Salt-and-pepper pork ribs.

Vodka: the secret to perfect Chinese-style salt-and-pepper ribs

One of the dishes I most look forward to at a good, authentic Chinese restaurant is salt-and-pepper pork ribs. It’s one of those dishes that I’ve never dared to attempt at home for fear of an inability to achieve the crispy, fried crust that I thought was only really possible by a restaurant wok over searing gas heat.

But, I found myself at Grand Asia Market on a Saturday afternoon called to a one-pound package of pork rib ends that I couldn’t resist. It was time. There was really no excuse to at least try to make the ribs at home since the ingredients to make the dish are actually quite simple: potato starch, white pepper, salt, rice wine, peanut oil and pork ribs. I didn’t have any potato starch on hand in my pantry, so I went online searching for a decent alternate recipe, and that’s when I stumbled upon the golden solution: a SeriousEats recipe for Korean Fried Chicken.

In the recipe, The Food Lab’s Kenji López-Alt breaks down how to achieve the perfect, mottled crust on Korean Fried Chicken (part of the secret is vodka, an ingredient that helps limit gluten formation in batter, which results in an extra crispy, golden crust) and that’s when the light bulb went off. Why not use this batter recipe for my pork ribs? I had all the ingredients, so I got to work.
Here’s López-Alt’s recipe for the perfect batter for Korean Fried Chicken:

Ingredients

  • Kosher salt
  • 3/4 cups corn starch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 pounds chicken wings (about 12 whole wings)
  • 2 quarts peanut oil or vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1/2 cup vodka

Before dredging the pork ribs in the batter, I marinated the ribs in ¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine, salt, white pepper, and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil for 1 hour. Then, I started to follow the recipe and tossed the ribs in the 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, ¼ cup of cornstarch and ½ teaspoon of baking powder combination and set it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Meanwhile, I diced some aromatics: minced a small nub of fresh ginger, three cloves of garlic, 1 green pepper and ½ large onion and set it aside.

Directions

  1. Combine 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/4 cup cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon baking powder in a large bowl and whisk until homogenous. Add chicken wings ribs and toss until every surface is coated. Transfer chicken wings ribs to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, shaking vigorously as you go to get rid if excess coating. Transfer to refrigerator and let rest, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
  2. When ready to fry, preheat oil to 350°F in a large wok, Dutch oven, or deep fryer.
  3. Combine remaining 1/2 cup cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, flour, and 2 teaspoons kosher salt in a large bowl and whisk until homogenous. Add water and vodka and whisk until a smooth batter is formed, adding up to 2 tablespoons additional water if batter is too thick. It should have the consistency of thin paint and fall off of the whisk in thin ribbons that instantly disappear as they hit the surface of the batter in the bowl.
  4. Add half of the wings ribs to the batter. Working one at a time, lift one wing ribs and allow excess batter to drip off, using your finger to get rid of any large pockets or slicks of batter. Carefully lower wing rib into hot oil. Repeat with remaining wings ribs in first batch. Fry, using a metal spider or slotted spatula to rotate and agitate wings ribs as they cook until evenly golden brown and crisp all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and season immediately with salt. Keep warm while you fry the remaining wings ribs.

After whipping up the batter with the remaining ingredients (½ c. cornstarch, ½ tsp. baking powder, ½ c. all-purpose flour, ½ c. cold water and ½ cup vodka), I coated the ribs well and then began dropping them in the hot pot of oil. After about 8-9 minutes or so in the 350-degree oil, I began removing the first batch.

To my absolute delight, the first batch came out divine—crispy, thin mottled crust with a nice golden brown color. The batter adhered to all the tiny crags of each pork rib which resulted in a nice overall crunchy bite. The vodka trick worked! I couldn’t believe it was the secret ingredient to achieving the perfect crispy texture. And, inside, the ribs remained juicy and tender and well-cooked, and not dry at all. To finish the ribs, I sprinkled them liberally with salt and pepper.

Salt-and-pepper pork ribs
Salt-and-pepper Chinese-style pork ribs.

While the ribs were frying, I tossed the aromatics around in the wok with a few chili peppers for a little boost in flavor. I gave the ribs a final toss in the wok to reheat them together with the aromatics, sprinkled the finished dish with a cascade of scallions for garnish, and served the ribs over a bed of steamed rice. It was a perfect first attempt at salt-and-pepper ribs, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied—no more need to go to the restaurant for ribs when the craving hits again.

Comments are closed.