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What is Red Cooking?

By Tracey Parece
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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Red cooking is a Chinese cooking technique in which meats are simmered in a rich, red colored broth. This broth is composed of dark soy sauce, rock sugar, rice wine, star anise, and cardamom. In Mandarin, red cooking is called hong shao. It is most popular in Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Jiangsu cuisine. Variations of red cooking are also common within the entire country of China.

Dark soy sauce is the main ingredient in red cooking. It is thicker and sweeter than ordinary soy sauce and helps to give this type of Chinese cooking its customary consistency and flavor. Stir-fried vegetables are frequently used as a side dish to complement this rich and hearty main course.

Other common names for red cooking are red stewing and red braising. Food prepared in this manner has a red to reddish brown color from the ingredients used in the braising sauce. The color red signifies luck and good fortune in China. Scallions, five-spice powder, garlic, and cinnamon are sometimes added to the traditional recipe. Some form of protein is almost always used and can range from pork and poultry to tofu and wheat gluten based proteins.

Leftover sauce from red cooking can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator and saved for future use. The sauce may become thick and viscous during storage. It can be reconstituted by adding additional dark soy sauce, chicken broth, rice wine, or other liquids when reheating it. Leftover meat can be eaten cold or reheated and retains its flavor well for up to two full weeks when properly stored.

One advantage of red cooking is that the slow cooking method over low heat tenderizes tougher cuts of meat. In this method, the sauce may either be simmered until it is reduced to the desired consistency or thickened by slowly adding small amounts of corn starch as needed. By varying the ingredients and other seasonings, it is possible to create a nearly infinite number of variations and flavors.

Other Asian cooking techniques include kho and char siu. Kho is a braised dish in Vietnamese cuisine which closely resembles Chinese red cooking in color and flavor. It relies on caramelized sugar and fish sauce as its base instead of dark soy sauce. Char siu is commonly used in Cantonese cuisine and usually contains barbecued pork or other meats. The dark red color of char siu sometimes comes from red food coloring, although food coloring is not a traditional ingredient.

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Discussion Comments

By Rotergirl — On Jan 20, 2014
@Lostnfound: I don't think so. As I understand it, tandoori applies to the spices that are rubbed on the meat, rather than the sauce the meat is cooked in. The end result is the same, since both methods end up creating red colored meat.

It seems like I've seen the red cooking most where it involves pork, like twice cooked pork. It always seems the pork in that dish is red on the outside.

By Lostnfound — On Jan 19, 2014

I know I've eaten red cooking in Chinese food, but I didn't know what it was called. Maybe it's sort of the same idea as tandoori in Indian food?

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