It’s All About The Chew: Sichuan Dry-Fried Beef

And you thought I had abandoned Chinese cookery, didn’t you?

Ha! Nothing of the sort. Just because I have started doing research on recipes from along the Silk Road for work, doesn’t mean I am going to permanently turn my back on my greatest culinary love. No–I just have to multi-task!

Morganna, who has been home from school because she was trying to pass kidney stones, (she’s fine now and is well enough to go back to school tomorrow) gave me the puppy-dog eyes and asked in a sweet, pleading tone of voice for “something stir-fried for dinner.”

How can I refuse my long-suffering child anything when asked so plaintively?

So, I asked her what, and she proposed beef, and so my imagination went from there.

I had no gai lan, so that wasn’t an option. Zak doesn’t care much for broccoli, so that was out.

Then, I thought back to Chinese dishes I haven’t eaten in a while, and my mind instantly settled on Sichuan dry fried beef.

I used to order it years and years ago at China Garden, before I even worked there. Consisting of thin strips or shreds of beef cooked to a fascinating chewy texture that was filled with strong meaty flavor in a tangy brown sauce with lots of chilies, the dish had always been a favorite of mine. It was like e ating juicy beef jerky, if you can wrap that concept around your head. It was chewy, but not dried out, and it had a very concentrated beefy flavor that was very compelling–almost like it was the essence of beef packed into little thin meat shreds. I always wondered how he got the beef to be so wonderful, and for years, he wouldn’t tell me.

Finally, he told me, and even when I found out that Huy got that interesting texture by essentially deep-frying the beef, I still loved it He’d deep fry the beef, then toss it into a wok with shreds of celery, carrots and scallions, and slivers of ginger, before building the sauce from Sichuan chili bean sauce, Shao Hsing wine and a smidge of salt.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the deep frying of the beef was done to emulate the traditional Sichuan cooking method of dry frying where a food item is cooked for a long time with a moderate amount of oil in a very hot wok. This process cooks most of the water out of the beef, and gives it not only the characteristic chewy quality, but also concentrates the flavor of the meat. Restaurants don’t do this because it is simply faster and more expedient to deep fry uncoated, unbattered food for a few minutes, then toss it in a wok with some seasonings than it is to stand over a wok and tend it for long, slow cooking.

I think that the texture and flavor of truly dry fried foods are superior, plus they don’t have as much excess oil on them. They are lighter and much better tasting, and certainly healthier than the dishes you get in most Chinese restaurants.

In a post written a while back, I have already covered the traditional dish of dry fried string beans (and a vegan version)–in this post, I will show you not only how to use the same method to cook beef–and then, as you see from my recipe, I combined the two ingredients to make a great contrast in flavors and textures.

The first step to a successful foray into dry-frying beef is to choose a proper cut of beef. Flank steak, trimmed of all excess fat is quite good for the purpose, as is the top round that I used. You want a cut of beef that can withstand this type of cooking, which is on high heat for a relatively long amount of time, without turning into shoe leather.

The second step to making your dry fried beef delicious is learning how to cut it up properly into even, thin shreds of meat.

As you can see, I took my top loin, which had been cut and sold as “London Broil,” and cut the slab of meat along the grain diagonally into 1/4″ thick slices. In order to get even slices, I always leave my meat partially frozen and use my sharpest knife, honed with the steel just before setting down to work.

Then, I stacked two slices together, and turning my knife on the opposite diagonal, though not at as an acute angle as before, and cut thin strips out of the stacked slices across the grain. If I cut everything completely with the grain, the long muscle fibers would all contract evenly when they cooked, causing the meat to stiffen and toughen up. If I cut across the grain, the muscle fibers are interrupted, and thus cannot toughen as easily.

Cutting shreds like this takes a little bit of practice, but once it is learned, it is a simple way to get evenly shaped and sized pieces appropriate for stir frying or dry frying.

Then, after the meat is cut, it is not marinated, which goes against most conventional wisdom when it comes to cooking meat in a wok. However, the point of dry frying is to remove the water from the food, so if that is the goal, why put extra liquid into it?

Then, after all the other ingredients are prepared and ready, the wok is preheated until it smokes and about a third of a cup of peanut or canola oil is added to it. When it is very hot, the beef shreds are added, and cooked, stirring constantly.

What will happen quite soon is that the liquid in the wok will increase and become cloudy, and then great gouts of steam will billow forth from the wok, right into your face. Persevere and keep stirring. What is happening, as you can see in the photo, is that the water is being forced out of the tissues of the meat. It clouds the oil by creating a temporary emulsion or mixture of water and oil, and as it boils out, it evaporates into steam. Keep stirring, and cooking and stirring. If you have a very high gas flame under your wok, tiny droplets of oil may splatter with the steam and be ignited–be prepared for that and don’t get burned! (Unfortunately, since I was cooking and taking photos at the same time, every time there were flames, I couldn’t snap a photo fast enough!)

Keep stirring until the liquid begins to clear again. At this point, the meat will, instead of gently burbling and hissing with steam, begin to actually sizzle as it begins to be cooked completely by contact with the hot oil and wok, and not by being boiled in its own juices. The liquid clears because the water has boiled away, leaving only the oil, and tiny particulate matter from the meat which browns in the oil, flavoring it deeply of beef.

At this point the formerly grey and unappealing beef will undergo a transformation, as it becomes browned and chewy.

Once the meat is chewy and somewhat crispy, I removed it from the beefy oil, and drained it on paper towels. Then, I threw in the string beans, and cooked them in the same manner until they were done.

Then, I put the meat back into the wok with the now very deeply browned and fragrant oil, and added chile bean paste, Shao Hsing wine, soy sauce and salt, along with aromatics (ginger, scallion, garlic and fresh chilies) and two other vegetables–shredded carrots and sweet red pepper. I finished it by sprinkling it all with roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns, just before giving the contents of the wok a few more turns and then scraping it out on a platter.

It was delicious. The beef was just as chewy and flavorful as I could want, without being drowned in oil, and the string beans were quite velvety with a deep flavor from their long cooking in the beef-flavored oil. The other vegetables were crisp from just a quick stir fry in the wok, and the sauce was delightful–savory and spicy, with the aromas of ginger, garlic and scallion throughout and the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns like a biting grace note at the end.

I must admit that this is a rather demanding recipe–standing for twenty minutes over a hot wok, stirring beef and then green beans over hot oil that bursts into flame now and again is not for the faint-hearted or impatient cook. As such, I would categorize this as a recipe to be made only for special occasions.

But for those special meals, this dish is sure to impress guests who will wonder how it was you got the beef and string beans to have such unusual textures, and such deep flavors.

You can tell them, or let it be your secret.

Sichuan Dry Fried Beef


1 pound piece top round 1″ thick
1/3 cup peanut or canola oil
2/3 pound green beans, stringed and cut diagonally into 2″ pieces
1/4 cup Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste
pinch salt
2 scallions, cut into thin shreds
2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin slices, then cut into thin shreds
4 garlic cloves, cut into thin slices, then stacked and cut into thin shreds
2 fresh chili peppers, cut into thin diagonal slices
2 carrots peeled, then sliced thinly on the diagonal, then into thin shreds
1/2 small red bell pepper, cut into thin shreds
1 tablespoon light or dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns


Trim all visible fat and gristle from the beef, then slice as described above into slices diagonally with the grain that are 1/4″ thick. Then, stacking two slices together, cut diagonally again, this time, against the grain, slices 1/4″ wide. This will result in shreds of beef which are about 1 1/2″ long and 1/4″ thick and wide. Set aside and finish all other prep.

When you are ready to begin cooking, set up a plate with several layers of paper towels on top of it, and a serving platter.

Heat wok over high heat until it smokes. Add oil and heat until it is hot–about a minute–then add the beef all at once. Cook, stirring, for about ten minutes, or until the oil becomes clear again, and the meat sizzles, browns and becomes crispy-chewy in texture. Watch out for flare ups from droplets of oil igniting.

Remove beef and set on the paper-towel covered plate.

Add green beans to wok and cook, stirring, until they are wrinkled and browned or blackened in spots. At this point, add beef back to the wok, and stir to combine. Drizzle wine carefully around outer edge of wok, and stir. The wine may catch fire–which is okay so long as you are prepared for it and stay otu of the way of the flames. Keep your vent hood running, and turn off your smoke alarm, and as you should do whenever you cook–have a fire extinguisher at the ready. (Just keep your cool, and everything will be fine.)

Add chili bean sauce, salt, the scallions, ginger, garlic and chili, and stir to combine well. Stir fry, tossing the food vigorously inside the wok. Add the carrots and bell peppers and stir fry about another minute longer. Add soy sauce, stir to combine, and stir fry for another thirty seconds to a minute.

Sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorns evenly over the food in the wok and give it a few more turns before scraping it into a serving platter.

Serve immediately with plenty of steamed rice–this dish is intensely fiery and flavorful–and well worth the trouble of cooking it.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Hey Barbara, it looks awesome, just perfect to tingle the hot taste buds. I sometimes have a strong urge to eat something really hot, so much so it burns my lips & tongue for a long time!! This looks perfect

    Comment by Shella — November 30, 2007 #

  2. Seems perfect Barbara. Lovely, sure to try.

    Comment by Rina — November 30, 2007 #

  3. this looks sooooo good!!!!!
    Maybe you can help me out with something…? I want to order all of my food online from now on because of various reasons, but I don’t know where to go for quality food. I have tried 2 companies so far, Fresh Dining, and and Celebrity Foods, but I wanna get others I can try out. Do you know of any? The main thing I’ve ordered so far is steak. I guess you can say, I’m a steak junkie. LOL!!! From what I have found out (from what I have ordered so far) I think I am able to regulate the quality of beef I buy. I hate going to a store and getting that crappy slab of beef that I have to cut down until there is like nothing left. Hahaha!!!! (its so true though) Anyhow, sorry that I made this comment so long. If you can help me out or point me in a direction where I might find more quality foods online, I would greatly appreciate it. Have a good day or night! (depending on when you read this) LOL!!!!

    Comment by leosatter — December 3, 2007 #

  4. Barbara, I made this recipe last night. IT WAS AMAZING! Thanks for all the recipes. I’ve really taken to chinese cooking thanks to your blog.

    Comment by Kyle — December 3, 2007 #

  5. Barbara, you are divine.

    There is a Sichuan restaurant near where I live that has introduced me to a world of Chinese cuisine that I never knew existed. (What, Chinese people eat bread? Yes, they do!)

    My favorite dish on the menu was a dish they called “crispy beef” and it seems very similar to that which the recipe you’ve provided will produce. Like you, I ate the crispy beef and wondered how that delectable, crunchy-chewy texture was achieved. I guessed (apparently correctly!) that the meat was deep fried without batter. They also serve “crispy chicken” which seems to be prepared the same way, but I prefer the beef for this cooking method.

    You’ve now convinced me that I want a wok. I have a restaurant natural gas burner that on my back porch set next to my ceramic charcoal oven, and I think it would look dandy with a steaming wok set atop its massive flame. My question to you: which wok do you recommend? You might have posted that info in another post, in which case you may simply point me there.

    Comment by Jim — December 4, 2007 #

  6. Nevermind Barbara, I just found the post. Thank you!

    Comment by Jim — December 4, 2007 #

  7. this make me want to start cook’N! LOL!
    Maybe you can help me out with something…? I want to order all of my food online from now on because of various reasons, but I don’t know where to go for quality food. I have tried 2 companies so far, Fresh Dining, and and Celebrity Foods, but I wanna get others I can try out. Do you know of any? The main thing I’ve ordered so far is steak. I guess you can say, I’m a steak junkie. LOL!!! From what I have found out (from what I have ordered so far) I think I am able to regulate the quality of beef I buy. I hate going to a store and getting that crappy slab of beef that I have to cut down until there is like nothing left. Hahaha!!!! (its so true though) Anyhow, sorry that I made this comment so long. If you can help me out or point me in a direction where I might find more quality foods online, I would greatly appreciate it. Have a good day or night! (depending on when you read this) LOL!!!!

    Comment by leosatter — December 5, 2007 #

  8. Leosatter–you left this same exact comment on an earlier post and I answered you. There is no need to keep asking the same question over and over–personally, I don’t know if I can help you, because I don’t know what it is you exactly want to order. I don’t really do a lot of food shopping online, so I am not of much use–I buy most of my foods locally and fresh, and those ingredients I don’t buy fresh or local tend to be pretty esoteric, not like anything I suspect you want.

    But anyway, if you want my help–go read my other reply where i ask you to clarify your question. But, really, I don’t think I can be of much help.

    Comment by Barbara — December 5, 2007 #

  9. Barbara- wonderful description of the cooking prcoess! when are you going to write a cookbook???


    Comment by steamy kitchen — December 6, 2007 #

  10. Jaden–I think I am going to have to do it. Folks keep asking and well, I think I have enough experience with writing, and enough of an audience I can probably successfully put together a book proposal in the coming year.

    Comment by Barbara — December 7, 2007 #

  11. I prepared slices of buffalo flank steak using these directions over the weekend, but I may have cooked the meat for too long. After about 15mins, I ended up past the chewy state and the meat was just crispy! I wonder if that could be a result of the nature of the buffalo, since it generally has less fat than beef. Texture aside, it sure did turn into a tasty dish, and hubby is still raving about it 3 days later.
    After removing the meat, I poured out some of the excess oil and stir fried shallots and garlic for a minute before adding thin slices of carrot and celery. Then I created a pan sauce using shao hsing, soy, black bean paste (couldn’t fine my jar of chili ground bean), srirachi, hoisen, a 1/4 tsp of ground ginger (since I discovered at the last minute I didn’t have any fresh ginger in the house) and a tbl of arrowroot powder shaken with vegetable stock. I added the meat back in while the sauce was reducing hoping to rehydrate it a bit, but I don’t think that made a difference. However, the sauce turned out think and luscious and went fabulously with the meat. It was so flavor-packed that I ended up losing the flavor of the vegetables, though the contrasting crunch was still lovely.

    Comment by De in D.C. — January 8, 2008 #

  12. You are right, De–bison or buffalo meat is way too lean to be cooked this way. Or at least, if you do dry fry, don’t cook it as long as you would beef.

    I am glad that the dish turned out well, anyway–there are several recipes from China where meat is cooked crispy like that, and then sauced as you did, so it is perfectly well authentic.

    I bet it tasted fantastic.

    Comment by Barbara — January 8, 2008 #

  13. Having gone to the Chinese grocery and completed my Chinese pantry (excepting XO sauce and fermented black beans, which I could not find), I am ready to attempt this recipe tonight. I’m excited!

    Comment by Jim — March 16, 2008 #

  14. I made this recipe last night and three of us at it along with a salad with a dressing made of sesame oil, Chinese rice vinegar, and the Chinese trinity.

    I must admit that I was hoping to replicate the “crispy beef” recipe at the Sichuan restaurant near my house. I was sad to discover that the texture was not the same, and, in fact, less preferable. The beef in the dish at the restaurant (I think that meat is deep-fried) is crispy on the outside and chewy in the center. The beef in the dish I made last night was, as foretold by Barbara, closer to the texture of beef jerky. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I love the beef jerky that my mother-in-law makes in New Mexico, where it’s dry enough to make beef jerky in any room of the house. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. My jaw got kind of tired of the chewing as I was nearing the end of the plate.

    The flavor of the dish was spot-on except for one complaint: I wanted it to be sweeter, and the recipe as-is is in no way swee. Since we are presently eating low-carb, I used light soy sauce (and we had no rice, either), but I’m thinking that if I make this dish again (and I’m not low-carbing), then I might opt for dark soy sauce, thick soy sauce, or opt for adding some brown sugar to the recipe.

    The beans were delicious, as was everything else in the dish, but they and everything else got a little lost in the chew-chew-chew of the beef. That’s unfortunate.

    Making this dish was very tiresome on my hand and arm. I think I will wear a wrist brace the next time I try and make something so physically demanding.

    One more word about Sichuan peppercorns. I am aware that the flavor and heat resides in the pericarp, not in the seed, so I meticulously picked out seeds and stems from my little box of Sichuan peppercorns. This was a pain. Is it necessary, or should I next time choose to just toast and grind the whole lot?

    Comment by Jim — March 17, 2008 #

  15. Jim, in order to replicate the crispy deep fried beef at home, you must deep fry the beef. You also have to make a batter of sorts that includes cornstarch to get the proper crispiness. I do like that texture, but I don’t think that the time, mess, effort and added oil are worth it. For that texture, the one or two times a year I want it, I go out.

    You are noticing that few of my recipes are particularly sweet. That is because I am generally using more traditional Chinese recipes and methods, where the food is not particularly sweet. Most Chinese American restaurant food is very sweet, and includes significant amounts of white or brown sugar, or sometimes honey, in the sauces. I don’t care for that sort of sweetness–in fact, I tend to really dislike that, so whenever you make any of my dishes, you might want to keep that in mind.

    As for the peppercorns, the only part of them I remove are any little thorny twigs attached to the pericarp or just floating around in the packet. Those do not grind well and I don’t want anyone to get a thorn caught in their throat!

    I just pick those out, then toast and grind the seeds and pericarps as needed.

    When you commented on the hot and sour soup recipe, I was surprised. No one else has ever had such a problem getting good flavor from that recipe. It must depend on how fresh the lemongrass and galangal you use are. Galangal, frozen or fresh, should be quite flavorful–but yes, it is rock hard. (I think I said that in the post!) I use a heavy meat cleaver to cut it. Frozen or fresh lemongrass works as well, but fresh is better, and the fresher it is the more flavorful it is.

    If you get either of them fresh and they are sort of dried out and the lemongrass is flaky and leathery, it doesn’t have much flavor. If the galangal is dried out or moldy or flaky and even more rock hard, with no moisture inside, it will have much less flavor.

    Comment by Barbara — March 17, 2008 #

  16. Barbara,

    Thanks for your responses. I will take into account your preference for non-sweetness in your dishes, particularly Chinese ones. I am sure that I, along with many Americans, have been conditioned by American Chinese food, which I don’t see as a necessarily bad thing. I’ll certainly opt to make foods a bit sweeter on account of my eight year old, as I would much rather cook a dish that “the whole family” can enjoy rather than make separate dishes according to each individual’s tastes.

    Thanks for your suggestions about the Sichuan peppercorns. That will save me a lot of labor in the future.

    Yes, I was also surprised about the hot and sour soup recipe. Yes, you did comment that the galangal was difficult to cut, but the only piece of information which I had retained between reading the recipe and cooking it was that “galangal is a relative of ginger”. Sometimes things have to be stressed for them to enter my brain, and I was particularly bummed that, after working so hard to cut the *#&@! galanagal that it added so little flavor after an hour of simmering. I was expecting a ripe, pungent broth, but, instead, it tasted like plain old chicken broth. If I had had more time, I would have simmered it longer, but, alas, I didn’t. Will others have the same experience as I did? That’s hard to tell. I like to think that I followed your instructions faithfully and competently, and I did use lemon grass and galangal which I purchased that day, but I’ve been known to moronify instructions from time to time. In any event, I think it’s helpful to forewarn people that simmering lemon grass and galangal for an hour might be insufficient for their own tastes and to schedule enough time in the event that such is the case.

    Again, great site, and I hope that my making your recipes is a compliment to you.

    Comment by Jim — April 20, 2008 #

  17. I made this with beef last week, and substituted seitan today for my vegetarian girlfriend, and it is delicious. The seitan cooked a bit faster, but otherwise worked just fine. To my taste, it ended up a bit salty, so I’ll cut back on soy sauce next time, but other than that I wouldn’t change a thing.

    Comment by Jonathan — April 3, 2011 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.