How do I make the green peppers in my Chinese dishes just amazing!?
January 29, 2014 9:51 AM   Subscribe

In various Chinese dishes that I've had the green peppers are always in bitesized cuts and they are never over cooked or under cooked- they are just the right mix of crunchy and soft. How do I make that happen? I am cooking a Chinese saucy chicken dish in a couple of hours and would be thrilled if I could FINALLY get my peppers right! Thanks!
posted by misspony to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'd love advice on onions as well- they always come out the same- not to over cooked and not to undercooked!
posted by misspony at 9:54 AM on January 29, 2014

I'm not sure how you've been cooking your green peppers before, but in Chinese cooking, it's not uncommon to cook each component separately and only combine it in the wok at the last minute. Different ingredients have different cooking speeds, so this makes sense. I'm not sure if that's how it's done everywhere (in other types of cooking), but I'm just speaking from my personal experience. Having good wok hei also helps.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

For me the key to getting things right in stir-frys is to cook at relatively high heat, cut the vegetables into the same-sized pieces, and cook them separately until they're close to what you want. Then put everything back together at the end to bring it all together.

Be careful if you're letting hot vegetables sit in a bowl as the residual heat will continue to cook them if its too high.
posted by sevenless at 9:56 AM on January 29, 2014

If you do the ingredients separately, they'll get mushy as they sit. Especially the peppers and onions.

The answer to almost every beginner-to-intermediate cooking question is: be more assertive with heat. If you're attentive, you won't burn stuff, so don't be afraid of heat. Use more heat and don't be afraid to let ingredients get their fair share of it. Stir fry those suckers up to the point of light char.

Crunchiness is not for the faint of heart. It's your prize for having the fortitude to bring things right to the brink.

I may be reading you wrong, and you may be overcooking as much as undercooking. In which case this doesn't apply. But I suspect you're undercooking, and afraid of going to far to rectify. If so, the answer is: have courage.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:02 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Cook your proteins and vegetables separately. Cook at a high heat (preheat your pan/wok), Cook your proteins, then set it aside, and cook your vegetables (stuff like carrots may take longer, than onions and bell peppers), then toss the proteins back in.

I like to cook some of the onions with the protein, and set the rest later (so the flavor permeates the dish, while keeping most of them crisp).
posted by thebestsophist at 10:03 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yup, cook them separately, try high heat, and mix them with the rest of the dish (and the toasted sesame oil) at the end.
posted by pullayup at 10:04 AM on January 29, 2014

nthing very high heat, quick cook time for veggies.

I've done some academic study of the history of Chinese Food Culture and there are some interesting insights for cooking (putting aside for a moment that Green Peppers aren't a historically Chinese food, though that doesn't matter much actually).

There are some strong elements of Chinese food history that operate around the groupsings of fan and ts'ai.

Fan are grains and starchy foods, and ts'ai are meats and proteins. Some argue that the ratio and relationship of these ingredients is what allows any food to be "Chinese." Such that if you give a Chinese chef any ingredient, they can make Chinese food with it by using these principles.

In part, this is why you have discernible pieces of food, obvious pieces of vegetables and meat/protein - and obvious distinctions between for example the packaging of a dumpling and the contents.

These principles can be useful when thinking about how to cook components - how large to cut the pieces, where the flavor comes from - prep, level of heat, etc.

You might find it inspiring to look at K.C. Chang's writing on these ideas (which are just one of many ways of looking at Chinese food) - which is pretty well summarized here.
posted by jardinier at 10:16 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Having good wok hei also helps.

On this point: Western burners are often just not hot enough to fire a wok. Woks (unless you have some kind of Western wok, like Calphalon or cast iron) have almost no thermal mass and cool off very quickly when ingredients are added, so the heat source has to be hot enough to keep the wok at stir-frying temperature for the whole time you're cooking. Once the wok is cool and overloaded, you're stewing your dish rather than stir-frying it. The food you're cooking should never go from sizzling to bubbling away. This is important---you do not want to stew or simmer the food you're stir-frying, unless it's a recipe that explicitly calls for it. If your recipe isn't calibrated for an underpowered burner (i.e. not this), consider:

1) Scaling down the recipe, or cooking it in batches small enough not to cool the wok significantly

2) Cooking with the wok over a bed of very hot charcoal on your charcoal grill (outside!)

3) If you're really serious, investing in a propane-fired wok burner. I haven't tried these but they look like they're up to it.
posted by pullayup at 10:20 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Really interesting answers! Thank you! And to clarify- I've been throwing them in at the end, into the sauce and whatever, and over cooking...
posted by misspony at 10:22 AM on January 29, 2014

What do you mean by over cooking? Burning? Or just tough/dry? Tough/dry just reflects too much time at too-low heat. See pullayup's reply for more on that.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:24 AM on January 29, 2014

If you haven't already, check Fuchsia Dunlop's cookbooks out of your local library. Every Grain of Rice is a good place to start. She strikes a nice balance between not pulling punches for her Western readership and writing recipes that are still delicious and achievable for home cooks. Her blog is also a good read.
posted by pullayup at 10:29 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Over cooking as in soggy.
posted by misspony at 10:36 AM on January 29, 2014

Yes, cook everything hot and fast - then toss it with the sauce at the last minute - don't cook in a sauce if you're stir-frying. Unless you're trying to infuse meat/tofu with a sauce. but then there shouldn't be any veggies in that until the wok is dry.
posted by jardinier at 10:52 AM on January 29, 2014

soggy usually means you've not been cooking them at a high enough heat and you have a bit too much moisture (ie liquid like the sauces or any other other stewed juices).

i find using the thin aluminium woks works for western kitchen cooking but that needs practice, because that heats up fast.
posted by cendawanita at 10:56 AM on January 29, 2014

It's also the case that even when a wok is heated to the right temperature it has different temperature zones - you can move food away from the center and toward the edges and vice versa to cook different elements at different temperatures. So keep those in mind as you're cooking.
posted by jardinier at 11:01 AM on January 29, 2014

I looked for a guide that talks about this step by step way to make the kind of stir-fry I think you have in mind and this might help.
posted by jardinier at 11:04 AM on January 29, 2014

It sounds like you're adding the veggies to cook after you've put in the sauce. Do not do this. Put the sauce in last.
posted by Andrhia at 11:07 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Instead of a wok, use a thick bottomed saute pan on high heat. Traditional woks work best on an open flame, which is very hard to simulate on a gas or electric stove. A more traditional "western" flat pan will distribute the heat much better in that situation.
posted by monospace at 11:45 AM on January 29, 2014

I thought I would drop a recipe in here, because she is pretty specific about cooking sequences and times, and the recipe includes onions and bell peppers (red ones in this case, but the principles of cooking them are the same). It demonstrates what people have been saying about having the wok hot enough, cooking the meat and veggies separately, cutting your ingredients to the proper sizes, and adding the sauce last.

Sichuan Pork with Peppers and Peanuts (from Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge by Grace Young)

1 pound lean pork shoulder or butt, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon egg white, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons SHao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons minced plus 1 tablespoon thinly sliced garlic
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced red onions
2 teaspoons chili bean sauce
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts

1. In a medium bowl, combine the pork, egg white, 1 tablespoon of the rice wine, cornstarch, the 2 teaspoons minced garlic, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Stir to combine. In a small bowl combine the soy sauce, vinegar, and the remaining 2 tablespoons rice wine.

2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil, add the red onions and the remaining 1 tablespoon sliced garlic, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 1 minute or until the onion wilts. Push the onion mixture to the sides of the wok, carefully add the pork, and spread it evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the pork begin to sear. Add the chili bean sauce and stir-fry 2 minutes or until the pork is lightly browned but not cooked through. Transfer the pork to a plate.

3. Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the wok. Add the bell peppers, sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, reduce the heat to medium, and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the bell peppers begin to soften. Return the pork with any juices that have accumulated to the wok, increase the heat to high, swirl the rice wine mixture into the wok, and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the pork is just cooked through. Stir in the peanuts.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.
posted by gudrun at 11:55 AM on January 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

For home kitchens where you don't have access to the type of heating power that restaurants do, I might suggest tossing in pickled peppers when finishing the dish to taste after it's pretty much cooked. Here is a good Chinese-style pickled pepper recipe
and a SE Asian style one I use
While perhaps not perfect on the authentic front (though not unheard of), they have great flavor and the best texture. I used chili paste for the actual cooking.
posted by melissam at 1:01 PM on January 29, 2014

Sauce goes in at the end! Don't cook in the sauce!
posted by mr_roboto at 5:19 PM on January 29, 2014

I'm assuming you're using a thin-walled wok, in which case:

- cut everything small, like alumette or smaller. Except leaves, those you can just coarsely chop.
- dry everything. I dry my vegetables in a salad spinner and toss my meat in corn starch.
- do your mise en place, because once you start cooking you won't have time to do anything but stir and add more ingredients
- turn the heat up all the way
- do small batches. Restaurants use woks an arm's length across to cook a single dish. Your wok is probably something like 16", which shouldn't really take more than two servings at a time.
- use enough oil to make a little puddle at the bottom of the wok. On mine, that takes about 3 tablespoons. Oil is important because it is the working fluid that carries the heat from the wok to your food.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:48 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

DISCLAIMER: I base my cooking styles on a mix of both home-taught methods learned from my US-born but Chinese-in-culture Dad and from book learning and from experience.

The best way I've found to get the peppers just right is the following:
- I use a hammered iron wok over a high heat flame. Some folks I've known use a thin-walled cast iron wok over a similarly high flame. The more BTUs the better for this kind of cooking.
- I cook separately but in order to get the proper mix of cooked but crispy, especially for green peppers, beans, broccoli, etc, cook dry.
- So wash your veg, let sort of air dry so they're not bone dry but so they don't shake droplets everywhere when you shake them.
- Heat wok hot hot hot., drop green peppers in the wok and stir fry in the otherwise dry wok until parts of the skin on more than half of your pepper pieces show scorch marks.
- Take out of wok and set aside. Some residual heat will soften them up a little.
- Then cook the rest of the meal in the same wok and add the peppers near the end.

With practice you can figure out how to time it so you don't have to set aside anything (just cook the peppers first, then add saucing, garlic, ginger, spices, whatever - or push the peppers up the sides and do the main cooking in the center of the wok).

Good luck and good times!
posted by kalessin at 11:01 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks mefites, my peppers and onions were so so much nicer this time! I cooked separately and on very high heat and put the sauce in last.
posted by misspony at 1:55 PM on February 5, 2014

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