Can I Stir-Fry On An Electric Cooktop? | Ask The Food Lab

"I am an avid teen foodie who adores her asian dishes, especially the creativity of stir fry. Now, I make it all the time but know that my end result could be exceptionally better. You had on the blog about doing the perfect stir fry on the grill but unfortunately I am in a college dorm and only have access to an electric stove. My question is: how does one not steam their vegetables while at the same time not use too much oil AND how do you not burn your corn starch sauce to the pan?"
—Sent by sunny_side117

Here's the deal: traditional Chinese stir-fries are cooked in woks over blazing high heat. (Check out our guide on How to Buy A Wok here.) This allows a skilled cook to char meat rapidly without overcooking it, or to give a hint of smokiness to their vegetables while keeping them bright, fresh, and crisp. The very best stir-fries will have a hint of what is called wok hei, or the "breath of the wok," that ineffable, indefinable, intangible, and all-other-manner-of-words-beginning-with-"in" flavor somewhere between smoky and carbonized, with a hint of metal in it. You know what I'm talking about, right?

That flavor is created by a combination of searing from high heat cooking, as well as the vaporization of spattering oil and liquids that fly up the sides of the wok into the zones of hot air rising around it. Take a look into the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and you'll see the cook performing an intricate dance, holding a wok with one hand and a wide spatula used to flip foods and grab bits of spices and sauces with the other. Near their knees are handles that control two valves: one the flow of fuel, the other the flow of oxygen. As they cook, they'll work those handles with their legs, blasting the wok with heat when they need to rapidly stir-fry some meat or thicken a sauce, reducing it when they want to braise or steam.

Stir-fried beef with broccoli on a plate, with chopsticks and a spoon.
Beef with Broccoli ( get the recipe here!).

It's for this reason that, while it's possible to make decent, even good stir-fries in a Western-style flat-bottomed pan, for the best flavor, you need a wok and a powerful burner—or better yet, do it directly on your grill.

But hang on a minute! Are you telling me that every person in China has one of these ridiculous high-octane setups in their kitchen?

Heck no! The vast majority of home cooks in China are cooking on regular old home burners, many with electric coils at that. So the question is, is it possible to cook something that tastes great with an electric burner?

The answer is an emphatic yes!

There are only two things you need to successfully stir-fry on an electric burner at home: a good flat-bottomed wok and a bit of know-how.

The Process

Take a quick peep at this chart below, which charts the temperature at the center of a pan in various setups:


As you can clearly see, while woks always dip below Western-style skillets right when the food is added, they quickly overtake them as they continue to cook, making them my preferred vessel of choice for stir-fries no matter what type of burner I'm using.

That green line soaring far above the rest is a wok on a grill, while the red line in the middle is a wok on a burner. It clearly doesn't get as hot as a wok on an outdoor set-up gets. Try and cook a stir-fry using the traditional, add-one-ingredient-at-a-time-until-they're-all-in-there method with an electric or gas burner, and you end up with vegetables and meat that steam instead of sear. How do you prevent that?

A plate of Mongolian sichuan style lamb with cumin, chiles, and cilantro.
Mongolian Stir-Fried Lamb with Cumin.

Firstly, start with a flat-bottomed-wok. Something that can rest nicely on your heating element and will heat up efficiently. A round-bottomed wok will be unstable and will not make good contact with the element.

Secondly, wait for the wok to get screaming hot. You want that wok to be literally smoking with heat before you add anything to it.

Finally, cook in batches. You want to use batches that are small enough that the meat or vegetables can really sear, their exuded juices evaporating rapidly instead of bubbling and simmering. For an electric burner, that may mean as little as, say, a quarter pound of meat at a time. This is not a problem, it just means your stir-fry will take a little bit longer. Get the wok smoking hot, cook the batch of meat, transfer it to a bowl, wipe out the wok, and repeat until all your meat is seared and in the bowl. Next, do the same for all your vegetables. Finally, heat up the wok again, stir-fry your aromatics, add the meat and vegetables back to the pan along with your sauce, toss to coat and to reduce a bit, and you're good to go.

Since the sauce is added last minute and is really cooked just long enough to thicken and reduce slightly, if it's burning into the bottom of your wok, you know that you've left the food in there too long!

For a step-by-step slideshow of the process, check out this post. Just be aware that the lower the output of your burner, the smaller the batches need to be.

And what's that? You want some recipes?

A square bowl of vegan mapo tofu.
Vegan Mapo Tofu.

Alright, here you go!