Perfect Spring Rolls for Chinese New Year: deep-fried, air-fried or non-fried

By Charleen - February 12, 2021

Crisp and smooth on the outside, spring rolls have always been one of my favorite dim sum. Whether in the form of Chinese 春捲 chun juan or Filipino lumpia, these elongated elegant packets are truly addictive. But for decades, I was afraid to try making them at home. No longer. Now that I have discovered how easy it is to make spring roll wrappers, all barriers have been removed. These homemade spring rolls are delicious whether they are deep-fried, air-fried or not fried at all!

Happy Chinese New Year 新年快樂! This Spring Festival 春節, which celebrates the arrival of the new lunar year, will be celebrated with fresh, homemade spring rolls for the first time, thanks in part to culinary explorations during the 2020 pandemic lockdown.
A wok-fried vegetarian spring roll with homemade wrapper. Filling recipe from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young: the Sept. 2020 Wok Wednesday recipe of the month.

Although there are other elongated, wrapped appetizers that may be confused with spring rolls, once you have bitten into the light, shatteringly crisp wrapper surrounding a flavor-packed julienned filling there is no going back. Spring roll is the literal translation of 春捲 chūn juǎn, the Chinese name for these delectable finger foods. Among my earliest memories of visiting the Los Angeles Chinatown is walking around to the side door of the Hong Kong restaurant, which served dim sum on weekends, to get a tray of take out spring rolls. These dainty, crisp and evenly browned packets did not feel greasy to the touch and were filled with finely julienned fragments of pork, black winter mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

The spring rolls of which I speak are not the same as egg rolls. Spring rolls and lumpia have a crispy, dainty appearance, and a crackling noise is required when you bite into these smooth cylinders. The addition of egg in the wrapper results in the slightly chewier, textured surface of egg rolls, and these are often wrapped fatter that the sleek spring roll. Both of these flour-based wrappers act to lovingly cradle a cooked filling that typically contains a mixture of vegetables and, optionally, pork or shrimp, although the Filipino filling is mostly ground pork and beef. There is also a type of Vietnamese rolled appetizer (gỏi cuốn, literally "salad rolls") that is often called a fresh spring roll or a summer roll. These are great for the summer because they are made using translucent rice paper wrappers briefly rehydrated in water, and typically contain lots of fresh, uncooked herbs for a cooling sensation.
Left: Spring rolls from Spicies in Cambridge, MA; Upper right: Huge egg roll from the Moonlight Express food truck in the Pittsburgh Strip District. Lower right: Homemade summer rolls or goi cuon. 

Recipes from Seventeen magazine and Wisdom of a Chinese Kitchen.

I loved spring rolls so much that I clipped a recipe from the April 1976 issue of Seventeen. This magazine had a section called "Now You're Cooking" that featured delicious and approachable recipes from all over the world. But it would take another 44 years, and a global coronavirus pandemic, before I worked up the courage to try making my own spring roll wrappers from scratch. 

In addition to the Seventeen recipe, I have included at the bottom of this post a lumpia recipe from a fellow Banning High student that I have kept with me for decades in remembrance of the most amazing multicultural classroom potluck parties. In 2020, I found myself consulting some online resources, and discovered that it was much easier than I had thought to make homemade spring roll wrappers. 

The batter is quickly brushed on a moderately low pan. When the wrapper changes color and starts to curl from the edge of the pan, the lifting edge can be used to pull the entire pancake off of the non-stick pan.  I did later try this in my wok, which is generally non-stick, but found that parts of the pancake cooked too quickly as the wok does not provide uniform heat across its bottom.

Here is a movie from the first time I made these, showing how the appearance changes as it cooks and the edges curl from the pan.  

I used the bbq pork-based spring roll filling recipe from Grace Young's Wisdom of a Chinese Kitchen cookbook, omitting the ingredients I did not have as we were under lockdown. 
Deep fried spring rolls with Chinese bbq pork and pickled chive blossoms. Filling recipe from Wisdom of a Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young, homemade wrapper recipe from Seventeen. June 2020.
A while later, I tried making the shrimp filling from Seventeen, which featured fresh colors of snow peas along with the shrimp. However, I felt the filling had too much soy sauce, distracting from the fresh flavors of the vegetables. 
Ingredients for the Seventeen shrimp filling. September 2020.

Through this process, I discovered that many other people remember the Now You're Cooking section of Seventeen magazine fondly. Indeed, there are communities of people actively seeking these recipes. Many of these recipes can be found here. In the New Year, I plan to organize my archives and make available the recipes that I clipped 4 decades ago.

Deep-frying, air-frying and no frying.

As the pandemic progressed, I made multiple batches of spring rolls, often using whatever filling materials I had on hand.  Cabbage and carrots are among the vegetables that store for a long time in the refrigerator.  I keep lots of mushrooms in a reusuable paper bag that I bought at a Mother Earth News festival. By removing them from plastic, they last much longer. As they dehydrate a little, they crisp up a lot faster to a bacon-like treat when seasoned with Penzey's smoked Spanish paprika, salt and pepper.  And if they dry all the way, it is simple to rehydrate them as I would rehydrate dried Chinese or Italian mushrooms. Canned bamboo shoots and canned water chestnuts are also easy to keep on hand. 
Making Vegetarian Spring Rolls, using cole slaw mix as a shortcut. Sept. 2020.

Deep frying spring rolls -- an oil consuming process. June 2020.

While deep frying in my special pot took up nearly a whole bottle of oil, I found that deep frying in the wok allowed me to cut the oil to 1-1.5 cups.

Deep frying veggie spring rolls in the wok - uses much less oil. Sept. 2020
Deep-fried veggie spring rolls using store-bought wrappers

Using an air-fryer yields a crisp, crackling texture with even less oil. It takes longer than deep frying, but is a lot easier to clean up.  Air-frying also allows you to keep some filling in the refrigerator, and cook up just a few as a snack (I can fit 4 spring rolls using the store-bought wrappers or 5 using the homemade wrappers in the basket for my Mealthy CrispLid that sits on my 6-quart Instant Pot Duo). 
Air-fried Love2Chow vegetarian spring rolls, prepared from a 2x batch of filling as a preview prior to my Chinese New Year Zoom party. Feb. 2021.

Finally, the homemade wrappers are actually quite tasty, and do not require further cooking. They can be used to wrap a variety of fillings, ranging from mu shu pork to maki fillings.
Non-fried salmon-avocado spring rolls.  Sept. 2020.

Love2Chow Shrimp and Vegetable Spring Rolls
Ingredients for Love2Chow veggie spring rolls using store bought wrappers, which can be found in the freezer section of Chinese markets.
Spring roll wrappers - store bought (~ten 8-in squares) or a recipe of round homemade wrappers (below)

    Optional meat - 8 oz shrimp, raw, shells removed, rolled in dishcloth to pat dry, coarsely chopped into 1/2-inch chunks OR 8 oz Chinese char siu barbecue pork, julienned.

    Vegetable filling (suggest using 2x filling if you are making vegan spring rolls)
    4 dried Chinese black (shiitake) mushrooms and/or 4-5 fresh Cremini mushrooms
    2-2.5 cups finely shredded cabbage (~170 g)
    1/2 medium carrot, shredded or grated
    1/2 cup finely sliced celery
    1/4 cup finely sliced canned bamboo shoots or julienned water chestnuts
    1/2 Tbs. soy sauce
    1/4 tsp ground white pepper
    Salt to taste
    1 green onion, finely sliced

Mise en place for a 2x batch of veggie filling. Feb. 2021.

1. If using dried mushrooms, soak in 1/3-1/2 cup of water for 30 min, or until softened. You can speed this up by cutting them in half or using hot water. Strain and freeze mushroom-soaking water for another use. Remove tough part of stems and finely slice the caps.

For fresh mushrooms, separate stems from caps and slice both into thin strips

2. Heat wok or skillet over medium heat. Add 1 Tbs neutral oil and cook shrimp (if using) for 2-3 minutes until just opaque. Season to taste with salt. Set aside. 
Vegan spring roll filling, 2x Love2Chow recipe, Feb 2021.

3. Heat another Tbs oil in same pan. Add cabbage and carrot and stirfry 2 minutes. Then add mushrooms, celery, bamboo shoots and cook 2-3 minutes longer to evaporate excess moisture. Add soy sauce, white pepper and shrimp/pork, if using, and toss to mix. Add salt to taste. Stir in green onions and remove from heat. Allow to cool 10 min.
Shrimp and vegetable spring roll filling, Love2Chow recipe, Dec. 2020. 

4. Place square spring roll wrapper so that a point faces you. Cover remainder to prevent them from drying out. Arrange 1/4 cup of filling in an oblong shape stretching across the bottom third of the wrapper. Fold the bottom corner up and tuck in under filling. Fold in both sides, creasing the edge upwards. Finish rolling upwards, using a bit of water to moisten the top corner to adhere it to the rest of the roll. 
Wrapping Love2Chow shrimp filling into store bought wrappers.

For round homemade wrappers, use 1.5-2 Tbs or an ice cream scoop of filling depending on size of wrappers. Homemade wrappers are slightly sticky and will seal on their own. 
Wrapping veggie spring rolls using homemade wrappers.

5. For deep frying, add 1-1.5 cups of neutral (e.g. canola) oil to wok. Heat over medium heat to 350°-365°F. Slide in 3 spring rolls and fry for 1-3 minutes per side until golden brown. Drain on rack of paper towels.
Shrimp and vegetable spring roll (Love2Chow filling), wok-fried with store-bought wrappers.

For air frying, spray air fryer basket with cooking oil. Arrange a batch of spring rolls so they are not touching each other. Airfry at 375°F for 6-8 min. Flip and repeat.

Spring Roll Wrappers
    1 cup flour
    1 cup plus up to 4 Tbs cold water
    1/8 tsp salt

1. Combine flour, salt, and 1 cup water in a bowl. Add water, one Tbs at a time until it forms a smooth, moderately thick batter.

2. Heat a 6- or 7-inch nonstick skillet on med-low to low heat.

3. Using a pastry brush, quickly brush batter across bottom of the pan, applying 2-3 times to fill in all the holes. If using a 6-inch omelet pan with rounded bottom edge, you will need to brush the batter up partway up the sides, as shown in the image. 
Painting on the spring roll wrapper - how to get a 7-inch round from a 6-inch nonstick omelet pan.

4. When edges start to curl away from pan, use a plastic fork or knife to lift it high enough to grab without burning your fingers. Peel the entire round off the pan and place face down on a plate to cool. They are tougher than they look and can be moved as they cool to form a stack on a single plate. Adjust heat so that the wrappers stay soft. Do not allow them to get crisp or brown.

🐾 If batter dries out too fast during brushing, either turn down the heat, or remove the pan from the heat for the brushing step.

🐾 If wrappers stick a little, clean pan by wiping with an oil-dampened paper towel. There should not be any visible oil as that will cause the batter to bead up instead of spreading out into a sheet.

🐾 Extra homemade spring roll wrappers are delicious on their own, and can be used just like the thin mandarin pancakes that come with Peking duck or mu shu pork, or any other stirfry (below). We used some in place of seaweed for a maki-inspired unfried salmon-avocado egg roll (photo above).

Extra homemade spring roll wrappers can be used as a wrap without any further cooking.

🍃 If heat is adjusted properly, the oil should not significantly darken. It can be strained through cloth, using a metal funnel if still warm, into a glass jar and re-used once.

🐾 I do not recommend convection baking, at least not in a speed oven. Even after 45 min, the wrappers did not get very crisp, and the filling ended up overcooked and oozing out. 

Convection "roasted" in a GE Profile convection over-the-range microwave. Will report back after trying it again in a real convection oven with either a flame broiler or radiant heat coils.

🐾 For more information about Chinese char siu barbecue pork and dishes using it, visit this link

Other useful links:
Cantonese style spring rolls

Vietnamese-inspired spring rolls. These are not the same as the rice sheet wrapped summer rolls that contain fresh herbs and halves of cooked but cooled shrimp, which are served cold.

Lumpia. These Filipino spring rolls are usually filled with a blend of ground meats, either shrimp and pork or pork and beef, and a small amount of mirepoix-type vegetables. 
Lumpia recipe from one of my sister's Filipino friends

For a discussion on pan- or shallow-frying versus deep-frying, check this.

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