February 20, 2006

Dear Cooks Illustrated

by psu

I was interested to read the article titled Perfect Pot Stickers in your most recent issue. The beginning of the article, which described the pleasures of the perfect Chinese Dumpling put into words exactly why I have spent a large part of my adulthood trying to reproduce what I used to eat as a child.

I was disappointed to find that the recipe that followed this glowing description included a chart outlining which pre-fab frozen skins were best. Let me elaborate. If you have a Chinese store in your area that will sell you decent frozen dumpling skins, that same store, in the same freezer case, will have bags and bags filled with metric tons of frozen pre-fab... wait for it...Chinese dumplings!

Your recipe, which suggests making the filling and hand-filling the dumplings is basically telling your poor readers to do fully 2/3rds of the total work needed to create a tray of yummy hand-made pot stickers. But then they get none of the real benefit, because after telling them to do all this work, you then tell them to basically chuck it all and stuff their hard-won bounty into frozen skins.

If you want easy pot stickers, I have a better suggestion: just buy the frozen ones. They are zero work, and trust me when I say that you can find some that are good enough for you. My parents, who always ate the hand made ones (fully hand made), even eat the frozen ones now. They are even cheap. Buy five pounds and go nuts.

But, if you want perfect pot stickers (your magazine was unclear, on the cover it said "easy" and on the inside it said "perfect"), then read on. I have a few tips.

The key combination of factors that make for a good pot sticker are the texture of the dough and the taste and texture of the filling. The dough should be thin but substantial and just a bit chewy, but not doughy. Most of the frozen dumplings that you can buy come pretty close to this standard, but none are really as good as hand-rolled dough.

Making the dough from scratch is really not that much harder than using the frozen. It certainly is not an all-day affair once you have some practice. The dough is just flour and water, not too hard, not too soft. You divide this up and roll out each skin with a small pin. Think of it as a few dozen small pie crusts.

The second part of the picture, the filling, should be meaty, but not dense, and it should have a variety of textures and flavors in each bite. When my mom made pot stickers growing up, she would use about a pound of meat to make 50 to 60 dumplings.

Therefore, I'd suggest that using 3/4 of a pound of meat for 24 pot stickers might account for why you found your fillings to be too dense and meaty. I also noticed that you use a pretty small amount of ginger in your recipe. One and a half teaspoons is barely visible at all, and certainly will not have much impact on the flavor. I would suggest increasing the amount to three or four tablespoons for a little extra kick. A bit of sesame oil in the filling also helps the filling from becoming too bland.

Generally, you don't need eggs in your filling if you handle the cabbage correctly. The key to making the meat lighter is to not only squeeze the liquid out of the cabbage (as you figured out, good job!) but also to put some of that liquid back into the filling itself to loosen it up a bit.

The ideal filling will have the texture of a light meatball, but with the crunch of the cabbage and scallion. In addition, the soy, scallion, sesame and ginger should mix all around in your mouth, making a dipping sauce that is any more complicated than a bit of soy and vinegar almost redundant. Still, I like hot sauce to dip them in.

One more tip: put a tiny bit of vinegar in the steaming liquid when cooking the pot stickers. It makes them nice.

Finally, the real chinese dumplings are the boiled ones. Ask anyone, the boiled ones are better.

I hope you will take my suggestions into consideration and perhaps amend your article. I have the raw material for a recipe that is pretty close to what my mom does elsewhere on this web site. Feel free to take a look.

Maybe next time you work up a piece like this, instead of all that exhausting testing you could just call up my mom and she can show you how it is done.

Posted by psu at February 20, 2006 10:44 PM | Bookmark This

we've had good results before by refrigerating the filling overnight after mixing it. In the morning, dump out the pooled blood/Napa juice and get folding. (I also find the texture easier to work with when it's colder, but that alone wouldn't be enough to get me to 'fridge the stuff.)

I do agree though, with a little experience you can throw the meat and Napa together and be folding dumplings right away.

for other readers: another handy tip is to boil with plenty of water (similar to pasta, you want the water to reboil almost immediately after adding the food; if it sits around too long it gets mushy). Also, freezing your own dumplings is sacreligious because 1. it cools the boiling water way too much, and 2. the peels blister and crack.

Posted by Weiguo at February 20, 2006 11:47 PM

I agree completely with the need to make everything from scratch. For example, the major automobile manufactuers are providing "internal combustion" vehicles when there are plenty of perfectly good ways to make batteries charge from wind farms. This kind of thing only supports the terrorists, regardless of what Dilbert says about fungibility.

Posted by H. Stan Fordyce at February 21, 2006 03:59 PM

Apparently you forgot to take your mental stability pills this morning.

All I said was that if you wanted *perfect* dumplings, you should make the dough by hand. Otherwise, feel free to buy the frozen stuff. Be my guest. I have no objection. IT IS FINE WITH ME.

Don't fool yourself into thinking that the recipe in COOKS will be any better though.

Posted by psu at February 21, 2006 06:51 PM

I'm not being sarcastic or facetious, I agree: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Cooking, clothes, cars, politics. Maybe not movies. Most of the home-made movies I've seen just don't have that studio gloss.

Posted by H. Stan Fordyce at February 22, 2006 05:37 AM

Since I've been on a pot sticker craze the last couple of weeks.. thought I'd share how I make the frozen ones:

Coat your pan w/olive oil and get it HOT! When it just starts to sizzle.. add the frozen pot stickers and let them sear for a minute or two.

Add a little over a cup of hot, hot water and cover immediately. Turn down the heat to medium-high and let it go.

Now here's the simple secret.. just keep letting them cook till it actually burns the bottoms. Let the little suckers burn until they're nice and crispy!

Remove the pan from the heat and add about 1/2 the packet of dipping sauce and ~3tbsp of fresh crushed chili paste. Swirl the pan around until the pot stickers are well coated.. they should soak up everything rather quickly.

There you have it.. fast, easy and delicious.

Posted by objbuilder at February 22, 2006 08:58 PM

Dilbert was spot on. Besides, how many times have you seen a comic use the word "fungibility"?

I prefer dumplings at either extreme, either more toward the pierogi end. Check out Ukranian Ortho churches in the Bottoms for handmade ones. Thick doughy filled with starch and fried with butter, and onions, and maybe cabbage. It must be a genetic predilition. Or toward the gyoza end, super thin bright, gingery, and crispy. Especially if you can get them to all stick together in a line when you fry them.

Check out the food porn:

As for Cook's Illustrated. Salt. Grain. Double it.

I started watching their weekly PBS TV Show America's Test Kitchen. Some good ideas. Some stuff completely out in left field.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at February 27, 2006 06:37 PM

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