Chicken can dry out in a snap. A few methods, like brining, marinating, and cooking over low heat can help, but there’s another technique that you should take advantage of. For a juicy, tender slice of chicken, bring on the velvet.
Velveting is a Chinese technique that helps smaller cuts of meat retain moisture during high-heat cooking. Even though you may not have prepared chicken this way at home, you’ve probably eaten velveted chicken at your favourite Chinese restaurant. Velveting is a straightforward technique that involves coating the meat pieces with a cornstarch marinade, typically a slurry of cornstarch and a flavorful liquid like soy sauce, oyster sauce, or a combination of sauces. The meat is then pre-cooked, quickly and gently. This moment of par-cooking allows the coating of starch to absorb moisture from the poaching liquid and the meat’s juices, forming a soft — some might say “velvety” — layer. The starches gelatinize and encase the meat, effectively protecting it from the next cooking, which is probably over the scorching high heat of a wok. The chicken stays tender and moist despite the smoky singe of wok hei.
This method should be used for small pieces of meat that you plan on cooking aggressively. Slice the meat you’ll be velveting into thin slices, against the grain. Put the slices into a bowl and add a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, or other marinade you’d like to flavour the meat with. Let the marinade do its work for 10 minutes or so. Sprinkle on a couple teaspoons of cornstarch. You want to add enough starch so it thinly coats the meat in the visibly cloudy slurry, so dust on a little more if necessary.
Massage this mixture into the slices until the cornstarch has dissolved and all of the pieces are thoroughly coated. Do the first cook in boiling water or a thin layer of oil over high heat. Par-cook the meat until it just turns opaque, but do not fully cook it. This will only take about 30 seconds. The goal is to gelatinize the starches. If you cook it thoroughly now, the second cook will result in a tough piece of meat no matter how much velvet you dress it in. For a solid, simple velvet chicken recipe try this one. Set the partially cooked meat aside until you’re ready to toss it in with the rest of your stir fry. After you try this method, you’ll want to velvet everything. Luckily, you can velvet more than chicken. Try thinly sliced strips of beef, pork, or even shrimp.