Carefree Red-Cooked Soy Sauce Chicken with Cabbage

By Charleen - December 31, 2020

The ultimate comfort food is the dish your mother makes when you return home from semesters away. For me, this was a version of the famous soy sauce chicken or 紅燒雞, translated literally as "red-cooked chicken." My mother perfected this recipe in my later college years, dispensing with fussy, unnecessary steps to arrive at such an easy and carefree procedure that she called it 懶人雞, which translates to "lazy person's chicken". I further adapted it by adding vegetables to create a one-dish meal that had my own children fighting over the flavor-drenched cabbage.

Lazy chicken with cabbage
In the winter months, Chinese braised dishes, often served in clay casserole pots, offer a warm, flavorful welcome to all. While there are many flavors ranging from "white-cooked" ginger-scallion to rich, brown sauces redolent with chestnuts and mushrooms, red-cooked or red-braised chicken, pork or beef is the most famous. Although most prevalent in northern and eastern cuisines, each region of China has its own version of red-cooking. 
Lazy chicken with broccoli

The common ingredients include light soy sauce, and often dark soy sauce to add color (a shortcut to achieve the rich, red-brown color, although my parents only used light soy), a sweetener and rice wine. Often warm components of five spice powder are added. The meats are slowly braised until tender, and the sauce permeates the meat with a rich, red-brown color with salty caramel notes. I did not pay much attention to the cooking growing up, but had the impression they used the pressure cooker to speed things up, and then took the lid off to let the sauce cook away until it was rich and sticky, coating the meat. This latter process was called 燒乾湯 shāo gān tāng, or "boiling dry soup," with the sugars in the sauce caramelizing to add another dimension of color and flavor. 

One year, my father decided he was too impatient to wait for the honey to drip off the spoon, and he threw the entire stainless teaspoon into the pressure cooker for red-cooked beef. From then on, he referred to this dish as "spoon meat" or 調羹肉 Tiáogēng ròu.

Lazy chicken

After we were grown, my mother perfected what she calls in Chinese Lazy Person's Chicken (Lǎn rén jī, 懶人雞).  The chicken is slowly and gently stewed in soy sauce until the meat is tender, separating from the bones and permeated with flavor.  The lazy part comes from the fact that she just puts the chicken into the pot with all the seasonings, covers it, and lets it cook on low heat.  For years I could not replicate the tender, flavor-permeated texture. Following the conventional wisdom, I thought browning the chicken first would add even more flavor, but my chicken was never as tender and richly flavored as hers. It also seemed greasier. After years of doing this, I finally gave in to the truly lazy style she described, adding the chicken to a cool pot and cooking it slowly at the lowest stove setting with no added oil or liquid other than a few shakes of soy sauce & wine. It came out fantastic! 

After removing excess skin, add chicken to cool pan, sprinkle on the seasonings, cover and braise initially over medium-low heat
While this dish is faster than Diana Kennedy's carnitas, which takes hours, rushing the chicken results in a less satisfactory texture. I have found that it usually takes at least 70-75 min of total cooking time, but it is very easy and relaxing because it is mostly unsupervised cooking time aside from flipping the pieces every now and again. It is also quite easy to adjust serving times by holding it for various lengths of time at the lowest burner setting prior to adding the cabbage. About 20 min before serving, turn up the heat and remove the lid to boil down the sauce more quickly until there is very little to no liquid and it all adheres to the chicken. 

After 20-30 min, flip chicken pieces to color the other side, cover, turn heat down and continue to cook. This image was taken at 40 min.

The process works equally well with bone-in pieces as well as boneless chicken. Sometimes I use a mixture as I love the flavor added by cooking chicken on the bone, but members of my family enjoy boneless cuts. Even if you use bone-in pieces, by the time the chicken is done, it is possible to separate out the bones with just a shake or pry with a fork. The succulent, red-brown pieces are beautifully fragrant on the outside and tender on the inside.

Since I love crispy cracklings, I take all the skin and fat that I remove from the chicken and put it into an ungreased frying pan.  I cook it like bacon, relying on the tip from my Dad when he taught me how to make his crispy noodle cake chow mein He said that when the fried food was ready to be turned, it would naturally release from the pan.  A bit of help with a spatula might be needed if there is a focal area of sticking, but if you have to scrape, the food is not ready to be turned. I think one of the hardest things is to have confidence it this, and not ruin a luscious crust by early, untimely checking. The rendered fat can be filtered and saved in the freezer for another use.

Meanwhile, cook up some cracklings, shaking on salt, pepper, paprika or other spices after they come out, and render chicken fat for other uses.

My mom stir-fries baby bok choi or other Chinese greens and serves them on the side. And of course you must have some brown or white rice to accompany this hearty dish. 
One of my adaptations is to add greens or nappa cabbage, sometimes with mushrooms, about 45 min before serving. 

Allow vegetables to steam on top while chicken continues to soak in the soy-tinged juices.

First the vegetables steam on top and then I mix them in to soak up the flavor. All members of my family agree that the cabbage, redolent with soy sauce and chicken juices, is the best part of the dish. 

Around 20 min after adding, stir cabbage into the sauce to absorb flavors (Photo at 1 h total time).

Note added Oct. 2022: Most recently, I had some beautiful white turnips from the farmer's market, and used them instead. They were perfectly cooked after about 1.5 h at the lowest simmer, although they added quite a bit of water. 
So I fished out the chicken and turnips, and boiled the sauce down until it was slightly syrupy over high heat, before adding the ingredients back to coat.

Love2Chow Easy Red-Cooked "Lazy" Chicken


4 large chicken leg quarters, or 8 chicken thighs, or other mixture of chicken parts ~2 lb

Soy sauce - 1-2 shakes for each larger piece of chicken (~1 Tbs for each pound of meat)

White wine, sherry or Shaoxing cooking wine - a splash (a little over 1 tsp)

1 tsp sugar

5 cloves garlic, peeled and halved

2 stalks of green onion, coarsely chopped into 1.5-inch segments

Optional: 1/3-1/2 head cabbage, torn into pieces

Optional: 8 oz mushrooms, halved or quartered if large or 6 smaller turnips, peeled and quartered

Salt to taste

0. If using skin-on pieces: Remove skin and fat from chicken pieces and place in large skillet to crisp on medium low heat. When browned on both sides, drain on paper towel and season with salt and pepper to taste.   Place rendered fat into small jar and refrigerate for other uses.

1.  Place chicken in as close to one layer on bottom of a 5-6 quart Dutch oven.  Shake 1-2 splashes of soy sauce on each piece of chicken and add a splash of wine.  Sprinkle sugar, garlic and the white parts of the green onion on top.  Cover and cook on medium low heat for 20-30 min, flipping once.

2.  Turn over chicken pieces, cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cook another 20-30 minutes (can be held for longer), flipping occasionally. Turn chicken and add any combination of cabbage, mushrooms, turnips on top, if desired, and cover.

3.  After another 20-30 min, turn chicken and stir vegetables into sauce. It can be held for up to another hour at this point. About 20 min before serving, uncover pan, increase heat to medium to cook sauce down until thickened and nearly dry so that it lightly coats the meat (燒乾湯 shāo gān tāng). Watch carefully over the next 10-15 min to prevent burning. Adjust salt if necessary. Add green parts of green onions.  Serve with brown rice.

Shortcut to the printable Love2Chow recipe.

It takes a bit longer to cook the sauce "dry" after the liquid from the vegetables come out, but the sauce should be no wetter than this. (Photo at 72 min total time).

Lazy red-cooked chicken with cabbage, both ingredients permeated with a "dry" sauce.

🐾 If there is too much water in the sauce, and the veggies are getting too soft, you can remove the chicken and veggies to a bowl and boil down the sauce over high heat. If desired, you can strain the sauce through a fine mesh for a more refined finish. Cook the sauce a little past perfect, as it will be thinned by the liquid carried out with the ingredients when you mix it all back together.

🐾 Wait until just before serving to adjust salt. As the sauce concentrates, it will become much saltier.


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