As far as dumplings go, Japanese-style gyoza are some of the simplest to make, if only for the fact that they are almost always made with store-bought, ready-to-fill wrappers at even the best dumpling joints in Japan. Fresh dough that's rolled with a rolling pin is wonderful for Chinese-style fried dumplings like guo tie, but gyoza demand thinner, stretchier dough that is rolled pasta-style by machine.
My mom wasn't the most talented or passionate cook in the world, but to this day her gyoza remain one of my favorite foods of all time. Those beef and vegetable-stuffed crescents with their crisp bottoms and tender-chewy skins were the start of a lifelong obsession that still seems no closer to ending than it did when it first started.
I remember sitting with my sisters around my grandmother's low wooden living room table a few times a year for dumpling-wrapping duty. My mom would make a big bowl of filling, set out a few packages of store-bought dumpling wrappers, and put us to task stuffing and folding. We'd eat a few big platefuls of the dumplings that first night, then my mom would freeze the rest, pulling them out over the course of the next couple months until our stock was depleted and our stuffing night was repeated.
I didn't cook much—or even have much interest in food—growing up, but dumplings were one thing I got pretty darn good at through the years. My grandmother gave me that low wooden living room table when she passed away, and I still find a nice, meditative kind of joy whenever I sit down at it to make a batch at home, preferably with a group of good friends to help speed the process along. Dumpling-making goes faster when there are friends involved.
This article covers every trick and technique I've picked up, modified, or developed over my three-decade career as a dumpling-maker.
What are Gyoza?
When I make gyoza for an audience familiar with Asian dumplings, I inevitably get asked what's special about a gyoza and what distinguishes them from, say, Chinese-style guo tie (potstickers). The real answer? Not all that much. Like ramen, gyoza are a borrowed food that the Japanese adapted from the Chinese original, modifying them slightly over the years. And just as with ramen, one of the big differences is that Japanese gyoza tend to be much more garlicky than their Chinese counterparts.* They also tend to have thinner skins and a higher proportion of vegetables to pork.
*It's odd, as ramen and gyoza are two of the only foods I can think of in the Japanese repertoire that make extensive use of garlic. Fittingly, gyoza are most often served as a side dish to ramen.
How to Make Gyoza Filling
Gyoza fillings can be a finely minced mixture of just about anything you want so long as it's not too wet. My mother's version was made with ground beef that she mixed with cabbage, spinach, carrots, and aromatics (as I later found out, her goal was to stuff as many vegetables as possible into them which in turn would then get stuffed into us kids). I've had gyoza filled with lamb and mint, confit duck, even cream cheese and shrimp.
They can all be good, but today our goal is to perfect the classic traditional combo of pork and Napa cabbage.
The simplest recipes have you knead together pork, minced cabbage, and aromatics like garlic, ginger, and nira (Japanese garlic chives; scallions will do just fine). But these don't produce particularly good dumplings. Cabbage contains a great deal of moisture and as the dumplings cook, that moisture is released, turning the fillings mushy and wet.
On the other hand, a filling made of pork alone ends up tough and rubbery; Without the cabbage in there to break it up, the pork proteins end up binding very tightly to each other.
So the key is to use cabbage and pork, but to get rid of as much moisture as possible. I start with extra-fatty pork shoulder. You can use any ground pork you can find, but if you have a butcher counter, ask the butcher to grind up some fatty shoulder for you. I was able to buy some fresh-ground at my local Whole Foods.
Step 1: Cut Out the Core
Start by splitting a head of cabbage in half and cutting out the firm core. I played with various ratios of cabbage to pork and found that most recipes don't use quite enough cabbage. I use a full pound of cabbage for every pound of pork. This makes enough filling for 40 to 50 plump dumplings.
Step 2: Shred the Cabbage
Use a sharp chef's knife to very thinly slice the cabbage. If you've got one, you can also shred the cabbage in a food processor fitted with the large grating disk.
Step 3: Mince the Cabbage
After shredding the cabbage, finely mince it by rocking a sharp chef's knife over it back and forth or by pulsing it in a food processor fitted with a standard blade.
Step 4: Salt and Wait
Here comes the moisture-removal step. Salting the cabbage and letting it rest for about 15 minutes harnesses the power of osmosis to draw liquid out from inside its cell walls.
I use two teaspoons of kosher salt for a pound of cabbage, letting it drain in a strainer set over a bowl. Once the cabbage has had time to rest, I transfer it to the center of a clean kitchen towel.
Step 5: Wring out Excess Moisture
Draw up the edges of the towel and squeeze the heck out of the cabbage. Seriously. Squeeze the heck out of it. If there is still liquid coming out, you haven't squeezed hard enough. By the time you're done the cabbage should have lost almost three quarters of its volume and at least half its weight.
Step 6: Prepare Your Aromatics
Garlic, ginger, and scallions are the classic flavorings for gyoza. I use a tablespoon of minced fresh garlic, a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger (use a spoon to peel the ginger before grating it on a microplane grater), and two ounces of minced whole scallions (that's about three whole scallions).
Step 7: Add Your Aromatics
As with the cabbage, it's essential to mince these vegetables as finely as possible so that their flavor gets distributed evenly in the mix and doesn't interfere with the texture of the filling.
Step 8: Combine and Knead
Add the drained and squeezed cabbage along with the remaining flavorings: another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of ground white pepper (it has a more pungent aroma than black pepper), and a couple teaspoons of sugar—just enough to enhance the natural sweetness of the pork. Some recipes will use soy sauce and sesame oil to flavor the meat. I personally find this flavor a little overpowering, but if you'd like an extra teaspoon or so of each can be added. Corn or potato starch is also not an uncommon addition. It's useful for helping your gyoza retain their juices as they cook, but provided you mix the filling properly, it's largely unnecessary and I find that it makes the filling a little pasty.
I've seen many different methods of mixing dumpling filling ranging from folding it gently together to processing it into a paste in a food processor to kneading it with a stand mixer. After testing them side by side, I find that in general more kneading leads to better texture. Kneading helps unravel pork proteins which then cross-link with each other, giving the filling better structure and a little bit of springiness. This protein network also helps trap juices, ensuring that the filling stays moist—under-kneading leads to a dumpling filling that resembles a dry meatball sitting in a puddle of leaked liquid. Not so great.
Still, I don't find it necessary to whip out the heavy equipment just for this process. Instead, I knead the filling vigorously by hand, picking it up by the handful, squeezing it through my fingers, lifting from the bottom and folding over the top, and generally being as rough with it as I care to be. Like a good sausage, once the mixture starts to turn a little tacky and sticky, you're there.
Step 9: Adjust Seasoning
It's not easy to predict exactly how salty your dumpling filling will be as it all depends on exactly how much liquid you were able to get out of your cabbage (a lot of the salt you added at the beginning goes down the drain with the extracted liquid). So to adjust seasoning, I take a small, dime-sized bit of filling and place it on a microwave-safe plate, microwaving it just until it's cooked through (this takes only ten seconds or so). That way I can taste it and add more salt, sugar, or white pepper until it tastes right to me.
Once the filling is made, you can store it in the fridge for a few days if you want to break up the process.
Setting Up Your Filling Station
Before starting to form dumplings, you need to set up a work space to make the process more efficient (believe me, after years of doing this the inefficient way, I can tell you how much of a difference good mise en place makes).
Here's what you'll want for each person:
- A cutting board, preferably wood (the skins will not stick to wood as easily).
- A stack of pre-made round dumpling skins, kept under plastic wrap to stay moist.
- A bowl of filling with a spoon or small offset metal spatula for spreading it.
- A small bowl of water for moistening the edges of the dumpling wrapper.
- A clean dish towel for wiping your fingers and cutting board and keeping them dry in between dumplings.
- A rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper to place your finished gyoza.
If you're using frozen store-bought dumpling wrappers, make sure that they are fully thawed before you start.
How to Form Traditional Pleated Gyoza
This is the most traditional way to form gyoza. It's also a method that takes a little practice. Don't worry if your dumplings don't look great at the beginning—so long as the wrappers are closed around the filling the gyoza will taste just fine.
If you find it hard to hold the dumpling up in the air while you pleat the skins, you can place the skin on your cutting board. The shape will come out slightly different, but it should still be fine. My sisters and I grew up making dumplings of this style once every couple months in order to keep our freezer stocked at all times. It took years before I got to the point where I could make them entirely in my hands and far longer until I was good enough to hit the thirty-seconds-per-dumpling barrier. I've seen professional dumpling-makers bang them out in under ten seconds apiece!
Step 1: Spoon in the Filling
I'm a chronic over-stuffer. Whether it's a burrito, a taco, or a simple sandwich, if I have the opportunity to put way more filling into something than it can reasonably handle, it's a good bet that I won't miss that chance. Dumplings are no exception and I have to consciously remind myself not to put as much filling in there as I'd like.
If this is your first go around, you may want to stick with as little as a teaspoon or two. Once you get good at shaping, you'll be able to bump that amount up to about a tablespoon.
There's one real key to dumpling filling, though—one which took me years to discover: do not place your filling in the center of the dumpling in a cute little ball. This is a surefire way to end up squeezing filling out of your dumpling around the edges, ruining the seal. Instead, it's much better to spread the filling in a disk-shaped layer. This way, the filling will bend and conform with your skin as you start folding.
Step 2: Moisten the Edge
Dip the very tip of your finger in water and very lightly moisten the edge of the wrapper, then dry your finger carefully on the clean towel. It's important not to let the edge of the wrapper get too wet.
Step 3: Pinch the Seam
Gently support the dumpling with the middle and index fingers of your right hand, using your left hand to keep the dumpling folded like a taco. Use the thumb and forefinger of your right hand to pinch the near seam shut.
Step 4: Pleat Along One Side
Continuing to gently support the dumpling, start using the thumb and forefinger of your left hand to feed the edge of the filling into your right thumb and forefinger, forming small pleats on the near edge. The ring finger and pinky of your left hand should be supporting the far end of the dumpling, making sure that the pork filling doesn't get squeezed out.
Step 5: Keep Crimping!
Continue crimping the seam until you reach the far corner, making sure to squeeze out any excess air as you go.
Step 6: Shape the Dumpling
Once the dumpling is crimped, you'll find that it forms a natural crescent shape with the crimped edge on the outer portion of the curve. Place the dumpling flat on the cutting board and use your fingers to adjust the shape of the crescent so that the bottom lies flat and the sides are plumped outwards. Transfer the finished dumpling to the baking sheet, wipe your fingers clean, and start on the next one.
And hop to it, these dumplings aren't going to stuff themselves!
Video: How to Form Pleated Gyoza
I know how hard it can be to follow step-by-step photos like this, so here's a quick video showing you how it should be done:
How to Form Simplified Pleated Gyoza
Are you finding the traditional pleat a little too difficult? No worries: Even folding the gyoza in half to form half moons will get the job done, but there's another method that is far simpler than the one-sided pleat. The trick is to pleat each half of the dumpling working from the center out, with the pleats facing the center. The left side should be a mirror image of the right. This method also lets you rest the dumpling on your cutting board the whole time.
Step 1: Seal the Center
Start by place the filling on the skin and moistening the edge just as with the standard method. Lift the front and back edges like a taco and seal them in the center.
Step 2: Fold Pleats From Center to Right Corner
Keeping the center pinched, start forming pleats along the front edge, folding the pleats so that they point towards the center, sealing the skin as you go, and working from the center to the right corner.
Step 3: Pleat to the Edges
Continue adding pleats until you get to the corner, then seal the dumpling shut, making sure you squeeze out any air as you go.
Step 4: Pleat the Second Half
Repeat the pleating process on the left edge, with the pleats again pointing towards the center, until the dumpling is completely sealed.
Step 5: Shape the Dumpling
Plump up the dumpling, flattening the bottom and forming a nice crescent. Transfer the dumpling to the parchment sheet and repeat.
How to Freeze Gyoza
Once you've completed all your dumplings, they are ready to cook immediately or to freeze for later use. To freeze, 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, squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bag, and store the dumplings for up to two months. The dumplings can be cooked straight from frozen.
How to Cook Gyoza
Though gyoza can be cooked by steaming or boiling, the most traditional method is to use the potsticker approach, which gives you dumplings with a crisp bottom and chewy steamed top. To achieve this, you start by frying the raw dumplings until crisp, then steaming them under a cover to cook the filling and the top of the wrapper through, and finally re-frying them until the bottoms crisp up again.
I always wondered why you needed to fry them twice. Couldn't I simply steam or boil the dumplings first and then finish by frying them to crisp up their bottoms? Indeed you can, and you'll get reasonably crisp results. But if you want really crisp dumplings, the kind with hundreds of thousands of microblisters that add extra surface area and extra crunch, you have to take the two-stage approach; letting the dough bubble and blister before it sets during steaming or boiling is essential.
Step 1: Fry
Many recipes for gyoza will have you stick them in the pan and not move them much during the process. This is a good technique if you want to all the gyoza to end up connected with a solid, lacy-crisp sheet of fried starch. I like that from time to time. But the honest truth is that despite its spectacle, each individual gyoza suffers from not getting the TLC it deserves. You get a much crisper, more evenly browned belly to your gyoza if you swirl them and move them around while cooking.
Fry the raw gyoza over moderate heat in a good amount of vegetable oil with their flat side down in a cast iron or non-stick skillet, swirling the pan as they cook so that they crisp up evenly.
Step 2: Continue Until Golden
Keep frying (and don't stop swirling!) until golden brown and blistered evenly across the bottom surface.
Step 3: Add Water
Add about a half cup of water to the skillet (if using a 10-inch skillet, or a full cup if using a 12-inch skillet) all at once (adding it rapidly will minimize the amount of spattering and keep things neater.
Step 4: Cover and Cook
Increase the heat to medium-high, then cover the pan immediately.
Step 5: Cook Through
As the water evaporates, it'll gently steam the tops of the dumplings, cooking the filling through and steaming the wrapper to a perfect tender-stretchy texture over the course of a few minutes. Continue to swirl the pan gently as the dumplings steam to promote even cooking and to ensure that the dumplings don't stick to the bottom too firmly.
Step 6: Re-Fry
Remove the lid and keep cooking until the water has completely evaporated. You'll find that as the liquid reduces, the oil will have a tendency to spit and sputter. Again, the answer is swirling the pan. This will limit spattering, promote even browning, and keep the dumplings from sticking.
Step 7: Extra Crisp!
Keep on cooking until the dumplings are once again crisp on the bottom (and I mean crisp!).
Check out that texture! This is what you're looking for.
How to Make Gyoza Dipping Sauce
Chinese dumplings are classically served with straight vinegar. In Japan, they're served with a mixture of vinegar, a splash of soy sauce, and optionally a drizzle of rayu—Japanese-style chili oil—or toasted sesame oil. I use a mixture of two parts vinegar to one part soy sauce and chili oil to taste.
The finished dumplings should be served as soon as possible out of the pan with the crisped side facing up. This isn't just for prettier presentation—it's also to make sure that the crisp crust you spent so much time perfecting stays that way until you get the dumplings in your mouth.
There's a reason that dumplings were my favorite food as a kid and that they've fast become my wife's favorite food at home. I have a feeling that our kids aren't going to mind 'em much either and it'll be nice to have a few extra sets of little hands on folding duty in the future—my fingers are just getting too big and clumsy these days!