Wok Skills 101: Stir-Frying Basics
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I've read in some otherwise reputable sources that using a wok is not the ideal way to stir-fry. Indeed that on a Western range, using a 12-inch skillet is actually better. I've even seen charts showing how 12-inch skillets get hotter, retain heat better, and have larger surface areas. I've seen how a wok doesn't sit right on a flat range and how it was designed for a much larger flame. All of this is absolutely true.
What I haven't seen in print is anyone saying anything about how the food actually tastes, and I'm certain it's because the same folks conducting the tests didn't actually know how to use a wok properly. Fortunately, I've conducted blind taste tests myself on identical dishes prepared in a skillet and in a wok on the same range, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that stir fries cooked in a well-seasoned wok taste better than those cooked in a 12-inch skillet.
I know you expect some kind of scientific answer for this, and I myself am annoyed that I can't prove why it should be so. Perhaps it's the seasoning in the pan that gives it that extra smokiness known as wok-hai. Perhaps it's the way the food flips up over the lip of the wok and gets a little direct hit from the flames. It could be any number of reasons. The important part is, if anyone ever tells you again that a wok has no place in a Western kitchen and as evidence offers only charts and graphs, tell them to put their money where their mouth is, throw out the charts, and taste the results side by side.
Additionally, I know about a billion Chinese people who'd disagree, and you know what? The vast majority of them are cooking on home ranges that are no more powerful than our own.
With that out of the way, let's move on to the basics of stir-frying.
Stir-frying is the quintessential weeknight supper. It's my go-to method when I have a fridge full of ingredients, and a half hour to put dinner on the table. Because the actual cooking is so fast, it's an ideal summer meal—no heating up the apartment with a hot oven or a long-simmering pot. It's also the ideal way to showcase all the beautiful spring and summer produce that's around these days. Vegetables retain their bright color and crunch—there's no reason that stir-fries have to stick to traditional Chinese ingredients! Asparagus, corn, summer squashes, string beans, peas, fava beans, all of them make for wonderful stir-fries.
The basic components of most stir fries are the same:
- 1. Oil Flavorings. These ingredients include things like hot chiles and spices like Sichuan peppercorns.
- 2. Proteins. In most Chinese dishes, either the protein or the vegetables are the star, and the other is used as a flavoring. When the protein is the main element, it is usually marinated or brined before cooking in order to add flavor and moisture. When used as a flavoring, it's most often ground or finely chopped. Proteins should be cut just large enough that they can develop a good sear without overcooking in the center. Even sized-cutting leads to even cooking
- 3. Vegetables. Like proteins, vegetables should be cut into uniform pieces to promote even cooking. Unless you are following a recipe that specifically calls for more vegetables, try to limit your vegetable selection to one or two carefully paired choices—otherwise you end up with what I call "food court syndrome" where there's so much junk inside that it's impossible to cook any one ingredient perfectly. Avoid canned baby corn at all costs.
- 4. Additional ingredients. These are kind of like the sprinkles on the ice cream cone—ingredients that don't require you to cook them in the wok, but to simply stir in at the right time. This is most often done with nuts like peanuts or cashews (which must either be roasted or fried before you begin).
- 5. Aromatics. Aromatics are ingredients that are chopped finely enough that they readily give up their flavor and distribute themselves evenly throughout the dish. The most typical Chinese aromatics are garlic, ginger, and scallions, though it can include things like fresh chiles, lemongrass, herbs, or preserved and pickled vegetables.
- 6. Sauce. Often this will include things like broth, soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, sugar, oyster sauce, or any number of prepared chili pastes, fermented bean pastes and the lot. It is often thickened slightly with cornstarch or arrowroot. The key is balance. A great sauce will have punchy flavor without any one element dominating, be that sweetness, heat, saltiness, or acid. Chinese-American food tends to be voluminous and thick—people around here like to have enough to put on their rice. In most traditional dishes, the sauce is a little thinner, more strongly flavored, and there is just enough to coat the food. That way, a meal is balanced between the bland rice, and the super-flavorful stir-fry.
- 7. Garnishes. The final layer of flavor is added after the dish is removed from heat. This can include ground toasted spices, thinly sliced vegetables, or herbs.
At a restaurant, a wok chef has two valves controlled by his knees. One controls gas flow, while the other controls oxygen. Together, they allow him to control the heat under the wok from a lighter-sized flame to an all-out, jet-engine-sized ring of fire. Most cooking gets done under this extreme heat, which allows him to successively add ingredients to the wok without risking rapid temperature drop. Try the same thing at home, and you'll find yourself standing over a woeful wok-ful of pale, flaccid, steaming meat and vegetables.
To compensate for this, the key is to heat your wok until it is literally smoking hot, cook in batches, and allow your wok to reheat fully between each batch.
For a full breakdown of the stir-fry process, click through the slideshow at the top
Tips for Success
- Stay organized. With a quick multi-part cooking process like a stir-fry, organization is key. Have all ingredients prepped in easy-to-reach-for bowls, and have all necessary utensils, bowls, and serving plates immediately on hand.
- Practice your knife skills. The most important part of a stir-fry begins before you even pull out the wok. Uniformly cut pieces of protein, vegetables, and aromatics will ensure even cooking.
- Buy a good fan. Good stir-fries require super high heat, and super high heat creates smoke. There's no way around it. Open your windows, shut off your smoke alarm, and turn on all the fans before you begin cooking. Alternatively, you can set your wok directly over a coal fire outdoors—it's really the best way to stir-fry!
About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments