May 14,2013 #1134 Secrets of Stir-Frying
We Americans are great borrowers of cooking techniques from all sorts of foreign traditions. We've learned to steam our rice and veggies and melt our cheese in a fondue pot. We roll sushi like we were born to the craft, and we are comfortable making our own pasta. From Asia we learned about the wok and the art of stir-fry. We believe the stir-fry is simple but there are some nuances we should master.
First, there simply is no substitute for the wok. A western deep sided skillet may approximate the process, but the wok is purpose designed for stir-frying. The secrets are the thin steel construction and those sloping sides that direct the heat and the juicy food down to the center of the bowl. A true wok is round bottomed, and difficult to adapt to Western burners. The flat-bottomed "kahari" is better adapted for us, and is very similar. All woks need to be seasoned properly. It's best to go online to get instructions for that.
Everyone talks about stir-fry using high heat. This is a misconception. Your heat can be no higher than your oil can tolerate, so here's a good technique. Start the wok off over high heat for a minute, then back it down to medium. Add the oil to the top of the sides, in a circular motion. You will need between 1 and 3 tablespoons. Never use olive oil! It smokes too early. Peanut oil or canola oil are the hands down favorites. If things start to smoke, move the wok off heat while you reduce the heat on the burner.
Stir-fry is all about prep work. Have everything ready, and we mean everything. Oil, ingredients, sauces, and seasonings should be at hand. Once you start you shouldn't stop. Everything, including meats, should be cut into small bite-sized pieces. And each ingredient should be cut up uniformly. Meats are best cut up in thin slices, about two inches long and a 1/4" thick.
The theory is to cook things in batches, then mix them all together at the end. Do meat first, just until it browns on the outside. Remove it, and set it aside. Cook your denser vegetables first and longest. Depending on the size of your recipe you can add softer vegetables to the mix, or continue cooking in batches.
The sides of the wok are cooler than the bottom, so you can stack your partially cooked ingredients there, while you add fresh ingredients to the middle. When adding liquids, pour them down the sides, allowing them to heat up a little more slowly.
The whole point of stir-fry is to keep the food moving. The traditional utensil to accomplish this is a long handled ladle. But a long handled wooden spoon works just as well.
When it comes to sauces, there are a group of favorites: soy sauce, sesame oil, hoisin sauce, chili pepper sauce, and pre-blended stir fry sauces are handy to have. Add them at the end, once again, pouring them down the sides, then stirring the food to coat it evenly.
If you're serving your stir-fry with rice, cook the rice first. It's much easier to keep hot and tasty than the stir-fry itself. Serve that at once while it is piping hot.