If you’ve ever dined at a Sichuan restaurant, there’s a good chance you’ve had dishes like Dry-Fried Beef or Dry-Fried Long Beans—two iconic dishes in Sichuan cuisine. What does “dry frying” mean? Dry frying (Gan Bian/干煸) refers to a wok-based technique credited to the Sichuan region.
An Explanation of Dry-Frying
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 some amount of hot oil without any kind of batter or protective coating. As the food cooks, the intense heat drives off interior moisture, concentrating its flavor. Simultaneously, the exterior becomes desiccated (hence "dry"-frying) and browned.
Dry frying is often an intermediate step before stir frying, much like "passing through" except with very different texture and flavor goals. After the initial par-frying stage, dry-fried foods are briefly stir-fried with a small amount of strongly aromatic ingredients. These aromatics are absorbed into the recently-desiccated surfaces. There’s no real sauce component here, just robust seasoning—hence the “dry” quality of the dish. This Sichuan "toothpick lamb" recipe is a great example of dry-frying in action.
The result is intensely flavored meat with a uniquely chewy, crisp texture and vegetables that are lightly dehydrated and blistered.
Unlike deep frying, dry frying features a shorter cook time, as well as a different target texture. The technique also shouldn’t be confused with passing through—which is a different, but related concept. In general, dry frying employs higher temperatures and sometimes longer cooking times than passing through—to achieve a dry, almost leathery exterior that softens slightly after a subsequent stir fry.
The Importance of a Wok
The shape of the wok makes stirring and maneuvering ingredients being dry-fried in the oil relatively easy. The curved, sloping surface means there’s more room to move around the wok. You can use a skimming and scooping motion to pick up the food quickly, rather than gingerly fishing it out with tongs.
The thin, conductive material of the wok means that the wok heats up fast, the oil you use heats up quicker, so the overall cooking process is faster. Speed is ideal because you want dry-fried food to retain its texture and heat: These types of dishes are best served fresh out of the wok, and begin to stale as time goes by.
Dry-Frying at Home
In a restaurant setting, cooks dunk items in hot oil regularly and liberally. They don’t worry about making a mess, and they don’t worry too much about using an abundant amount of oil. In reality, dry-frying typically produces splatter, and it can be expensive and unrealistic for a home cook to use a large volume of oil.
Fortunately, Kenji has found a couple solutions in his own testing of this technique.
- The Cold-Oil Method
Kenji found that starting the meat in a cup or two of cold oil and heating them up together produces comparable results to the real-deal dry-fried technique, which typically involves pre-heating the oil before adding the meat. Heating both together is a much safer, burn-and-splatter-proof method that led to comparable results. The oil starts out looking cloudy and emulsified, but as the moisture slowly evaporates, it begins to resemble a regular deep-fry. At this point, this is when you should start tasting and checking for doneness. For instance, beef is done when it's chewy on the exterior, still slightly moist in the center, with a few crisp bits peppered throughout.
While the cold-oil method works well for proteins, it doesn’t work so well with vegetables. Instead of a blistered and dry texture, the cold-oil method results in soggy, anemic looking vegetables. If you don’t want to dry-fry your green beans in the traditional method, then your best bet is to broil them.
Tips for Successful Dry-Frying
- 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.
- 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 ensures that all pieces are exposed to heat evenly.
- Use a neutral oil
Canola, soybean, rice bran, corn, grapeseed, safflower, or peanut are all fine choices. Avoid oils that have distinctive flavors or low smoke points, like olive or sesame oils.
- 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.
- 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 flavorings and aromatics.
Special Equipment for Dry-Frying
Dry frying in a wok involves many of the same tools you’d use for deep frying. At minimum, you might need:
Essentially a large spoon attached to a handle, this tool comes in a traditional wooden handle with a wire-mesh reservoir. Because of its sharp edges, the traditional Chinese model might not be ideal for proteins that tend to stick. A better option is the all-metal spider—it has fewer snags in its construction, so sticking isn’t as much of an issue.
A Slotted Spoon
Like the metal spider, a slotted spoon is great for gently stirring items as they fry without risk of shredding or tearing. It’s smaller than a spider, so maneuverability is a primary advantage. Plus, a slotted spoon stores easily, so if space in your kitchen is at a premium, this tool is the way to go.
Chopsticks are a great all-purpose tool for turning, swirling, or flipping foods without deforming them. They’re ideal for handling single, small-to-medium–sized foods, though they might not be the first choice for large-batch cooking. Chopsticks are also a quick way to roughly gauge oil temperature: If you dip a chopstick in hot oil (above 212℉), trace amounts of water trapped in the wood or bamboo will evaporate, which makes tiny bubbles on the surface of the chopstick; the hotter the oil, the faster the bubbling.
January 20, 2011
This article was originally written by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. It has since been significantly updated and rewritten by Tim Chin, with additional guidance and input from Kenji and several other wok experts.