If, like me, you find yourself making dumplings over the holidays with your family and friends, then perhaps this scenario will sound familiar. The dumpling-making event is conceived as a way to get everyone spending time together. Several days prior to the meal, you go back and forth with people about the fillings. Some want ground pork; others prefer chicken or lamb. Invariably, a rebellious teenager or college-age member of the family will be going through a vegetarian phase, so a meatless filling must be fashioned as well.
The fillings are made. Your loved ones gather around the kitchen table and soon thereafter, the questions begin. How does one knead the dough? What should the dough feel like—sticky, not sticky, somewhere in between? The stronger members of the team are set to task kneading, while the rest watch and offer unsolicited critiques of their technique.
The confusion regarding the pleating and folding ensues. Unsuccessful folders come in all stripes; some are undisciplined pleaters, still others grow greedy and attempt to stuff each wrapper with too much filling, causing the forlorn dumplings to regurgitate their innards. All of this results in non-uniform dumplings, which yield inconsistent results when people finally sit down to eat.
Have I struck a chord here? Dumplings, in other words, are festive foods with potentially lackluster results. Here are a few tips I've picked up over years of strange and unnecessary complications. May your own dumpling endeavors for the holidays be plentiful and enjoyable.
Use Your Pasta Machine
Whenever I'm feeding eight or more people, I relinquish my rolling pin for my pasta maker. Not only does can pasta maker roll out perfectly thin and supple sheets for making wrappers, it does so in mass quantities. Best of all, the pasta maker precludes human variability. But it's made with love, you object! Isn't rolling out the wrappers part of the fun of making dumplings? True, yes, until you taste the result of your younger cousin's wrapper experiments.
I still make small batches of dumplings the old-fashioned way, with a wooden dowel that allows me to taper the edges of each wrapper. Running your sheets of dough through the pasta machine won't produce the tapered edges, but what you lose in nuanced thickness, you more than make up for in consistency.
To use your pasta maker, simply roll out the dough as you would for pasta. Then, with a cookie cutter or the rim of a glass, cut out perfectly round, perfectly uniform circles to use as wrappers.
The Thickness of the Dough
Using a pasta maker to roll out the sheet of dumpling wrappers gives you a much finer degree of control. For this week's experiments, I tried rolling out the dough to various thickness settings on the pasta machine, ranging from 5 to 8. While the level 5 wrapper was too thick and gummy and 8 was too thin, both 6 and 7 produced acceptable dumpling wrappers.
Personally, I like a thicker and hearty wrapper that makes me tug a bit upon each bite. Others prefer the delicate quality of a thinner wrapper.
Add Glutinous Rice Flour to the Mixture
Adding glutinous rice (also called sweet rice) flour to the mixture produces a more elastic, chewier dumpling wrapper. The typical dough recipe calls for all-purpose flour and hot water, which tends to cook into a gummier, softer wrapper. In my last dumpling article I discussed the proper proportion of flour to water, and I found that the ratio of 2 cups flour to 3/4 cups water holds even when a quarter of the all-purpose flour is replaced with sweet rice flour.
Glutinous rice flour can be found at Asian markets and some health food stores as well. Bob's Red Mill produces a more coarsely ground rice flour than the typical Asian brands, such as Moshinko; both kinds work well with no discernible difference in texture.
Kneading the Dough
Start by adding all but a few tablespoons of the boiling hot water to the flour. After you mix the water into the flour, add the remaining water only if necessary. In this week's experiments, I tried using cold water in addition to boiling hot water—mainly, because Kenji asked me why boiling water is so integral to the process and I couldn't give him a good reason.
After incorporating both hot and cold water into the flour, I found that using hot water allows the dough to congeal more quickly, requiring fewer additions of water in the long run. The same amount of cold water is barely enough to moisten all of the flour. I had to add several more tablespoons of colder water to the flour to make the two ingredients cohere. When a dough contains more water than is necessary, the wrappers may be slightly easier to work with, but the resulting dumplings will be flaccid when cooked.
Bottom line: add only as much water as necessary to produce a smooth, elastic dough. Sometimes this may require that you dip your fingers into a bowl of water when you are kneading if the flour and water are on the cusp of coming together. Pouring, or even sprinkling, the water directly into dough will almost always result in too much moisture.
The Northern Chinese prefer boiling their dumplings, but I've started steaming my dumplings to optimize the chewiness of the wrappers. Like Shanghainese soup dumplings (xiao long bao), a steamed preparation yields translucent wrappers that will pull ever so slightly as you bite down. Inside, the filling tends to remain juicier because the dumplings haven't been disturbed during the cooking process.
Lining your bamboo steamer or steaming basket with some sort of vegetal matter is far superior to using parchment paper. Any sort of leafy green or cabbage, such as large leaves or bok choy or cabbage, will do. The leaves of the vegetable will not only prevent the wrappers from sticking, they'll also wick off any potential spills from the filling that could make the rest of the dumplings soggy.