids are fully dissolved. Add the ribs and let stand at least 30 minutes at room temperature or, for more tender results, transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 12 hours.

Hands soaking pork in a metal bowl
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Drain ribs, firmly squeezing the meat to expel excess liquid. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel or a few layers of paper towels. Spread the ribs on top in a single layer and roll up the towel, pressing to remove excess moisture. Alternatively, you can spread the drained ribs in a salad spinner basket and spin it to remove excess moisture. Transfer ribs to a large bowl.

Two hands pushing water out of pork between two paper towels
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

For the Marinade: Add the salt, wine, douchi, sesame oil, sugar, and white pepper to the ribs and toss to incorporate, massaging the meat until it is thoroughly coated in marinade. Proceed immediately to next step, or, for best results, let marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 12 hours in the fridge.

Fermented black beans being added to a bowl of pork with other marinade ingredients.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

To Cook: Add cornstarch to ribs and marinade, tossing to combine. If there is any dry cornstarch remaining in the bowl, add water 1 teaspoon at a time, tossing thoroughly until no dry starch remains. Add the oil and jalapeño and toss to combine.

Marinaded pork ribs mixed with cornstarch.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

In a wok or saucepan, bring 2 inches of water to a boil over high heat. Place a large bamboo steamer or steaming rack above the water. Transfer the ribs to a heatproof plate large enough to hold them in a single layer (if necessary, cook in batches or stacked bamboo steamers). Set the plate in the steamer, cover, and steam over high heat until ribs are cooked through and tender, about 15 minutes. Pork can be served immediately with steamed white rice, or you can reduce heat to low and hold it in the steamer for up to 45 minutes until you’re ready to serve it (make sure to replenish the water if it starts to run low).

A step-by-step four-image collage of placing a plate of pork into a bamboo steamer set in a wok to cook.
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

Special Equipment

Wok, bamboo steamer basket or steaming rack

Notes

This dish is traditionally made from the thin, lower ends of pork ribs, which have plenty of connective tissue and fat. You can typically find pork ribs chopped and ready for this recipe at any Chinese butcher. If you cannot find them, you can use a heavy cleaver to slice St. Louis–cut spare ribs at home. Slice a rack of ribs between each rib to separate into individual ribs, then, working with one rib at a time with the meatier side facing up, use a heavy cleaver to cut it into 3/4- to 1-inch lengths with very hefty whacks. Alternatively, you can use boneless country-style ribs for this recipe, cutting the meat into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes. If using boneless ribs, you’ll only need 3/4 of a pound (340g) of ribs.

If you already have sodium carbonate in your kitchen that you’ve made for Chinese or Japanese noodles, use 1 teaspoon (3g) of sodium carbonate in place of the baking soda for more tender results. Otherwise, baking soda will work just fine.

Douchi are dried fermented black soybeans. They can be found at any Chinese supermarket and well-stocked Western supermarkets. If you can’t find them, you can substitute a tablespoon of prepared Chinese black bean sauce, though the color of the ribs will be darker when cooked.

The Food Lab Junior: Kid-Friendly Pozole Verde

This weeknight version of pozole verde is hearty, rich, and easy to customize with aromatic garnishes like radish, avocado, cilantro, and jalapeño. With simplified steps, it’s also perfect for making with kids.


This weeknight version of pozole verde is hearty, rich, and easy to customize with aromatic garnishes like radish, avocado, cilantro, and jalapeño. With simplified steps, it's also perfect for making with kids. Read More