Celebrate Chinese New Year with Simple, Satisfying Soy Sauce Chicken

Bill, Judy, Sarah, and Kaitlin Leung are the cooks behind The Woks of Life, a food blog spanning several generations of their family. For the past two years, the entire family has used the blog — featured as part of Yahoo Food Blogger of the Week series — as a platform to communicate, tell stories, and share food across distances.

Photo: The Woks of Life

Soy sauce chicken, or see yao gai, is a quintessential Cantonese favorite, found hanging under heat lamps in many Chinatown restaurant windows. You’ll find it near the poached chickens, roast ducks, and roast pork. All have their merits, but a soy sauce chicken done right is tough to beat.

There’s just something about the flavor of this chicken that makes it so satisfying and tasty each time we have it. These days, a 4 to 5 pound soy sauce chicken runs about $23, which is totally worth it, but also more reason to make it at home.

Serves 4-6

1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds (preferably free-range, never frozen)
2 teaspoons oil
7 slices ginger
2 scallions, cut into 3-inch pieces and smashed flat
3 whole star anise
1 ½ cups rose-flavored rice wine (mei kwei lu) or shaoxing wine (dry sherry can also be substituted)
1 ½ cups soy sauce
1 ¼ cup dark soy sauce
1 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
2 teaspoons salt
10 cups water

Take your chicken out of the refrigerator an hour before you plan to cook. You’ll want it at room temperature when it hits the pot. Remove the giblets, and thoroughly rinse the chicken inside and out.

Grab your stock pot. It will ideally be a tall, narrow pot that will just fit the chicken, since it should be totally submerged in the cooking liquid. (If you use a larger pot, you’ll need to increase all the ingredients proportionally to create more cooking liquid.) Put it over medium-low heat, and add the oil and ginger.

Let the ginger caramelize for about 30 seconds. Then add the scallions and cook another 30 seconds. Add the star anise and rice wine, and bring to a simmer to let the alcohol cook off. Add the soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, salt, and water. Bring to a simmer again and cook on low heat for another 20 minutes.

Increase the heat to bring the liquid to a slow boil (i.e. a little stronger than a simmer, but not a rolling boil). Use a large roasting fork inserted into the chicken cavity to lower the chicken slowly into the pot breast side up. Make sure any air pockets in the cavity fill up completely with liquid. The chicken should be entirely submerged at this point.

Once the chicken goes in, the cooking liquid will cool down. Let it cook for about 5 minutes at medium-high heat. Next, use your large fork to carefully lift the chicken out of the water and empty the liquid inside the cavity, which will be cooler than the liquid surrounding the chicken. Lower the chicken back into the pot, making sure once again that there aren’t any air pockets in the cavity. If the chicken is not completely submerged, periodically baste the exposed area with cooking liquid.

Bring the liquid back up to a lazy simmer, which should take about 10 minutes. Keep it at this slow simmer (the liquid will be about 210 degrees F) for 25 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the chicken sit in the pot for another 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board. If you like, you can use a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh to confirm it’s reached 165 degrees F.

Use the sauce from the pot to occasionally baste the chicken and keep the skin moist as it cools. Serve over rice with some sauce from the pot.

Note: You can also make this recipe with chicken leg quarters and reduce the cooking time accordingly, since they are easier to handle and faster to cook. Also, once you’re done cooking the chicken, you can actually freeze the sauce/cooking liquid for use again later (though you may have to re-season the sauce).

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