Why hello there, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes, where one man tries to make good food and good jokes, in a sea of bad decisions. I’m your judgment-impaired judicial surrogate, Jon O’Guin. Today’s post is…weird. I’m not going to lie to you guys, I didn’t have a plan with this one. Like, at all.
Things have been very complicated as of late around the O’Guin household. In the span of three weeks, I had a tooth pop out of my mouth, went to urgent care and the ER, and my father passed away. And where normally a list that intense would be a joke, I assure you, all of those things happened, with only minor mitigation. (A CROWN popped out of my mouth, not technically a tooth, for example. My stays in the urgent care and ER were fairly brief, etc.) And because they all happened so closely together, they’re abutting into each other I had what I believe to be a medical panic attack a few days following my father’s passing, and I’m still getting vague dizziness and worrying aches and pains. I couldn’t fix that tooth problem for three weeks, because of insurance paperwork, all the other things coming up, and a general fear of dental interactions. (Having to visit a dentist without insurance was the reason I had to move back in with my parents, so it’s a subject I’m a little tetchy about.) I didn’t INTEND to write any of this, I just needed you all to know that MY LIFE IS FALLING APART! THIS IS WHY I DON’T LIKE NOT HAVING A PLAN.
"Quick, someone play the third movement of The William Tell Overture to calm his ass down!"
"Why do you know the specific movement?"
"Oh, so now I can't be a comic book fan-boy and a know-er of classical music? Fuck you, dude."
"I mean, it's just weird."
"IT WAS IN LOONEY TUNES. "RANZ DE VACHES", A MELODY PLAYED BY SWISS COWHERDS. IT INSPIRED SUCH HOMESICKNESS IN SWISS MERCENARIES IN THE WARS OF THE LATE 1700's THEY DIED!"
"That list of facts is even more confusing than the fact you knew the movement offhand."
"I mean, are YOU ever going to forget it now that you know that shit?"
"...I guess not."
Whew, thank you, voices in my head, for that surprisingly well-researched diversion about classical music and animation, Anyway, that last sentence, before the music-based madness, wasn’t fully accurate: I’m fine not having a plan. And my life is only…let’s say “rattling a little on the tight curves”, because I know nothing about cars, so using them as a metaphor is definitely a good idea. It’s when I don’t have an IDEA of what I should be doing, that I get rather anxious rather quickly. And luckily, most of the time, even my freak-outs are useful, because they buy my brain some time to think, while serving as a stress-relief valve. I saw the dentist about my tooth yesterday, and have a timeline for repair. As I freaked out, writing the second paragraph of this post, I also determined and decided that I could use June 4th’s post to honor my father and reflect on what he’s meant in my life, as it will be exactly one month since his passing. Due to the insurance stuff, I can’t see my new doctor about the medical concerns for a bit, but they have potential explanations that are completely innocuous. (For instance, the worrying aches and pains tend to precede belches, so it’s possible that the stress and my erratic eating habits are just causing me digestive grief)
So. If I didn’t intend to tell you all that, why did I? Well, two reasons: first, I felt you deserved to know. If my quality of work is potentially compromised, better to mention it beforehand. Second, for context. See, one of the reasons I didn’t really have any ideas for this post is because, since last Friday or so, I’ve played 24 hours of the new Conan videogame, and I wanted you to all understand why the idea of playing a skilled, vital, and fearless barbarian would be a really useful bit of escapism for me at the moment.
Even in a world of acid-spitting slug-beasts, dragons, and terrible tentacle mouthed 10-foot TALL wasps, I somehow still ended up cooking,
But, that doesn’t mean this post is going to be all pity-party. Hell no. The very idea of that makes my skin crawl. No, we’re still here to talk about cooking techniques. Specifically, we’re going to discuss Velveting, and some related techniques you may or may not know about, and what they do for your food. So let’s leave Jon’s chaos behind, and dive into some scientifically saucy food coatings.
A New Religion, that Will Bring you to Your Knees. Black Velvet, if You Please
So, on Monday I (perhaps ungenerously) noted that dusting your beef in cornstarch isn’t technically “velveting”. So, what the hell is velveting, and what does it do?
“Velveting” is a Chinese stiry-fry technique. Now, interestingly, I can find TONS of people explaining this, but of the nine sources I checked, NONE of them gave the Chinese name for the method, so for all I know, this could be the single most elaborate food-naming prank I’ve ever encountered. Wait, no, here it is. Kind of. We’ll come back to it. Anyway, the process is…simple enough. You mix cornstarch, an acidic liquid, salt, and sometimes egg whites and spices, and you toss your raw meat in it for a little while (anywhere from 5-30 minutes) before “passing through oil”, or “jau yau”. That’s the only Chinese phrase I could find attached to this, so it’s the only part that definitely has a name. What the heck does said name mean? It means blanching the meat. You fry the meat in the mixture for like, a minute, then take it out, dump out the oil, and start the actual stir-fry.
Fry waits for no man.
Why the heck would you do all this? The answer is in the English name: “velveting” meat makes it super tender and smooth; it makes sauce cling to the meat in a more appealing way; and It’s the reason you can’t make great Chinese take-out at home. (Other than the etymological impossibility of creating “Take-Out” while eating in.)
So how does it work? That’s… a little complicated for me to explain, because there’s one part of the process that confuses me. See, the egg white adds alkalinity to the meat, which inhibits protein bonding, which just means the meat tightens up less as it cooks. Meat tightening less means it keeps more moisture, and the grain stays wider, meaning it’s easier to bite through. The cornstarch provides an external barrier for the heat to affect first, and interacts with whatever sauce the meat is tossed in to create “cling”. The thing that doesn’t quite make sense is that the recipe almost always calls for rice wine or rice wine vinegar, which I presume helps tenderize the meat, because they’re acidic compounds, which SHOULD then counteract the alkalinity benefits from the egg whites. So…I don’t know. I get how every component works, but not how they work together.
Anyway, interestingly, velveting/passing through oil works on a sort of scale, depending on how dedicated you are. The most involved process (making the mixture, blanching the meat, etc) produces the best meat. Then, if you cut a couple corners, you’ll get great meat. (Replace the egg white with a touch of baking soda, which is alkaline as well, and you don’t have to blanch the meat any more) And if you just toss the meat in cornstarch before frying it, you’ll get good meat.
Better than if you just cooked it, but not "blow your mind" great.
That’s why I said my statement was “perhaps ungenerous” earlier. Technically, tossing your meat in cornstarch is a type of velveting. Just in the sense that Coke Zero is technically a valid option to hand someone who asked for a Coke. Sure, your form has its own benefits, but to anyone who actually knows what they’re asking for, you’re kind of short-changing them.
So now you know. But, since that’s a relatively niche conversation, and because we’re still a little under word count for the day despite me spending over 400 words rambling about my problems, (What? I still have some professional standards.) let’s also discuss another kind of powder-coating for foods, that’s a little more popular: dredging!
The Dredge of Society
Dredging, in case you’re unaware, is the technical cooking term for coating wet foods in dry material. And it’s quite possible you’re unaware, as it’s a term I’ve encountered a fair bit of confusion about. When I first mentioned I was dredging chicken to friends, almost none of them had ever heard the term before. The Wikipedia entry for dredging as a cooking term is only 148 words, counting a list of its benefits that is woefully imprecise. But, yes, when you toss your chicken breasts in flour before frying them, when you bread chicken parmesan, any time you take wet meat, vegetables, or fruit, and cover them in something dry (flour, bread crumbs, everything bagel seasoning) you’re “dredging” it. If you then coat the dry exterior in ANOTHER wet layer, followed by another dry layer, that’s also called ‘dredging’, though some people refer to it as “double dredging.”
I'm sorry, I misheard you.
And just so we’re clear, that paragraph was 149 words, meaning it surpassed Wikipedia’s entire summation of the technique.
Why do we do this? Well, the answer varies based on the application. A lot of people think it’s to help lock-in juices. And maybe in SOME cases this is true, but it’s not true for the most common ones. That’s just a persistent myth, like the idea that searing steak seals in juices. It doesn’t. It creates a stronger contrast between the exterior and interior, making you BELIEVE it’s juicier.
Dredging actually does the same thing for things like chicken and pork. If you toss a chicken breast in flour before frying it, there’s likely 3 reasons you’re doing it, depending on the recipe. 1, as noted, is that it creates the illusion of juicier chicken. The second reason is appearance: flour browns faster than protein, so a piece of chicken coated in flour is going to LOOK more golden-brown and delicious faster than an uncoated one. And lastly: pan juices. Coating your protein in flour before you cook it leaves some of that flour in the pan, which means you’ve already started the elements of a roux if you intend to turn the pan juices into a sauce. You’ll see this facet most in Italian or French cooking.
Chicken piccata, for instance, uses it for all three.
The “Double dredge” technique (coating in dry, then wet, then dry) is a very common practice for deep-frying foods, and general breading, and it serves to create a moisture barrier, allowing the coating to remain crisp and brown during frying, while the interior remains moist and soft.
Technically, you dredge a lot of desserts as well. Rolling various doughs in sugar or spices before baking is a form of dredging. This form is typically used for either presentation/texture purposes, such as with a snickerdoodle’s cinnamon sugar coating letting you better see the cinnamon used in the recipe, or with ginger-molasses cookies’ sugar coating helps the dough dry and fissure during baking, creating more crunchy surface area, and more interesting visual form.
Which is why I spend so much time ogling cookies at the mall.
And that’s the way the cookie crumbles, as God said during a brief phase as Jim Carrey. The secrets to velveting and dredging, along with a brief nervous textual breakdown from your host. I, uh, don’t know how to wrap this up. I was never good at conclusions. See you Monday, I guess?
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MONDAY: MASH-UP MAY CONTINUES, WITH MUSUBI JAMBALAYA, A DISH THAT IS… CERTAINLY SOMETHING.
THURSDAY: I THINK IT’S TIME TO REVIEW SOMETHING. WHAT WILL IT BE? WHO KNOWS. I SURE AS HELL DON’T.