“Dumplings are a complete meal in one bite,” explains Hannah Cheng, co-founder of the dumpling specialist Mimi Cheng’s in NYC’s East Village. “You have protein and lots of vegetables in a dipping form.”
Based off that simple premise, it is no secret that dumplings carry the same cult status in America as burgers or tacos. Yet while we admire their endless iterations—especially in the Chinese canon—the thought of making delicate, yet sturdy wrappers can scare off even some of the most confident home cooks. “It didn’t click for me until I was 18,” admits Cheng.
Fears of kitchen headaches do subside, however, once you realize that you’re dealing with a very simple set-up: flour, water, and filling. Making those ingredients sing, of course, requires patience and the encouraging guidance of someone like Cheng, who was inspired to start her own business so she could eat dumplings like the ones her mom (Mimi) made.
It helps too, says Cheng, if you recruit a group of friends to get involved in the process. “We would have dumpling-making parties,” she says. “You sit around a table with lots of friends and family; everyone is wrapping, chatting, and drinking.”
In mastering the fundamentals, you’ll realize that they’re merely an entry point for a wider dumpling universe of wontons, mandoo, and shumai. But rather than get ahead of ourselves, here we ask Cheng to lay out a fool-proof blueprint for making dumplings in your own home.
Though the method for making wrappers requires kneading, resting, and tons of rolling, the ingredients are remarkably simple: just flour and water. Hot water yields dough that’s a little easier to work with, so it’s a good place to start. At home, mix 2 cups of all-purpose flour with about ¾ cup of water boiled, which you should then let cool for 1 minute. Combine with a spatula, then knead for a few minutes until the dough feels smooth. Place in a sealed plastic bag and set aside for at least 30 minutes before dividing your lump of dough into 32 pieces. (To do this evenly, start by cutting the dough in half and rolling each portion into a log. Cut each log in half, and each half into eight even pieces.) Form each into a bowl, flatten it with the bottom of the glass, then use a rolling pin to roll out a circle slightly larger than 3 inches in diameter—a versatile size for shaping different kinds of dumplings.
“You want it to be thin but also even,” says Cheng, “so that the skin doesn’t break.” Dough can be finicky, reacting differently to temperature and moisture in the air. “Having a well-floured surface is helpful,” she advises. Once rolled, keep wrappers covered with a dry paper towel while you assemble. If that sounds like too much work for a Wednesday night, Cheng recommends purchasing wrappers from a brand called Twin Marquis.
Because of their versatility, dumplings are an unequivocally great vegetarian meal. One of Cheng’s favorites is the Mighty Veggie Dumpling offered at Mimi’s, which she calls “an abundant salad in dumpling form.” Unlike meat fillings, which stick together easily, you will need some sort of binder in all-vegetable dumplings; cornstarch is a go-to.
To make enough of a basic vegetarian filling for 32 dumplings, first shred a zucchini and a cup of Napa cabbage, toss them with salt, and set aside for 10 minutes. Heat up a skillet or wok, add some oil, then throw in minced ginger and let it sizzle. When it’s fragrant, add 2 minced carrots and 1 ½ cups of minced shiitake mushrooms, plus 3 ounces of crumbled tofu. Wring out the zucchini and cabbage and add those, then stir in 2 tablespoons each of soy sauce and sesame oil, a pinch of sugar and salt, and a couple teaspoons of cornstarch. Cook until all the liquid is gone, then cool before using to fill your dumplings.
While having highlighted the veggie virtues, it’s true that most dumplings do contain meat; pork is a favorite, but lamb, beef, chicken, and shrimp are all good options. You’ll want meat that’s ground or very finely chopped, and fattier cuts will yield juicier dumplings. For a batch of 32, plan on about 2/3 of a pound of meat mixed together with tons of chopped chives or scallions, about a tablespoon of minced ginger, salt and white pepper, soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. You can also add about a half cup of vegetables like zucchini and cabbage, salted and wrung out as in the veggie dumplings above.
“We like our filling to have enough vegetables so it’s not just a hard meat lump,” says Cheng. For meat dumplings, you don’t cook the filling first. Just mix together and you’re ready to fill and assemble. If you’re not sure you’ve seasoned correctly, make and cook one dumpling and taste it before progressing with the rest. You can tweak dumpling filling mixtures with spices you like, from Tex-Mex tweaked flavors to veggie burger mix, which is currently the special at Mimi Cheng’s.
There are nearly as many shapes as there are fillings. To get the feel of working with dumpling skins, “I would start off with a very basic shape,” advises Cheng: “an empanada.” Place about a tablespoon of dumpling slightly off center, then paint one edge of the circle with a little water, fold over, and seal into a half moon. (You can pull together the ends to form a tortellini-like shape, which is what happened with the veggie dumplings pictured here.) Still, Cheng’s favorite shape is “is the classic pleats. It’s beautiful and reminds me of my mom’s.” To form, place a tablespoon of filling in the center, paint the edge with water as in the empanada, then use two hands to hold the dumpling in the air and fold pleats above the filling, pressing the filling down and sealing the skin fold by fold as you go. Place the finished dumplings on a lined baking sheet and keep them covered with a towel.
Depending on how many dumplings you’re making and how many hands you have to help, keep in mind that this is slow-going. Allot a couple hours for wrapping if you’re doing it yourself. Better, recruit friends to help. “Making dumplings is a very social activity,” says Cheng. “We would have dumpling-making parties. You sit around a table with lots of friends and family; everyone is wrapping, chatting, catching up, and drinking. It makes the time go by faster since it’s a very manual labor of love.” If you invite people over, triple or quadruple the recipe, then send friends home with their own dumplings.
Steaming is a gentle method that turns a dumpling into a soft little pillow, allowing even delicate flavors to come through. If you have a bamboo steamer, heat water to a boiling point in a wok and place your steamer on top for a few minutes so it can heat up. If you have a metal steamer, that’ll work, but keep your dumplings away from the edges where condensation drips down. Before adding the dumplings, turn the heat down so that the water is just simmering, not boiling like crazy. Then arrange your dumplings on the tray or in the basket, ensuring they don’t touch one another other.
Cover and cook for around 8 minutes, until the skins of the dumplings swell (you can peek inside one and check that any meat is cooked, too). Depending on your taste for billowy steamed dumplings or pan-fried crispy ones, you can apply any cooking method to any filling, says Cheng. “A good filling is pretty versatile.”
We wouldn’t blame you if pan-frying became your go-to method—crispy dumplings are irresistible. Here’s what to do: Heat up a skillet that has a lid and add a little oil. Place the dumplings in the pan, leaving a little room between them. Cook for a minute or two on medium, then add 2 to 4 tablespoons of water (it’ll sizzle dramatically) and immediately cover the pan. Lower the heat slightly, then cook until the water evaporates, which should take less than 10 minutes. A tip for success is to show restraint with the oil. “You just need a tablespoon, max,” says Cheng, lest you end up deep-frying your dumplings (which is a valid approach, though messy at home; simply heat a pot of oil until a dumpling sizzles immediately upon entry; fry until golden). Lift pan-fried dumplings from the pan with tongs. They should detach from the pan easily.
For dipping, Cheng adores what she calls Mimi’s Secret Sauce, a recipe she won’t disclose. You can fashion your own not-so-secret tangy soy sauce out of soy sauce (about 1/3 cup), rice vinegar (2 to 3 tablespoons), some grated ginger or garlic, a couple teaspoons of chile oil or squirts of a favorite chile sauce, and perhaps a pinch of sugar. The Chengs are known to sink their dumplings into sauces as diverse as ketchup and homemade hot sauce.
Throwing dumplings into soup is a time-honored way to turn a few bites into a versatile meal. Heat some chicken or veggie broth so it maintains an easy, not-too-brisk simmer, and cook as many dumplings as you’d like to eat right in the soup. Add veggies like shredded cabbage, bok choy, or bean sprouts to the broth, and season the broth with soy sauce and chile oil—or just pour in some of your secret dipping sauce.
Leftovers & Freezing
If you have leftover cooked dumplings, Cheng says you can make delicious use of them in quick veggie stir-fries. You’ll most likely have extra uncooked dumplings since they’re typically prepped in large quantities. That’s why so many home cooks bundle up extra servings in the freezer: “It takes a lot of time and energy to make dumplings, so you wouldn’t make it for one meal, you’d do in bulk,” says Cheng. This is a two-step process. First, arrange dumplings in a single layer on a lined baking sheet or cutting board and put in the freezer. When frozen through, after an hour or two, transfer the dumplings to sealed freezer bags and squeeze out all the air. Now you have meals in one bite at the ready whenever you want them. Defrost dumplings slightly in the fridge, smoothing out any cracks in the skin before you pan-fry or steam as usual.