Why It Works
- Preheating the wok and adding a thin coat of oil makes it essentially non-stick.
- Cooking the eggs without scrambling them allows them to brown and puff while remaining tender.
- Adding the soy sauce around the edge of the wok causes it to reduce rapidly, delivering smoky wok hei flavor.
- Altering the cooking process depending on the kitchen setup ameliorates performance differences in equipment and burner output.
Let's talk about egg fried rice. Egg fried rice in its absolute purest form—nothing but eggs, rice, cooking oil, soy sauce, and scallions—is one of the simplest stir-fries around. But like all simple foods—pizza, grilled cheese, a roasted chicken&mash;it's the details of the process that elevate its basic ingredients into something transcendental.
In the case of egg fried rice, that means light, individual grains of rice with just the right balance of chewiness and tenderness, fluffy and fragrant eggs, and the subtle savory aromas of cooked soy sauce and scallions. If we can get a little smoky wok hei into the mix, all the better.
I’ve already done a deep dive into fried rice, so I'm not going to do that again here. Rather, I'm going to cut out everything extraneous and show you how to get the most out of your eggs and rice, no matter your stir-fry gear situation.
For the last couple of years, I've been working on a book about cooking in a wok. That book should (hopefully) be out some time in the fall of 2021.* As part of the research for that book, I've experimented exhaustively with various stir-frying setups, from the most basic (no wok, electric range only), to the most advanced (outdoor afterburner-sized propane burners—stay tuned for a full review and recommendation coming soon). All of them are capable of producing delicious, albeit different, results. The best news is that even if you're starting from scratch, great fried rice is only about 30 minutes away. And if you happen to have some leftover rice in the refrigerator, lunch can be on the table in under five.
*Reality and past experience says that it'll actually be out when it's ready to be out, and not a moment sooner.
The video embedded above is the easiest way to see the differences in these processes, but I'll walk you through some of the details here. First, let's look at how to cook egg fried rice in an ideal setup—in a carbon steel wok with a powerful wok burner—then we'll talk about how to adapt that to simpler gear.
At home I use a 160k BTU burner from outdoorstirfry.com along with a 14-inch, 14-gauge, round-bottomed, hand-hammered carbon steel wok and a wooden wok spatula. I connect the burner to a propane tank in my backyard.
Unlike with more complicated versions of fried rice, where I'll typically cook the aromatics and rice together before pushing them aside to break an egg into the center of the wok, then fold everything together, for simple egg fried rice, I like to beat and cook the egg before adding the rice. This allows you to more finely control the texture of the finished egg. Here's the basic process.
- Before you begin. This dish cooks fast, so make sure you have everything ready before you start. Have your rice on a plate, with any large clumps broken up by hand. Have a bottle of oil and soy sauce ready to go, your scallions sliced, your eggs beaten, a towel for grabbing the wok handle, and a plate to transfer the cooked fried rice when it's done.
- Step 1: Preheat the wok. Properly preheating the wok performs two functions. First, oil added to a preheated wok forms a slick, non-stick surface, a process known as longyau in Cantonese. Second, a hot wok will cause part of the beaten egg to puff up into fluffy curds and gently brown, while still maintaining plenty of moister bits for tenderness.
- Step 2: Add oil, remove from heat, and add the beaten egg. Add a good splash of a neutral cooking oil, such as canola, rice bran, or peanut, swirl, turn heat to low, then add the beaten egg. It should begin to puff and sputter immediately. With a high output wok burner, if you leave the burner running at its highest heat when the egg goes in, it scorches in literally seconds. Instead, you let the heat of the wok do the cooking, swirling the wok as the egg cooks, then flipping it into a sort of semi-omelet just as the first side lightly browns. This takes about 15 seconds. If you want to get extra fancy, you can separately cook the egg whites and egg yolks to bring more flavor and textural contrast to the finished dish. (I rarely feel this fancy.)
- Step 3: Add more oil and the rice. Push the egg omelet up the side of the wok, add a splash more oil, then dump the rice into the oil in the center of the wok. Do not turn the heat back up yet or your eggs will burn!
- Step 4: Flip the egg and start stir-frying. Using a deft flick of the wrist (or just a spatula), flip the egg omelet on top of the rice. Now, with the egg safely on top of the rice, it's safe to turn the heat back up to high and start stir-frying. Putting the egg on top of the rice also makes it easier to break it up into pieces as chunky or as fine as you like, while simultaneously breaking up any rice clumps. As the egg breaks up and the rice fries, start tossing and stirring. You'll know your rice is ready when individual grains start to jump and leap in the pan by themselves when you stop stirring. If you can pull it off, make sure some rice and egg passes up over the back lip of the wok as it stir-fries. This allows tiny droplets of oil to combust and create sooty deposits that add smoky wok hei flavor to the finished dish. Subtlety is key here. Lightly smoky, not burnt, is the goal.
- Step 5: Season the rice. When the rice and egg are ready, nestle it down into the bottom of the wok, then drizzle a little oil around one edge of the wok. Immediately drizzle a couple teaspoons of soy sauce where you just drizzled the oil. The second part of wok hei flavor comes from the rapid reduction and browning of the soy sauce, which you only get by adding it around the edge of the wok (if you drizzle it directly onto the rice, it gets absorbed before it can reduce properly). Why the drizzle of oil? Without it, your reduced soy sauce will firmly adhere to the side of the wok and burn, rather than sticking to the rice and eggs as you toss them.
- Step 6: Add the scallions. After adding the soy sauce, stir fry for a few seconds, add the scallions, then shut off the heat. Continue stir-frying in the residual heat of the wok until the scallions are aromatic and lightly tenderized, about ten seconds longer, then immediately transfer the contents to a serving dish.
The result is egg fried rice that has aroma to spare. Smoky, savory, light, fluffy...perfect.
Cooking on a Gas Range
Cooking on an indoor gas range is not all that different. Gear-wise, I swap out the round-bottomed wok for a flat-bottomed version. I still opt for a carbon steel version with a 14-inch diameter and 1.5- to 2-mm thickness. I got my wok a couple decades ago at a Target for around $20, but the Joyce Chen Pro wok will do you just fine.
As for the process, the main difference is a longer preheat before longyau, and rather than shutting off the heat partway through cooking, I leave the gas on at full blast throughout. That's because even the most powerful home burner will max out at around 25k BTU—only about 15% the power of my outdoor burner. Leaving the heat on ensures that the pan will stay hot enough while the egg cooks before adding the rice so that the rice can fry properly without sticking or turning mushy.
If you want to capture some of the wok hei, you can do that. All you need is a blowtorch and some skills. Tim Chin wrote about the process here. At home, I use standard butane canisters along with an Iwatani torch head.
Cooking on an Electric Range with No Wok
All right, I know some of you are in this situation, and you have my condolences. But those condolences aren't particularly deep, because the fact is you can still make delicious fried rice with nothing but a run-of-the-mill non-stick skillet (or, if you have it, a carbon steel or cast iron one) and an electric coil or induction range. Why a skillet? Well, woks rely on gas flames licking up their sides to create a larger, hot surface area for cooking. The contact a wok makes with an electric burners is inadequate for proper stir-frying, unless you've got a wok with a really wide flat bottom.
Just as with cooking on a gas range, I recommend thorough preheating (a thick skillet will require longer preheating than a thinner one or a wok), and keeping the heat on high for the entirety of the cooking process. Additionally, it's important to let the eggs take their time to brown slightly. No, a plain old skillet and an electric burner alone aren't enough to give you wok hei, but honestly, you'll be too busy eating delicious egg fried rice to really worry about it too much.
3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable or other neutral oil
3 large eggs, thoroughly beaten
1 1/2 to 2 cups (about 1 pound/450g) cooked rice (see note)
2 teaspoons (10ml) light soy sauce
3 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise
To cook in a wok on a gas burner: Preheat a wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Add 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat. If cooking on a powerful outdoor wok burner, reduce heat to minimum. If using a standard Western burner, keep heat on high throughout cooking. Add eggs to center of wok and cook, swirling wok until eggs are puffy and lightly browned on the bottom, about 10 seconds on a powerful burner or 30 seconds on a standard burner. Flip eggs and lightly brown on second side. Push eggs up to the side of the wok.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok and swirl to coat. Add rice to center of wok. Flip eggs on top of rice, then using a wok spatula, break the rice and eggs up, tossing and stirring as you break them. Stir-fry until rice starts to pop and jump on its own when you set the wok down, about 1 minute on a powerful burner or 2 to 3 minutes on a standard burner.
Add remaining tablespoon of oil around the rim of the wok, then add the soy sauce to the same spot. Stir-fry until rice and eggs are evenly coated in the soy sauce (the rice should be more or less broken up into distinct grains without any large clumps). Add scallions. Remove from heat and toss to combine. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately.
To cook in a skillet on an electric or induction burner: Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large non-stick, carbon steel, or cast iron skillet and swirl to coat. Heat over high heat until oil is shimmering. Add eggs to center of pan and cook without moving until puffed and lightly browned on one side, about 30 seconds. Fold eggs into a loose omelet and push to the side of the pan.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and swirl to coat. Add rice to center of pan. Flip eggs on top of rice, then using a wooden spoon, break the rice and eggs up, tossing and stirring as you break them. Stir-fry until rice grains are loose and separated, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the soy sauce to the pan. Stir-fry until rice and eggs are evenly coated in the soy sauce (the rice should be more or less broken up into distinct grains without any large clumps). Add scallions. Remove from heat and toss to combine. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately.
For the rice, it's important that it is relatively dry. If using fresh-cooked rice, spread the rice out into a thin layer on a rimmed baking sheet immediately after cooking and allow to steam-dry for at least 15 minutes. Alternatively, store rice in an uncovered container in the refrigerator overnight. Break large rice clumps up with your hands before beginning.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The rice can be pre-cooked, cooled, and refrigerated in an airtight container overnight. The fried rice is best made right before serving.