Wok Skills 102: Dry Frying

Dry-frying is a unique technique in which vegetables or meat are cooked in oil to drive off much of their moisture, resulting in a pleasantly chewy, jerky-like texture.

Dry-frying beef in a wok.

As the beef dries out, the oil will more and more resemble traditional deep frying. Once clear, small bubbles start breaking the surface, and you know your beef is almost done.

If you've read our Wok Skills 101 series, well then, you're already a master at stir-frying, homestyle braising, indoor smoking, deep-frying, and steaming.

"What more could I possible want to know?" you seem to say. Well, as the most versatile pan in your kitchen, there had sure better be more than five ways to use it, right?

Well, today we're going to discuss a technique unique to Sichuan cuisine known as dry frying, which can be accomplished one of two ways. The general idea is to cook your main ingredient—whether it's a protein (typically beef, lamb, or pork) or a vegetable (like long beans, green beans, or Chinese broccoli)—in a relatively large amount of moderately hot oil without any kind of batter or protective coating. As it cooks, the intense heat drives off interior moisture, thereby concentrating its flavor. Simultaneously, the exterior becomes desiccated (hence "dry"-frying) and browned.

Sliced flank steak frying in moderate oil for dry-fried Sichuan beef

After their initial par-frying stage, dry-fried foods are then very briefly stir-fried with a small amount of strongly aromatic ingredients, which get absorbed into the recently-desiccated surfaces. Generally, there's no real "sauce" to speak of, so if you're the kind of person who likes to pour juices on top of their rice, then these aren't the droids you're looking for. Move along.

The result is intensely flavored food with a uniquely chewy, crisp texture.

Par-fried flank steak for Sichuan dry-fried beef
Par-fried beef.

While some recipes for home cooks call for using a very small amount of oil (2 tablespoons or so) for the initial fry for the sake of convenience, I find that you really don't get the same dehydrating effect; the food ends up steaming or searing instead.

It's a little more work, and requires you to strain and save the excess oil (I keep oil I've used for dry-frying in the fridge, since it tends to go rancid faster than other types of used oil), but the final results are worth it. Trust me.

Sliced flank steak in cold oil in a wok
Raw sliced flank steak in cold oil in a wok.

While restaurants operate by dunking proteins directly into hot oil, I find that starting with cold oil and meat and heating them together is a much safer, burn-and-splatter-proof method that leads to comparable results (it won't work for vegetables). The oil starts out looking cloudy and emulsified, but as the moisture slowly evaporates, it'll begin to resemble a regular deep-fry. This is when you need to start tasting and checking for doneness. The beef is done when it's chewy on the exterior, still slightly moist in the center, with a few crisp bits here and there.

Tips for Successful Dry-Frying

  1. Cut your food into uniform pieces. By making sure that all of your food is the same size, every piece will cook at the same rate. This is especially essential for dry-frying, where overcooking can result in leathery, jerky-like results.
  2. Keep it moving. The initial dry-frying stage can take upwards of 10 minutes if you are cooking a large amount of beef, lamb or pork. Keeping the food moving ensure that all pieces are exposed to heat evenly.
  3. Use a neutral oil. Canola, soybean, or peanut are all fine choices. Avoid oils that have distinctive flavors or low smoke points, like olive or sesame.
  4. Cut against the grain. When working with proteins, make sure that the grain of the meat is running the short way across your strips to minimize chewiness in the finished dish.
  5. Work fast. After the initial dry-frying stage, the goal is to get the stir-fry completed as soon as possible so that your dry-fried food stays hot before its final toss with sauce and aromatics.

Follow the recipes at the top for complete step-by-step instructions.