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Proper Stir Fry Technique

Categories: Asian, Cooking tips

The Proper Stir Fry

June Chua
Apr 3, 2006
When my family moved to Canada from Malaysia, my mother brought on the flight her cast iron wok. The burnished, well-oiled wok has provided our family with hundreds of exquisite Asian dishes from lemongrass crab to simple, crisp fried snow peas. It’s crucial to know how to make a proper stir-fry. The key factors are: heat, cold oil and the right amount of food to stir-fry.

When my family emigrated from Malaysia 30 years ago, my mother brought with her on the flight: a large packet of curry, her blue vinyl recipe book and her cast-iron wok. These were seen as essentials she could not live without in Canada. That wok has given birth to hundreds of sumptuous meals – most memorable is the crab stir-fried with lemongrass, egg and cumin. My mouth waters at the thought of sucking on those crab legs, crisp and savoury from the wok. It’s a sublime pleasure.

As my mother is Cantonese, the wok is a priceless item. It must be well-seasoned enough to provide what her people call “wok hay” flavour. “Hay” meaning breath or energy.


Some important tips to achieve the perfection of heat and ingredients for wok hay. First, make sure the wok is ready to welcome the food:

* Heat the wok until you can feel the warmth radiating from its bottom.
* Toss in a few beads of water and if they evaporate within a beat or two, the wok is ready for oil.
* The best wok hay can be achieved by adding cold oil to a hot wok. The cold oil should do a little jig on the wok and that’s the key to preventing food from sticking to the surface (the real Ancient Chinese Secret!).

Now, that the wok is primed, it’s time for the meat and veg:

* Always stir fry with fresh ingredients, which are uniformly sliced.
* Don’t stir fry more than a large plate of items. An overloaded wok causes ingredients to steam rather than stir fry.
* Let meat sit in the wok at first for 30 seconds to a minute, then toss it around. Make sure the food is evenly distributed.
* If adding any liquids or sauce, drip them down the sides so the internal heat doesn’t drop or you’ll lose your wok hay.

By the way, my mother still has that wok. It’s a family heirloom as far as I’m concerned. That and the blue vinyl recipe book brimming with good eats that have sustained my family for decades.

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How to Stir-fry Without a Wok

Categories: Cooking tips

Few people do not like stir-fry, and yet only a fraction of enthusiasts try to attempt such a dish at home. The drawback is making room for and cleaning a wok. With these tips, you can stir-fry without a wok, and no one else will know.

Step 1

Estimate how many ounces of vegetables and/or meat you will be stir-frying. It is best to cook no more than 8 to 10 oz. of food at a time in a regular-sized pan, or the food will steam and overcook. You should instead stir-fry in batches or use two pans when a wok is not available.
Step 2

Use a large nonstick pan with sloped edges or a cast-iron skillet with deep sides. The heavier pans provide more even cooking. A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is essential to prevent sticking.
Step 3

Cut your vegetables into relatively equal widths, between 1/2 to 3/4 inch in thickness. Higher-density foods such as carrots may be sliced thinner, while vegetables with a higher water content should be relatively thick-sliced. This uniformity is essential whether you stir-fry without a wok or cook with one.
Step 4

Slice meat thinly against the grain, and maintain an even thickness of about 1/2 inch or less. Season the meat if desired and set aside.
Step 5

Add between 1 and 2 tbs. oil to the pan, considering dietary preference and taste. Oriental oil or olive oil works best. Sesame oil and peanut oil are popular choices. Vegetable oil may be used, though less is usually needed. Preheat the pan on medium-high heat. Tip the pan to coat it well.
Step 6

Add meat to the hot pan and stir it very quickly. Use a wooden spoon or spatula until it is lightly coated with oil and very lightly browned. If needed, turn down the heat a bit to prevent burning. Either continue stirring until the meat is cooked or lower the heat and proceed to the vegetables.
Step 7

Stir-fry your vegetables in the same pan as the meat or separately. Each has its advantages, but when stir-frying without a wok, a separate pan may work best for crisp vegetables. Otherwise, add about 6 to 8 oz. vegetables to the meat and stir until the desired texture is obtained.
Step 8

Stir-fry the vegetables in a separate pan by repeating the preparations above and preheating the pan to a medium-high heat. Vegetables can be stir-fried from 1 to 3 minutes, but cut the process short so that their texture is just shy of the desired tenderness. Add the vegetables to the meat to properly blend the flavors and finish cooking for several seconds to 1 minute.