Gallery: Wok Skills 101: Stir-Frying Basics

  • Kung Pao Chicken

    Stir fries are the prototypical weeknight meal: quick, tasty, one-pot wonders.

    Unlike the saucy, gloppy, candy-sweet versions that dominate the food courts, a good stir-fry should be about the ingredients, with just enough sauce to nap them in a highly flavorful, glossy coat.

    Kung Pao Chicken is a traditional dish from the Sichuan province that combines marinated chicken with fried peanuts, hot chiles, and plenty of Sichuan peppercorns.

    Step 1: Get Your Gear in Order

    The first step of any stir-fry is to get all of your ingredients and tools ready. From start to finish the process takes no more than a few minutes, so its imperative to have everything chopped, diced, minced, measured, and ready to go before you turn on the heat.

    I like to keep my ingredients separated in cheap dishwasher-safe bowls for organization and easy cleanup. You should also have on hand your wok, a spatula, a strainer (if making flavored oil), and a few mixing bowls.

    Step 2: Flavor Your Oil

    Some stir-fry recipes begin by flavoring the oil with an aromatic ingredient to develop complexity and layers of flavor in the final dish. In this case, it's hot chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, the two ingredients that supply the classic ma-la (numb-hot) flavors that dominate Sichuan cuisine.

    Heat about 1/3 cup of peanut or vegetable oil in the wok until it shimmers, add the aromatics, then immediately pour the oil through a strainer set in a metal bowl. Save the chiles, and discard the SIchuan peppers. You now have a great flavor base to fry your food in.

    The majority of recipes do not require this extra step.

    Step 3: Crank it Up

    Flavor development in stir-fried foods rely on extremely high temperatures and rapid cooking. Put your burner on full blast and allow your wok to heat up until it is literally smoking hot. After it's fully heated, add in the oil necessary for frying. In this case, we'll be frying in two stages, so add half of it first.

    This is where things get fast. Your oil should immediately begin to smoke heavily. As quickly as you can, add your...

    Step 4: Meat Meets Heat

    ...protein. In this case, marinated cubes of chicken. You want to only cook as much as can comfortably fit in a single layer on the bottom of your wok. Any more, and the temperature will drop too rapidly. If necessary, cook your protein in two or more batches, transferring the cooked portion to a metal bowl, and reheating the wok between batches.

    After adding your protein, spread it out with your spatula, then leave it undisturbed for 1 minute while it acquires some color. After that, stir and toss it until it's nearly cooked through, about a minute longer. Transfer it to a bowl and set it aside.

    Wipe out the wok with a paper towel, reheat it, add the remaining oil, then add your...

    Step 5: Greens and Things

    ...vegetables. Unlike many Chinese-American stir-fries which use equal parts of vegetables and meat, most traditional stir-fries focus on one, using the other as flavoring. In this case, I'm using some young leeks to accent the Kung Pao chicken. You can add other veggies in at this point if you desire. Cubed zucchini or celery would be good options.

    Just like with the meat, avoid crowding the pan with the veg. Cook in as many batches as necessary, reheating the wok after each batch. The goal is to get the vegetables lightly charred in spots while still maintaining their bright color and crispness.

    Once cooked, return all of your cooked ingredients to the pan along with any additional ingredients (like fried peanuts in this case), push everything up the side to create a space in the center, and...

    Step 6: Aromatics

    ...add your aromatics. The aromatics (in this case garlic and ginger) are chopped so finely that they need only to be cooked for a matter of twenty to thirty seconds. Stir them around in the bottom of the pan, then toss everything together so that your garlic gets to know your chicken thigh quite intimately and your ginger caresses your leeks in ways your leeks have never been caressed before.

    But don't let it sit on the heat too long—as soon as your aromatics are incorporated, it's time for your...

    Step 7: Getting Saucy

    ...sauce. Some recipes require you to add sauce ingredients in a particular order, but I'm not too picky here. Unless your recipe specifically calls for something different, you should have all your sauce ingredients pre-mixed in a bowl. Just give them a quick stir right before adding to the wok to ensure that nothing has settled to the bottom.

    The sauce should pretty much instantaneously come to a boil. It's imperative that you get the food onto the table as fast as possible now—the longer is stews in the sauce, the deader tasting and more limp it becomes.

    Right at the last minute, add your...

    Step 8: Final Touches

    ...garnishes. For this dish, that's another handful of toasted and ground Sichuan peppers, along with some sliced scallion greens.

    Stir-fries are all about freshness, flavor, and crunch. Serve them hot, as soon as possible.