(Not) Recipes

How to Make Dumplings Without a Recipe

April 20, 2015

Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Let your creativity, not a recipe, guide your dumpling-making.

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When you think about dumpling-making as an edible art project, you understand why creativity and a little time—not a recipe—are all you really need. First consider the materials (in food terms, the flavor profile): The dumplings can be subtle, filled with shrimp and corn, or made bold by kimchi or watercress. Then, there’s the process: How do you want to fold your wrappers? Once you’ve spent some time crafting your works of art, there’s the cooking to think about—steam, boil, or pan-fry—and finally, the dipping sauce (hot sauce? soy-chili sauce? peanut sauce?).

When all of your creative energy is spent, your finished masterpieces needn’t be rarefied: Stick them in the freezer so they’re on-hand in case of emergency (they’re loads better than store-bought frozen dumplings). Or devour them en masse, showing off your craft by hosting a dumpling party. This is art for the people.

Here’s how to make dumplings without a recipe:

1. Gather your ingredients. First, you'll need to procure dumpling wrappers, which are available at Asian markets and many high-end grocery stores. Look for either square or round dumpling or wonton wrappers, which usually come in packs of 60. (Or, skip the grocery store and make your own.) 

Perhaps most importantly, you'll also need a combination of protein, vegetables, alliums, and other fun add-ins for your filling. Pick at least one item from the following categories, with protein and vegetables making up the bulk of your filling (and I’d recommend always sticking in scallions, chives, cilantro, and ginger—your dumplings will almost always pop when those four ingredients are involved).

  • Protein: ground pork, ground chicken, ground turkey, shelled and deveined shrimp, firm tofu, cooked edamame, cooked lentils, cooked mung beans, cooked split peas
  • Vegetables: cabbage, kimchi, mushrooms (enoki are great), corn, watercress, bell peppers, bok choy, spinach, cooked pumpkin
  • Alliums: scallions, shallots, garlic, leeks, chives
  • Other doodads: cooked bean thread noodles, grated ginger, cilantro

If you're feeling overwhelmed and in need of some guidance, here are some trustworthy combinations:

  • Pork + cabbage + chives + ginger
  • Shrimp + corn + garlic + cilantro
  • Tofu + kimchi + scallions + bean thread noodles
  • Ground turkey + watercress + edamame + ginger 

For our filling, we used tofu, kimchi, ginger, enoki mushrooms, chives, cilantro, scallions, and bean thread noodles.


2. Prepare the filling. Once you've picked out your ingredients, you'll need to do a bit of estimating. You'll want about 1 scant tablespoon of filling per wrapper. If you’re buying wrappers, you'll be aiming to make about 4 cups of filling. (If you're making your own wrappers, I'll leave the math up to you, overachiever.) Pick out the ingredients you like, then measure the bulky items (the protein and the vegetables) to see if you’re close to 4 cups total. Even though measurement is going to change after you put the mixture in the food processor, it’s still good to start close to 4 cups so you don’t run out of or waste too much filling.

Once you've eyeballed the ingredients, you'll need to cook anything that might still be raw after the 6 to 10 minutes it takes to steam, pan-fry, or boil the dumplings. The specifics are noted in the list above, but keep in mind that you'll want to cook ingredients like bean thread noodles, lentils, mung beans, split peas, and pumpkin (along with any others you want to guarantee are fully cooked). 

Now roughly chop any large ingredients (like tofu, cabbage, pumpkin, etc.) so that they can be broken down uniformly in the food processor. Throw all of the ingredients into the machine and add flavorings: black pepper, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, sesame oil, and rice vinegar. You can eyeball it (you’ll have an opportunity to correct them in a second). Process until the mixture is combined but still has some texture (as if you were making meatballs). Taste the mixture (as long as there's no raw meat involved) and adjust seasonings as needed. Then, if you have time, transfer the filling to a bowl, cover it, and let it sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes so all the flavors can meld together. 



3. Fill the wrappers. Gather your filling and your wrappers, then line a baking sheet with parchment paper and fill a bowl with water. Place the wrapper on a floured surface or hold it in the palm of your non-dominant hand, then place 1 scant tablespoon of filling in the center. Dip a couple of fingers into the water and wet the rim of the wrapper.



4. Fold into dumplings one of four ways. Whether you’re using square or round wrappers, you can fold your dumplings four different ways (there are other options, but these are a good place to start). Each method has its own personality—and level of difficulty (our list moves from easiest to most difficult). Once you’ve folded a dumpling, set it on the prepared baking sheet while you work on the others.

a) Half-moon: Fold the dumpling wrapper in half and press the edges together to seal. Make sure you get any air bubbles out of the inside.

b) Big hug: Besides the half-moon, this is the easiest option. Fold the dumpling into a half-moon, as described above, take the outer “arms” of the dumpling and fold one on top of the other in the center of the filling. Add a dab of water where the arms meet, and press to seal. 


c) Crimp, a.k.a. make lots of pleats: Seal the dumpling like you did for the half-moon. Then, starting at one edge of the dumpling fold and using your thumbs and index fingers, crimp all the way to the other edge. Think of it as making a Z and then flattening the Z onto itself so it becomes a squiggle.

d) Pouch:
Bring two opposite sides of the dumpling wrapper to meet atop the filling. Hold them together with your thumb and index finger. Then, with your other hand, bring one of the other sides to the center, hold the point with the hand holding the dumpling (3 sides will be sealed), then do the same with the final side. Pinch the sides of the wrapper together so they’re sealed.


4 1/2. You can freeze some. Frozen homemade dumplings are decidedly better than store-bought—and you can control what’s in the filling. To freeze yours, transfer the tray of uncooked dumplings to the freezer. Once they’re fully frozen, put the dumplings in a resealable plastic bag. (You shouldn’t transfer them straight to a plastic bag because they will stick together and lose their shape.)

5. Cook your dumplings. If you plan to eat some of your dumplings without freezing them, you are smart. You can steam, pan-fry, or boil in water (or directly in soup). 

  • To steam: Fill a lightly oiled bamboo steamer basket with dumplings. Cover the steamer basket, then place it over a pot of simmering water, making sure the basket sits safely above the water line, and cook for about 6 minutes.
  • To pan-fry: Heat a pan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles when added. Add a few tablespoons of any sort of oil with a high smoke point: Peanut or sesame is traditional, but vegetable or olive also does the job. Let the oil heat for a minute or so, then add your dumplings, making sure they aren’t touching. When the bottoms are golden brown, flip the dumplings (it will be harder to brown those that do not have two flat sides, like the pouches), then add a few tablespoons of water to the pan and cover. Once all the water has evaporated and you hear crackling instead of bubbling, take the lid off and transfer the dumplings to a plate.
  • To boil: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Gingerly plunk your dumplings into the water. Once they come to the top, let them cook for 6 more minutes, then, using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a plate or directly into soup.

If you've frozen your dumplings, some extra preparation might be necessary. While many hurry and cook dumplings directly from the freezer, Asian Dumplings author Andrea Nguyen recommends thawing your dumplings for 10 to 15 minutes before you plan to cook them to prevent the dumplings from clumping and sticking to the bottom of the pan. J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats prefers to add his frozen dumplings to a shallow bowl with a small amount of water, cover the bowl, and microwave for about 3 minutes, until the dumplings are cooked through. Then, he drains the dumplings for 15 seconds and pan-fries them until golden brown.

Once your dumplings are cooked, mix up a quick dipping sauce of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, chile paste like Sriracha or gojuchang, and/or sesame seeds. Dip one dumpling, then another, and another.

Photos by Bobbi Lin

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dei Lexa
    Dei Lexa
  • Maria
  • Lan
  • kantcould
  • Aaron Qian
    Aaron Qian
Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.


Dei L. January 6, 2016
I love dumplings!!!
I have another technique for doing it and another recipe as well. I have taken some photos as well
You can find it here
Maria December 30, 2015
Hi , my husband love my pierogi ( dumplings) , last Christmas I made 7 dozen and give them oway .
Lan June 12, 2015
Ali Slagle has to stop writing recipes. This dumpling recipe is just plain awful. The colorful pictures actually save the recipe. People can start a fire in the kitchen if deep frying with sesame oil. Good grief!
Ali S. June 15, 2015
Hi Lan: We don't advocate deep frying dumplings here, but rather pan frying. And while I agree sesame oil wouldn't be my first choice for the job (partially because of its intense flavor), it can work in a bind. The good news is this is a Not Recipe, so many options are presented so everyone can make dumplings how they'd like and with what ingredients they have on hand.
kantcould June 10, 2015
Never heard of a Chinese cook using a food processor and grinding everything into a mush is not appealing. Personally, I much prefer mincing everything and then mixing together. Not only is the texture more toothy but the individual ingredients retain their character.
Aaron Q. April 22, 2015
Also, the cooking time depends on the filling and how much filling you put in your dumpling. ( I make VERY fat ones... ) So I usually cook for 10 minutes after boil, and I add cold water once or twice when the water is boiling too rapidly. ( Learned from my grandfather, no idea way... )
Aaron Q. April 22, 2015
Hi guys, I'm a Chinese guy who makes and eats traditional dumpling regularly. It is cheap, easy and fun to make. Here is a few tricks to make good dumplings:

1. Make one dumpling with your filling, cook it and taste it. You can then adjust your filling if it less salty or need more cooking oil, etc.

2. Seal your dumplings real tight. Otherwise water will seep into your dumpling fillings and make it taste bland.

3. Control your boiling water. If your water is boiling rapidly, your dumpling will be tossed around in the pot and that will cause the skin to break, and you get bland dumplings.

Learn these 3 tricks and enjoy your dumplings.
Chia-Li S. April 21, 2015
Ali Slagle, you gave a lot of mis-information here about making dumplings. I hope you'd stop. I am so sick and tired of non-Asians pretending to know how to prepare Asian food....
Ali S. April 21, 2015
Hello, These dumplings are by no means perfect or traditional—the intention of this post is to inspire people to make dumplings and to do so how they would like to go about it.
Chia-Li S. April 21, 2015
px_bonne, I guess your people here live on the bliss that's called ignorance....
Chia-Li S. April 21, 2015
you really don't know how to make decent dumplings do you?
Those dumplings look pretty pathetic....don't try to teach people how to make "dumplings" when yours weren't even made right... also, you don't fry stuff with sesame oil, ok? you season with it. why do you think sesame oil comes in much smaller containers than regular oils?
px_bonne April 21, 2015
wulfferine75 April 20, 2015
it's very therapeutic sitting at the table and just folding dumplings for a while, chatting, drinking wine. i make hundreds at a time.
if i add wet bulky things like cabbage, i salt it for 30 minutes or so in a colander and squeeze out the extra moisture.
Aaron Q. April 22, 2015
I usually chop veges into tiny bits ( almost like ground veges ), and then squeeze the water out of them and mix.
vvvanessa April 20, 2015
I like the "choose one from each category" approach to making filling. Great idea!

I make dumplings a lot, and I never use a recipe, so to test the filling before it all goes into wrappers, I always fry up a small patty of it to taste so I can make seasoning adjustments.
Ali S. April 20, 2015
GREAT idea.
Aaron Q. April 22, 2015
Although not traditional dumplings, but I feel you should just put whatever you like and experiment. One key is not to add too many watery content, or at least try to squeeze water out before mixing. ( Or at least I prefer thick fillings )
Adriana Z. April 20, 2015
This is so awesome! I just bought a package of wrappers on a whim and had no idea what I was going to do with them. I'm assuming any filling with pork would need to be cooked prior to filling?
Ali S. April 20, 2015
You don't really need to since it'll be cooked when you steam, fry, or boil the dumplings. But, if that premise scares you, you could precook the meat.
vvvanessa April 20, 2015
I think precooking the meat would take away from all the lovely juiciness that happens when the meat cooks in the wrapper. If you're boiling dumplings, they're ready when they pop up to the surface of the water/stock (let them go for another minute if you're really concerned about undercooking). If you are pan-frying (per the above instructions), it's actually hard to undercook the meat and get a nice, crispy brown wrapper at the same time; if your wrapper is golden, your meat should be done.
Michele April 20, 2015
Oh I wish you had posted this about 3 years ago! This was when I summoned the courage to make a fiddly but quite straightforward dumpling recipe (secret ingredient lemongrass). I agonized over following it to the letter which resulted in my only making dumplings once a year. But they are so delicious and worth it. Now, I won't worry so much and will make them much more often. Thanks for demystifying the process.
Sini |. April 20, 2015
This is such a great article! I've been dying to make dumplings (mostly thanks to Cynthia of Two Red Bowls), but still haven't found the courage. I really should tackle this Asian feast! Thanks for the inspiration and endless tips and suggestions.
amysarah April 20, 2015
I love making dumplings. Just to add - any kind of flat steaming pot works, if you don't have bamboo. Sometimes they stick even with oiling, then tear when removed - a good trick around this is lining the bottom of the steamer with leaves of cabbage or lettuce before arranging the dumplings inside.
Sarah J. April 20, 2015
This is so great. I'm inspired to host dumpling-making parties once a month where we eat half of the dumplings right then and there and freeze the other half, sending each participant home with plenty to pan-fry in the weeks to come.
Ali S. April 20, 2015
Am I invited?