How to Stir Fry: Tips on Cooking with a Wok

How to Stir Fry: Tips on Cooking with a Wok

What is Stir Frying?

Stir frying is a unique cooking method that was invented in China. Traditional stir frying requires use of a wok. It also calls for ingredients that are cut into bite-size pieces and then sauteed or fried on high heat in a little bit of hot oil while also being tossed and stirred often in the wok. This is to ensure fast cooking without burning the food.

The Chinese word for stir frying is 炒 (pronounced: chao). Today, there are numerous Chinese and Asian dishes around the world that are referred to as ‘stir fries’ because of the way they are cooked. Stir-fried dishes are often cooked and served with a sauce, but they can also be dry or ‘sauceless’.

A Brief History of Stir Frying

Many academics believe that Chinese pan cooking may date back to around 206 B.C. during the Han Dynasty. But it is also believed that the Hans used the technique to dry the grains that they harvested rather than cook their food in the way stir-fry dishes are currently made.

True wok cooking as we know it today began much later during the Ming Dynasty, around the year 1368. It is thought that this is when traditional wok cooking was invented. However, this method was generally only used by restaurants and wealthy families because it required the use of oil (which was expensive) and a lot of fuel to generate high heat. The average family boiled and steamed their food.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that more and more Chinese could afford cooking oil and fuel, and that is when stir-frying became much more commonplace. Most homes had a stovetop that sat above a chamber where wood was burned. The stove top had a round hole above the fire to accommodate a wok and get it hot without requiring too much fuel.

Over time and because of human migration, stir frying became popular in other parts of Asia and, eventually, in the west. That is why it is very common to find so many stir-fried dishes in Thai, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Korean and other cuisines in Asia.

Stir-Fry Equipment

The most important equipment needed to stir-fry is a good wok. The ideal wok for home-cooking that we recommend should be at least 14 inches in diameter. It should be made of carbon steel or cast iron because these materials develop a ‘patina’ at the bottom, are good conductors of heat, and impart a flavor to dishes (see ‘wok hei’ below) over time.

We do not recommend purchasing a wok with a nonstick bottom because they do not generate the heat required to stir-fry. Also, there have been some questions about the safety of nonstick materials when cooking over very high heat.

Your wok should ideally have a curved or rounded bottom if you are cooking over a gas flame. If you have an electric stove at home, you will need a flat-bottomed wok so that it can sit comfortably while cooking. A gas stove produces higher heat and is preferable over an electric stove, but many homes do not have that option. If you are using a gas stove, a wok ring (pictured above) helps the wok sit comfortably over the flame.

Typical shallow saute pans commonly used in western cooking are not ideal because they do not have sloped sides like a wok does. This makes it difficult to toss the food like an experienced stir-fry chef would. It also means that most of the food will be sitting at the bottom of the saute pan and that can lead to over-cooking.

The only other piece of equipment we recommend is a wok spatula that is slightly curved. This will enable you to scrape food off the sides and bottom of the wok.

Wok Hei

Literally translated, wok hei means ‘breath of the wok’ in English. Wok hei is the smoky, charred flavor that results from caramelization and maillard reactions associated with cooking over extremely high heat.

Most home cooking ranges do not have enough BTUs to generate the heat that is common in commercial Chinese kitchens, but, over time, and with a carefully seasoned wok, some wok hei may be achieved.

Stir-Frying Tips, Tricks and Mistakes

  1. Invest in a good wok. As we discussed above, western saute or fry pans are not ideal.
  2. Use the right cooking oil. Because stir frying calls for cooking at very high heat, an oil with a high smoke-point is key. Fats with low smoke points like olive oil will burn and turn rancid. It also is important to use a relatively neutral oil so that it does not permeate the dish. We recommend using peanut, canola, vegetable, or grapeseed oil. NEVER use butter.
  3. Cook over high heat. Stir frying in a wok calls for high heat. While you may not be able to replicate the heat generated in a commercial Chinese kitchen, it is important to remember that stir frying is a quick-cooking method. Cooking over high heat ensures that your vegetables will still have a crunch or bite to them while also retaining color and flavor. The high heat is what produces the wok hei we talked about. So crank up the heat!
  4. Cut your ingredients into the right size, preferably bite-sized. Traditionally, Chinese stir-fry dishes are eaten with chopsticks, so cutting your ingredients into bite-sized pieces is important if you do not want to use a knife. Also, since stir-frying is a quick cooking technique, you want to cut your ingredients relatively small so that they cook quickly, but do not overcook. Cut each ingredient according to its density and water content. For example, carrots should be sliced thinly whereas snap peas and green onions can be cooked as is. That is why it is important to understand the nature of the ingredients you are using. Do not worry as you will get better with more experience.
  5. Never overcrowd the wok. One of the most common mistakes people make when stir frying is adding too many ingredients to the pan at once. Overcrowding the pans lowers the heat in the wok and causes uneven cooking. It also can cause your ingredients to steam and overcook. Most experienced Chinese chefs are bona fide experts at timing and add one or two ingredients to the wok at a time. Another common technique is to remove ingredients from the wok after cooking briefly and adding them back to the wok at the end. So add your ingredients in increments.
  6. Some ingredients should be partially pre-cooked. In many Chinese restaurants, certain ingredients are pre-cooked beforehand to facilitate faster cooking and better texture. For example, we recommend steaming (do not boil as this dilutes flavor) broccoli until it is halfway done and then shocking it in an ice-bath or under cold water. This helps to retain its green color. Other examples of ingredients that should be pre-cooked are potatoes or root vegetables. They are then added towards the end of stir-frying.
  7. Cut and prepare all your ingredients before you begin cooking (French: mis en place). Because stir frying involves fast cooking, it is important to have all your ingredients cut into appropriate sizes and readily accessible. This should also include your stir-fry sauce (if you are using one), your slurry thickener (if you are going to thicken your sauce), and even your serving plate. You will not have time to make a sauce or cut your ingredients once you have begun cooking. The French call this preparation ‘mis en place’, or everything ready in place.
  8. Make a flavorful sauce beforehand. Many stir-fried dishes call for adding a sauce at the end. Very often, this sauce is what adds saltiness and flavor to the dish, although some dishes like stir-fried spinach with garlic do not call for a sauce. Your sauces should be robust and flavorful if you want your dishes to be tasty.
  9. Only add your oil when the wok is hot. Experienced Chinese chefs will always heat up their wok before adding the oil. Not only does this prevent sticking, it also prevents the oil from breaking down and creating free radicals. Adding the oil after the wok is very hot allows you to use less oil in your cooking because the oil heats up very quickly and easily coats the wok.
  10. The stir-fry sequence: Although there are variations, of course, depending on the ingredients used, there is a general stir fry-sequence to follow.
    • Heat wok, then add oil.
    • Add your aromatic ingredients like ginger, garlic, the white parts of green onion. Other aromatics include chilis, pickled vegetables, etc.
    • Add ingredients that take longer to cook, like bell peppers or carrots.
    • Add ingredients that take a shorter time to cook, like bean sprouts, leafy green vegetables, and snap peas.
    • Add your stir-fry sauce.
    • Add your slurry to thicken the sauce.
    • Add your garnishes like green onions, cilantro, etc.
    • Plate.

Stir-frying is both a science and an art, and, with patience, practice, and experimentation, you will soon be on your way to cooking some delicious stir-fry dishes.

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