The Best Way to Cook Frozen Dumplings

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There are many great ways to cook frozen dumplings. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

When my wife Adri was still my girlfriend Adri, she and I spent a number of years living in separate cities. Every other weekend I'd pack up the old Saab to take the trip down from Boston to New York for the weekend. My one task every time I visited? Deliver frozen dumplings.

It's not that you couldn't find frozen dumplings in New York, but we had a particular addiction the the ones sold in bags of 50 from Qingdao Garden up on Mass Ave between Cambridge and Arlington. If we were lucky, each bag would last the two weeks between deliveries. My wife has a thing for dumplings and to this day we still keep a stock ready-to-go in the freezer at all times.

Unlike many frozen foods, dumplings survive the trip from freezer to belly remarkably well—they are nearly indistinguishable from fresh-made so long as they're kept free of freezer burn. Whether you're stocking your freezer with homemade Chinese or Japanese dumplings, or using a store-bought brand, you have a hot, tasty snack only a few minutes away.

Here are my favorite ways to cook frozen dumplings. All of them start with dumplings straight from the freezer.

How to Freeze Fresh Dumplings

First things first: you need frozen dumplings in order to cook them, right? And while you can buy them from a store (stay tuned for our taste test recommendations), you'll get much better results making them yourself or buying un-cooked fresh or frozen dumplings from a local restaurant (If you have a shop you particularly like, ask, they'll probably sell you uncooked dumplings!).

The trick is freezing them individually and storing them in a way that prevents freezer burn.

To freeze, place fresh dumplings on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper or on a large plate dusted with a little flour or cornstarch. Place the entire tray of dumplings into the freezer uncovered and let them rest until fully frozen, about half an hour, then transfer the frozen dumplings to a zipper-lock freezer bag and squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bag, and store the dumplings for up to two months.

Freezer burn is caused when ice crystals sublimate—that is, they transform directly from ice into water vapor, skipping the water phase entirely. Sublimation can be controlled by limiting the amount of airflow around the dumplings. As standard zipper-lock bags are actually breathable (air can pass very slowly through the plastic), they aren't great for long term freezer storage. It's important that you use a zipper-lock freezer bag, which is made of thicker plastic and designed to prevent freezer burn. Alternatively, use a standard zipper-lock bag followed by a tight wrap in two layers of aluminum foil. This will effectively block air flow to the dumplings.

The Easiest: Steam or Boil

Boiling frozen dumplings is the easiest method, though it's also the most time consuming as you have to wait for a pot of water to come to a boil.

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To boil dumplings, fill a large pot two-thirds of the way with water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Add as many dumplings as can fit comfortably in a single layer in the pot and cook them until they float. Let them cook an additional two to three minutes. Fish them out with a strainer, drain them, and serve.

Steaming is a much faster method as you only need to bring a few cups of water to a boil instead of an entire pot. Texturally, it'll also leave the skins a little stretchier and firmer. I generally prefer this texture to the softer texture boiling gives. It does require the use of a bamboo steamer insert for your wok or pot. It's a worthwhile investment if you do any amount of Asian cooking, and they also make great stacking storage devices for potatoes and alliums.

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Frozen dumplings will stick to the bamboo inside a steamer, so you need to line it first. If you've got some Napa cabbage in the fridge, the leaves make great steamer liners. Alternatively, you can use parchment paper to make a breathable non-stick surface. Once you get the hang of it, you can make one in about the time it takes to bring the water in the wok to steaming-level. Here's how.

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Step 1: Fold in Half

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Fold a sheet of parchment paper with a length and width of at least the diameter of your steamer in half.

Step 2: Fold in Half Again

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Fold it in half the other direction, creating a rectangle.

Step 3: Fold Into a Triangle

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Fold the rectangle into a triangle, making sure that the tip of the new fold lies at the main vertex of the original rectangle (the spot that used to be the center of the full sheet).

Step 4: Continue Folding in Half

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Fold the triangle in half twice more to create a very long and skinny triangle.

Step 5: Trim the Back End

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Place the triangle over your steamer with the tip aligned above the center of the steamer. Trim the far end until the triangle fits neatly inside the steamer.

Step 6: Trim the Center

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Snip off the very tip of the triangle.

Step 7: Make Vents

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Make a series of very small triangular cuts along the edges of the large triangle. This will create vent holes when you unfold the parchment in order to allow steam to circulate around the dumplings.

Step 8: Unfold and Insert

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Unfold the parchment and insert it into the bamboo steamer. It should fit perfectly.

Step 9: Add Dumplings and Steam

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Add your dumplings, then set the steamer on top of a wok or a saucepan that just fits underneath it filled with about one inch of water. Cover the steamer and bring the water to a hard boil. Steam the dumplings until cooked through, about 10 minutes if going directly from the freezer.

Want Them Crispy? Use the Classic Steam-Fry

The steam-fry or potsticker technique is the classic method for Japanese gyoza or Chinese guo tie. Essentially, you fry the frozen dumplings, then add water to the pan and cover them to steam through, then fry them again once the water evaporates. This double-frying creates an extra-crisp bottom crust.

The instructions on the back of a bag of frozen dumplings often skip the initial fry in the way of convenience, but it's worth taking the time if you're going to use this method.

Here's how:

Step 1: Pan-Fry

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Fry until crisp.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a non-stick or cast iron skillet over moderate heat until shimmering. Add the dumplings in a single layer and cook, swirling the pan, until an even deep golden brown on the bottom, one to two minutes. Swirling is important—it creates a more even crust.

Step 2: Add Water and Steam

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Add water.

Increase heat to medium high and add water until it covers the dumplings by a third to a half.

Step 3: Cover and Cook

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Steam until cooked through.

Cover with a lid and steam until the dumplings are cooked through. Frozen dumplings should take between six to 10 minutes depending on their size (just cut one in half and peek to make sure it's cooked).

Step 4: Remove Lid and Evaporate

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Remove lid and cook, swirling, until crisp again.

Remove the lid and cook, swirling the pan regularly, until the remaining water has evaporated and the dumplings are crisp again. Some recipes suggest leaving the dumplings alone without swirling here. I find that swirling gives them a much better, more evenly browned and crisped crust.

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Extra-crisp bottoms.

The Absolute Fastest: Microwave and Fry

I spent several years as a line cook in a fancy restaurant located in a hotel. Hotel restaurants have one particular issue that makes them even more stressful to work at than a standard restaurant: room service. You can be in the middle of the deepest weeds you've ever had to work your way out of when an order for a room service cheeseburger or steak comes in. It was always my priority to get those room service orders out of the way as fast as humanly possible without compromising quality.

One of the most popular items on the room service menu? Crispy fried dumplings, which we stored in bulk in the deep freezer, thawing and cooking them to order. You can bet your butt that I figured out the fastest way to do it. Steam-frying in a non-stick skillet is fast, but not fast enough. I needed to do it in five minutes or less.

This is the best method to use if you need a crispy, tender, juicy, fatty fix RIGHT NOW.

Step 1: Add Dumplings and Water to a Microwave-Safe Bowl

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Place your frozen dumplings in a microwave-safe bowl and add water until they're about half covered.

Step 2a: Cover and Microwave

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Place a microwave-safe plate on top to cover the bowl, then microwave on high power until the dumplings are cooked through, about three minutes.

Step 2b: Preheat a Skillet

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Meanwhile, starting pre-heating a couple tablespoons of oil in a non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat.

Step 3: Drain and Dry

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Drain the dumplings, set them on the plate, and count to 15. This time will allow a bit of their surface moisture to evaporate so that you don't add too much water to the hot skillet causing it to splatter.

Step 4: Fry

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Dump the dumplings in the skillet, arrange so they're right-side-up, and cook, shaking and swirling the pan constantly until the dumplings are an even golden brown underneath. This will take less than a minute. If you want them even crispier, feel free to crisp them up on multiple surfaces.

Step 5: Serve

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Transfer back to the plate and serve with dipping sauce. Freezer to belly in under five minutes!