Saturday, January 12, 2013
Recently we bought some green onion pancakes which were already made from the same place as our frozen dumplings from. I have made green onion pancakes (also called scallion pancakes) from scratch before (see here and here), but we choose to buy them this time. The store makes everything from scratch, and usually everything has been made that day and hasn't even been frozen yet since they sell out quickly. We bought lots since the dumplings and pancakes are quick meal, cook quickly, and can be cooked when they are still frozen. We bring them carefully home, arranged on paper plates spread out over every flat area of the car; since they aren't frozen yet, the dough is still soft and sticky and they will smash if anything is stacked on top of them. Once home, I put them in the freezer until they are frozen solid (if you make your own, you can freeze them this way too) and then they aren't delicate anymore and can be stored frozen in ziplock bags.
I wouldn't have written a post about these green onion pancakes, except for one thing. We expected these pancakes to be great. But, we cooked one and... nothing. They were un-notable, had a flat flavor, and were boring. They were dry, and needed to be oilier and have more salt. But we bought ten of them, so slowly I've been cooking through them. What is notable and post worthy, is that now that I have been cooking them repeated for a week, they are fantastic. What's changed is that, I've learned how to cook them. In the past, when I didn't get as good results as the restaurants with the pancakes I made from scratch, I always thought the problem was how I rolled out the dough, or some such similar problem. However, since these are professionally made green onion pancakes, I know the dough is made correctly, and I was startled by the how differently they came out when I varied how I was cooking them. I realized that the key to making a great pancake is the cooking process. The most important thing for making great green onion pancakes is knowing how to cook them correctly; even well made green onion pancakes can taste boring if they are cooked badly.
A really great green onion pancake is crispy, fried, oily, and very salty. It is not health food. It has big brown crispy air bubbles scattered over its surface. The edges will have tiny microscopic bubbles from being fried while they were immersed in oil. Large bubbles may have formed between some of the pastry sheets. Some of the pastry layers may separate and will be broken or thinner in places which will be extra crispy, and there will be a places where the dough is a bit thicker and almost chewy and have an moist opaque look to it.
Green onion pancakes also love a really good dose of salt sprinkled on the outside of them. William wondered if they need so much salt on the outside because the shop neglected to add enough salt when they made them--No, that's not the problem at all; they were correctly made. Green onion pancakes love salt, the same way that pretzels, potato chips, and french fries love to be sprinkled with salt. No matter how much salt is in the pretzel dough, everyone always loves the salt on the outside.
The first time we cooked the pancakes, they looked similar to this. The problem was that we were too frugal with the oil and the pan was at too low a temperature. They lacked in flavor because their flavor comes from being fried and crispy and soaking up lots of oil. The secret to cooking them is using lots of oil (a neutral kind that can be heated to high temperatures) and the oil should be be really hot, so hot that it is just beginning to smoke. They need to be shallow fried.
frozen or fresh green onion pancake
neutral oil that can be heated to high temperatures (such as grapeseed or peanut oil)
fine grained salt, such as kosher salt
Add many tablespoons of a neutral oil that can be heated to high temperatures (I used grapeseed oil) into a cast iron pan or another pan that can take high heat. Do not use a non-stick pan since they should not be heated on high. You will be shallow frying the pancakes so you need enough oil that preferably all of the pan (or at least the edges) is coated by at least a millimeter of oil (my stove top is slightly uneven, so oil tends to run to one side; it is okay if the middle section of your pan is only sparsely coated with oil). Deep frying would work too, so it would be difficult to use too much oil here. Have two spatulas ready.
Heat the pan on medium high to high and add your oil. The oil is hot enough when it shimmers and looks wavy on the surface and just begins to smoke. Very carefully (so that you don't splash the oil) add the green onion pancake into the pan. Step back a few feet from the stove, since the oil will splatter in the first minute or so of cooking if there is any ice on the frozen pancake (you can use a fry guard if you like). After a minute or so, you should see large bubbles start to appear in the middle of the pancake and little tiny bubbles form on the edges the dough where air small bubbles are forming in the oil. This is good.
Use a spatula to check the bottom of the pancake. If it is browning unevenly or one part is getting burnt, then rotate the pancake after a while so that it gets brown spots all over. Eventually you will start to see some browning at the edges. If it has brown spots all over, then flip the pancake over.
Right after you turn it over, you should use both spatulas to gently mangle the pancake--yes really. This step will help to separate the layers, and make the pancake extra crispy in places. You need to do it while the bottom layer is still doughy and uncooked, and the top layer is crispy enough to allow the partially solidified layers to separate. Place both spatulas about an inch apart somewhere in the interior of the pancake. Gently, but forcefully, squeeze that part of the pancake a few millimeters inward; the part of the pancake between the two spatulas should ideally arch up. Now move one spatula a few millimeters further away and repeat. Some of your squeezes should scrape some of the uncooked dough inward so that it bunches with some of your pushes, and becomes thin in spaces, and some layers are separated. Keep repeating this process until the spatulas are a few inches apart. Now repeat this process all over the pancake in different directions and places (in the top picture you can see how I distributed the spatulas over the mangled pancake).
Check the bottom of the pancake. The pancake is done when both the top and bottom has brown spots all over and looks crispy. You may notice that it has soaked up a lot of the oil in the pan (as I said, this isn't health food). Use a fine grained salt, such as kosher salt to sprinkle a very generous pinch of salt (it doesn't stick very well, so you want to a slightly bigger pinch than you think you need) over the top of the pancake (see the top picture for how much salt I sprinkled on). Use a spatula to flip the pancake on a serving platter with the opposite side upwards; sprinkle this other side with a generous sprinkle of salt.
Serve immediately. Warning: the pancakes will be very hot when they first come out of the pan. Be careful of burning your fingers; you can use a paper towel to tear off and hold a piece while you are eating it, though eat carefully since it is very hot. Or wait a minute or two before eating it.