滷 (Lu)-Braising, Chinese Style
滷 (lu) is one of the traditional Chinese cooking techniques that has been existing over 2000 years in Chinese culinary history. “Lu” is to cook prepared ingredients by simmering in soy sauce-based liquid (the flavor of the liquid is pre-enhanced through cooking it with various spices. In my braised radish and tofu recipe you will find out how to prepare an aromatic cooking liquid.) It is an easy way to cook food and does not require complicated methods to achieve satisfying result.
Building the Flavor Profile
In addition to soy sauce, selective spices used in braising are the soul of a traditional Chinese lu liquid. The flavor of a traditional Chinese lu liquid can be tweaked through adding/ combining various spices. But the essential of the flavor profile of lu liquid comes from the combined aroma of star anis, Chinese cinnamon and Sichuan peppercorn along with fresh scallion, ginger and garlic cloves. TIPS: Adding 2-3 coriander roots (see my Secret Cooking Tip2) is a little secret to enrich the aroma of lu liquid that some Chinese chefs do in restaurants. If you’re in Taiwan, Hong Kong or China, you can probably find various selections of prepackaged spices in a convenient store or any supermarkets. But if you’re not living in Chinese speaking regions, you can also find small packaged lu spices in Asian supermarkets as pictures shown below. A traditional Five Spices (click for more introduction from my previous article on Condiment) can also serve as spices for lu liquid. But remember, always chose packaged spices over ground spices if you are to braise food!
HOW TO COOK:
So exactly how to “lu” food? Unlike braiser, or the French way for braise, Chinese braising do not require ingredients to be seared and browned before cook in liquid. But you need to be blanch or pre-cook your ingredients if you are braising meat or certain root vegetables. Vegetables or tender protein such as soy products, chicken can be blanched, but tougher cut e.g. beef shank will need to be cooked until tender prior to braise.
Step 1: Braise
Time required to braise will slightly vary depending on the texture (or different cut from meat), size of the ingredients, also how “well” you pre-cooked the ingredients. Roughly 15 minutes for soy products or vegetables, 15-30 minutes for poultry, 30-40 minutes for tougher cut such as beef shank. Keep lu liquid simmering in low heat (not higher than 80°C) can prevent fragile ingredients e.g. tofu, radish, or skin of chicken drumsticks to break. TIPS: You can test whether food is tender enough by piercing a pointed chopstick or a paring knife into your beef shank. If your chopstick penetrates without much resistance, meaning the texture already reaches the ideal tenderness, then turn off heat, the simmering process is done. At this point, the braised food can also be served right away when it is still hot.
Step 2: Soak
Here comes the key process of “lu”: leave cooked ingredients soaked in lu liquid until cooling off. Soaking allows your food to be infused and fully absorb the essence of the aromatic liquid, meanwhile better intermingles flavors of ingredients and spices. It is because when ingredients, for example radish, are being cooked, water contained inside of radish will be released due to heat and salt in lu liquid. During the process when radish chunks cool down, lu liquid will “refill” radish cells with aromatic juice, resulting a much richer, exquisite taste of radish.
To give a rough index of how much time to soak: beans, root vegetables, soy products (e.g. firm tofu, rehydrated tofu skin) soak for 20-30 minutes. Poultry 30-60 minutes, pork and beef 90-120 minutes. After soaking is down, remove and drain food from lu liquid, slice them if necessary and place on plate. Sprinkle some lu liquid, chopped scallions (optional) on top and serve.
Reuse Lu Liquid
The aromatic cooking liquid can be reused to braise next batch of ingredients. As a matter of fact, as long as you preserve it correctly, flavor of the cooking liquid only gets profounder the more you repeated braising food in it. Because when braised in lu liquid, the ingredients absorb the aroma of the liquid at the same time impart their flavors to lu liquid as well. After each subsequent simmer, the lu liquid turns into master stock. Many Chinese restaurants possess their own master stock as a secret recipe. That is why senior chefs in Cantonese restaurants (where lu technique is largely used to create various famous Cantonese cuisine, such as Lou mai) always remind the young ones to take good care of their precious master stock.
WHAT TO COOK:
You can braise a wide variety of ingredients: meat (usually less tender cuts, e.g. beef shank; but tenderer meat such as chicken drums are also preferable), vegetables (radish, carrots, winter melon, bitter squash etc. ), mushrooms (such as shitake or Pleurotus eryngii), various soybean products (fresh soy beans, tofu, bean curd etc.), fresh/rehydrated kelp, just to name a few. But remember the following principles before you start:
1, Do not choose lean meat (e.g. chicken breast, loin) because the texture will turn out to be dry after simmering. Instead, use cuts that rich in collagen (e.g. beef shank, chicken drumsticks) or fat (e.g. pork belly). During low heat simmering, the collagen will be cooked down to gelatin that smooths meat texture, thickens cooking liquid, adding layered flavors.
2. Your choice of meat will need to be prepared prior to braise. To braise beef shank, cook first until it is soft (you can pierce through a chopstick without much resistance). To braise tender meat such as chicken drumsticks or pork belly, blanch it first and rinse off the impurities then braise.
Good to Know:
- To develop your own master stock, strain (remove all the fresh spices e.g. scallion, ginger, garlic gloves, chili) and boil lu liquid each time after use. Cool it down quickly then refrigerates it to reduce chances for microbes to grow. If you will not reuse it anytime soon, freeze it in freezer for long-term storage. It is feasible a master stock to be kept for decades if it is being taken good care of, and the award is complex, exquisite tastes of your dish but no body can completely figure out the spices/ingredients that build the flavor profile.
- To reuse lu liquid, add in new spices, soy sauce, cooking wine and rock sugar. Detail information on ingredients please read Braised Edamame.