Succulent beef and crispy vegetables seasoned with generous amounts of spices, Sichuan boiled beef is super flavoursome!
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you must have noticed my passion for Sichuan cuisine. Today’s recipe Sichuan boiled beef (Shui Zhu Niu Rou/水煮牛肉) is another classic dish on my Sichuan list. It’s super addictive so you must give it a try!
What does Sichuan boiled beef taste like
The Chinese name for this dish is “Shui Zhu Niu Rou/水煮牛肉”, literally meaning water boiled beef. Sounds plain and mild, right? In fact, it’s super pungent and exciting. Succulent beef slices and crispy vegetables are seasoned with generous amounts of dried chilli, Sichuan peppercorn, chilli bean paste, ginger, garlic, etc. Hot, numbing and aromatic, it creates a mini party on your tastebuds!
Six steps to cook Sichuan boiled beef
Let’s firstly talk about the workflow of cooking Sichuan boiled beef. The following six steps outline the methods and sequence required:
- Marinate the beef: Combine beef slices with rice wine, soy sauce, egg, cornstarch and water. Coat with a thin layer of sesame oil.
- Fry the spicy topping: Fry dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns with a little oil then chop small.
- Fry the vegetables: Fry crispy vegetables until they lightly wilt.
- Prepare the broth: Fry ginger, garlic, Sichuan chilli bean paste and chilli powder until fragrant. Then pour in stock/water.
- Cook the beef: Add marinated beef piece by piece. Simmer until fully cooked. Add to the vegetables.
- Sizzle & garnish: Place garlic & chopped spicy topping over the beef. Pour hot oil over. Garnish with coriander.
Please refer to my tutorial video (in the post and in the recipe card) to see how I cook it.
How to make the beef succulent
The most important part of cooking Sichuan boiled beef is to make sure the beef is tender and succulent. Tough, chewy beef would ruin the enjoyment of the dish even if you’ve got the flavour right. Here are four tips to help you succeed:
1. Choose the right cut of beef
Different cuts of beef have quite different textures. Based on the availability and your budget, choosing the right cut of beef is the first decision you need to make. Tendre cuts with a little fat are preferable.
To be honest, I don’t have much in-depth knowledge of beef cuts (still learning every day). But I found some good online resources on this matter. “Cuts of meat: where your beef comes from” explains the standard cuts in the UK, whereas “Beef Cuts Explained: Your Ultimate Guide To Different Cuts of Beef” shows a list of American primal cuts.
I use “Thick Rib” bought from British mainstream supermarket (I believe it’s the equivalent of Cross-Rib Chunk in the US). It’s an inexpensive cut, yet very flavourful and tender enough for this dish when marinated properly.
2. Slice the beef the right way
For Sichuan boiled beef, you need to cut the beef into thin slices, ideally around 2mm in thickness.
- Sharpen your knife first. This helps a lot.
- Make sure you slice the meat against the grain for the best tenderness.
- If you find it difficult to slice fresh beef, put it into the freezer until half frozen then cut.
3. Marinate to lock in the moisture
To marinate the beef slices, you would need to:
- Mix beef with salt, Shaoxing rice wine, dark soy sauce (or regular soy sauce), egg, cornstarch and water.
- Rub and stir with hand until all the liquid is absorbed.
- Drizzle a little sesame oil to separate the beef slices and to add extra flavour.
5. Cook it for the correct time
As the name “Sichuan boiled beef” suggests, the beef slices are cooked in the broth instead of stir-frying. To avoid overcooking the beef thus making it tougher, you should:
- Turn down the heat when you start putting the beef into the broth.
- Add beef piece by piece to avoid sticking.
- Simmer the beef, instead of violently boiling.
- Remove from the heat as soon as no pinkness can’t be seen on the surfaces of the meat.
Make a delicious broth
To make a delicious broth in which the beef slices are cooked, you will need:
- Cooking oil to fry the seasoning
- Sichuan chilli bean paste & chilli powder to spice up the broth
- Sliced ginger & garlic to add flavour
- Unsalted stock or water
Sichuan chilli bean paste (Doubanjiang/豆瓣酱), aka broad bean paste, is the key ingredients for the tasty broth. It’s widely used in Sichuan cuisine and can be purchased in Chinese stores/online shopping platforms. The best-known variety is Pixian Douban (郫县豆瓣, Pixian broad bean paste) which needs to be coarsely chopped prior to cooking.
Choose crispy vegetables
Sichuan boiled beef is not purely a meat dish. Underneath the beef, you always find some crispy vegetable. Bean sprouts (either mung bean sprouts or soybean sprouts), celery, lettuce, and Chinese cabbage are the popular choices. I use the combination of bean sprouts and romaine lettuce for this recipe. Please feel free to make your own choice.
Use good quality chilli & Sichuan pepper
What makes Sichuan boiled beef super addictive is the wonderful Málà (hot & numbing) sensation created by dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. Using those two spices with the best quality possible will make your dish stand out.
Mix different types of chillies
Good chillies should not only be hot but also aromatic. You may choose the variety that suits your level of tolerance to spiciness. Overly hot chillies tend to kill other flavours thus are not recommended.
I mix two types of Chinese dried chillies to create a Xiāng Là (香辣, hot & fragrant) taste for this dish:
- Facing heaven chilli (Chao Tian Jiao/朝天椒). It’s a variety of chilli commonly used in Sichuan cuisine. It’s about 4-6 cm long and has a quite high heat level.
- Lantern chilli (Deng Long Jiao/灯笼椒). It’s named after its lantern-like shape and is mild in heat but very fragrant.
The quality of Sichuan pepper matters
The numbing sensation and citrus aroma delivered by Sichuan pepper is critical too. As my post “Sichuan pepper: your questions answered” explains, there isn’t any substitute for this unique spice. Good quality Sichuan peppercorns will add a lot of excitement to the dish.
When buying, you need to look out for the following traits:
- Look: They are even in size and bright in colour. Husks open with very few black seeds left inside.
- Smell: They have a powerful, enticing aroma. Rub a few peppercorns then smell your fingertips. The smell should be very noticeable.
- Taste: Chew one peppercorn. The tingling, numbing sensation should be strong and linger for several minutes in your mouth. No strange bitterness though.
Also, please feel free to use either regular red Sichuan peppercorns or the green variety. Or, use the mixture of both.
Two steps to bring out their best flavour
Heat brings out the best aroma and flavour of chilli and Sichuan pepper. Follow two steps to achieve this:
1. Fry dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns in a little oil over low heat until fragrant. Watch attentively to make sure you don’t burn them.
2. Chop the spices small then place onto the cooked beef. Pour hot oil over to sizzle. This last procedure really enhances the “Málà” taste of the dish.
Sichuan boiled beef (Shui Zhu Niu Rou, 水煮牛肉)
For the beef
For the spicy topping
- 1 teaspoon cooking oil
- 1 handful dried chillies, seeds removed, see note 2
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns, see note 3
For the vegetables
- half Romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped
- 1 handful bean sprouts
For the broth
- 2 tablespoon cooking oil
- 6 slices ginger
- 3 cloves garlic, sliced
- 2 tablespoon Sichuan chilli bean paste, see note 4
- 1 teaspoon chilli powder, or to taste
- 500 ml unsalted stock or water, 2 cups
For the garnish
- 2 tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- coriander, chopped
Marinate the beef
- Cut the beef, against the grain, into thin slices (about 2mm).
- Put them into a mixing bowl. Add salt, Shaoxing rice wine, dark soy sauce, egg, cornstarch and water.
- Rub and mix with hands until the liquid is absorbed.
- Add sesame oil then stir well.
Fry the spicy topping
- Add oil, dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns in a wok.
- Fry over low heat until fragrant (do not burn).
- Transfer onto a chopping board. Chop small then set aside.
Fry the vegetables
- Put romaine lettuce and bean sprouts in the same wok.
- Fry with the remaining oil over medium heat until they lightly wilt.
- Transfer to the serving bowl and set aside.
Prepare the broth
- Pour oil into the wok. Add ginger, garlic, Sichuan chilli bean paste and chilli powder. Fry over low heat until fragrant.
- Pour in stock/water. Cook over high heat until it starts boiling.
Cook the beef
- Turn the heat to medium. Add marinated beef, one piece at a time.
- Simmer until fully cooked (no pinkness on the surface).
- Pour the beef and stock onto the vegetables.
Sizzle & garnish
- Place minced garlic & chopped spicy topping over the beef.
- Heat up the oil in the wok (cleaned and dried) until smoking. Pour it over the garlic & spices.
- Garnish with coriander and serve immediately with plain rice.
- Facing heaven chilli (Chao Tian Jiao/朝天椒) which has a quite high heat level.
- Lantern chilli (Deng Long Jiao/灯笼椒) which is mild in heat but very fragrant.
I hope you find my recipe of Sichuan boiled beef inspiring. Looking for more spicy dishes, check out my other recipes, such as:
- Mala chicken (La Zi Ji, 辣子鸡)
- Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐)
- Sichuan boiled fish (Shui Zhu Yu, 水煮鱼)
- Spicy orange beef (橙味牛肉)
Have a yummy day!