Deep fried velveted seafood: shrimp, scallops and calamari
I’ve spent the last month testing out a Chinese marination method called velveting, which has become a hot trend in the Internet cooking forums in the last year. Velveting is marinating small pieces of meat in a mixture of cornstarch, egg whites, salt, and sometimes soy sauce or oil. After marinating, the meat is briefly blanched in hot oil or water before being finished in the stir-fry process. It’s primarily used on chicken, beef and pork. If you’ve ever eaten takeout Sweet and Sour Pork, Kung Pao Chicken or Beef and Broccoli, you’ve probably experienced the magic of velveting. The tenderness, flavor and silky texture of flash fried meat in those dishes is perfect.
Velveting vs. vulcanizing
I watched YouTube videos and read lots of velveting articles and recipes to get a fix on the method. But, as a graduate of Dee Snyder’s Twisted Sister Cooking School, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would this technique do for the delicate textures and flavors of deep fried seafood? Was velveting the way to stop rubberizing calamari, shrimp and scallops? After all, isn’t stir-frying just deep frying’s shallow cousin?
Velveting is the opposite of ceviche?
Unlike Alton Brown and America’s Test Kitchen, I don’t have a team of food scientists on speed dial. I have to rely on my own knowledge, common sense, testing, the Internet and my lousy research assistant, ChatGPT. I kept thinking back to ceviche, which uses acidic lime or lemon juice to “cook” the shrimp. It’s not actually cooking the crustacean, the acid is denaturing the protein fibers and killing bacteria, making it safe to eat without any applied heat (sorta like pickling). Velveting is supposed to be an alkaline process that raises the pH level of the seafood. This higher pH alters the protein structure in the seafood, causing the protein fibers to unwind and become more open. This loosening of proteins make the seafood more tender by breaking down some of the connective tissues in the muscle fibers. Milk, being one of the most common marinades for deep fried seafood, is slightly acidic (about 6.5 pH) and is a no-go for velveting.
My lousy research assistant, Chat GPT, kept telling me that egg whites weren’t alkaline but almost a neutral pH. Huh? That sounded wrong, so I checked with the American Egg Board, which states “egg white is one of the few food products that is naturally alkaline, with an initial pH value that can be as low as 7.6 at time of lay, but with increasing alkalinity as the egg ages, and can reach pH of 9.2.” When I threw that info back at Chat/GPT, it gave me the AI equivalent of a shrug. I tested the egg whites I had on hand with my pH meter and got a reading of 8.66. Bingo!
My final marinade soak for velveting ended up being quite simple: egg whites for the alkalinity, salt for the brining effect, and a bit of corn starch for adhesion to the seafood. I tried using a bit of baking soda to increase the alkalinity, but it left the shrimp and scallops with a soapy taste. Here’s the final recipe:
Mix together 1/2 cup egg whites, 1 tsp salt and 2 tsp corn starch. This can be doubled or tripled according to the amount of seafood you are prepping.
Add the scallops, shrimp or calamari and stir together to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 8 hours.
The drudgery of dredgery
Okay, now I had a velvet marinade which I was pretty sure would keep the seafood loosey goosey in a deep fryer, but if I didn’t have a crunchy batter that would brown up like a HoJo’s clam platter in about 60 seconds, no sense in doing this.
Which meant no liquid batter. Taking a batter from from wet to crunchy would take longer in the fryer, which would rubberize and dry out the seafood. Talk about a balancing act. So it would have to be a dry dredge flour mix. Initial tests on a mix of flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt were only lightly golden, like tempura (not my favorite; too pale).
I landed on a restaurant trade secret: pancake mix. I had Krusteaz Light and Fluffy Buttermilk Pancake mix on hand here at the house. It has flour, sugar (for browning), food starch (for more browning), baking soda (for crunch), buttermilk powder (for tang and browning) and powdered egg whites. After a few tests, I came up with this:
2 cups Buttermilk Pancake Mix
1 tsp salt
1/2 ground black pepper
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 Tbsp seasoning powder (Old Bay, Ranch powder, Cajun seasoning, etc)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a wide container. Take the seafood pieces out of the marinade and drop them into the dredging mix. Cover them completely with the dredge and let them sit for five minutes. The salt from the dredge will pull a little moisture out of the seafood and allow more of the dry mix to stick to the shrimp/calamari/scallops. Pick the seafood out of the dredge and place them on a rack while you preheat 3 inches of peanut oil in a pot/Dutch Oven/deep fryer to 360°F.
Drop the seafood into the heated oil in batches, just enough so the oil doesn’t dip below 340°F. Cooking times to internal temperature of 150°F: Calamari rings/cocktail shrimp - 60 seconds; Large U-15 Shrimp & Sea Scallops - 90 seconds. Timing and temperature are key here; set a timer and use a thermometer. Seafood’s too expensive to be messing around. Knowwhatimean?
Drain on a rack or paper towels, but there won’t be a lot of excess oil. Serve with tartar sauce, cocktail sauce, ketchup, hot sauce or just plain ole lemon wedges.
Not to toot my own horn, BUT ... this worked well. The large shrimp were actually crunchy AND juicy. And the scallops, oh my goodness. To see the milky juices of a fresh sea scallop leaking out onto the deep golden crust ...That’s what I’m talking about. The calamari wasn’t quite up to Tony D’s level of greatness, but give me time.
Rich Swanson is a local cook who has had numerous wins in nationally sponsored recipe contests. He is also the layout specialist here at The Day.
Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Rich Swanson can be reached at TheSurlyTable@gmail.com
I put off velveting for a long time for a real wienie reason: I hate separating eggs. I wasn’t making a lot of recipes that used just the whites and I abhor the concept of egg white omelettes. But in a strange twist of karma, the overwhelming demand for egg whites for egg white omelettes makes pints and quarts of them conveniently available at your local grocery store. I didn’t crack a single egg for all the velveting tests.
Online readers, scroll through the photos at the top of this article until you get to the photo of the lovely Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich knock-off. That was a sidebar to the testing of all the seafood. The cutlets were store bought and about 1/2 inch thick. I marinated them for a full 24 hours in the velveting marinade you see in the body of this article and then dredged, a second dip into the marinade and and then a second dredge. Deep fried them at 360°F till the crust was deep golden; about 2 minutes. I don’t know if it can all be credited to the long alkaline velvet soak, but this was the most tender, juicy and flavorful chicken tendie I’ve ever had. Even the skinny “tail” was juicy, and that’s usually the first part that gets overcooked. Very surprising. I’m going to run more tests on that, for sure.
I didn’t include my tests of Langostino Lobster chunks (2lb bag, cooked and frozen - $29.99 at Costco) because they were already cooked. But dipped in the velvet marinade and dredged the same way, they were quite good. Also, while the frozen calamari rings were good, I still got a couple rubber bands in the batch. Will update when I use fresh calamari. Keep it greasy!
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