With the Chinese Lunar New Year only a month away, interest in Chinese food, recipes and cooking techniques are once again taking center stage. Even if you’re not celebrating Chinese New Year, you should at least know stir frying basics. After all, stir frying is one of the fastest and healthiest cooking methods in the world.
Stir frying is a cooking method by which similarly sized ingredients are cooked for a short time over intensely high heat. If you do stir frying right, cooking a dish takes less than ten minutes on the average. In fact, with most stir fried dishes, the prep time is often longer than the cooking time.
Okay, so it’s fast. And it’s healthy too? If you equate cooking with the least amount of oil then, yes, stir frying is “healthy”.
But is stir frying easy? Yes, once you’ve mastered it. And it really isn’t hard to master stir frying. Here’s a list of things to remember, and do, for successful stir frying.
A good wok is the ideal cooking pan for stir frying
Some cooks claim that a wok is not an absolute must for stir frying. Personally, I can’t imagine stir frying in anything other than a wok although there had been times when I was obliged to use a regular frying pan. The results were not optimal but neither were they disastrous.
But you definitely can’t stir fry in a sauce pan. Sauce pans are designed to keep the moisture in. To be more precise, when cooking with a sauce pan, a lot of the steam condenses on the sides and falls back as liquid into whatever you’re cooking. That’s why sauce pans are ideal for soups, sauces and stews. If you insist on stir frying in a sauce pan, accumulated moisture will turn the vegetables soggy.
The wok is shaped to distribute heat evenly, make moving the ingredients around easy and ensure that there is no steam buildup.
Know, however, that just because a dish is cooked in a wok doesn’t automatically make it a stir fry. I treat the wok as an all-around cooking pan. I cook pasta in it. I fry chicken and empanada in it. I even make soups in a wok!
Know too that just because a cooking pan is shaped like a wok doesn’t mean it will be good for stir frying. Woks, just like other cooking pans, are made from various materials. The most traditional is carbon steel. I grew up with an iron cast wok. Today, however, I’m okay with stainless steel. Stainless steel is not the best heat conductor but it is lighter and easier to maintain.
If you don’t own a wok yet (or if you’re looking to replace the one you’ve got), here are tips for choosing a good wok:
1. Make sure that it is thick especially at the bottom. Stir frying requires extremely high heat. A thin cooking pan cannot withstand the required level of heat. The ingredients will burn fast, there will be scorching and, worse, the pan can warp.
2. If you can’t decide between a smaller or a larger wok, go for the larger one. It is easier to stir the ingredients around in a larger pan.
3. Flat or round bottom? That depends on your stove. Traditional woks have a round bottom because they’re meant to go on gas stoves. If you have an electric stove, a flat-bottomed wok is the more logical choice.
Now, about the ingredients.
Use fresh ingredients
It’s the most important rule when stir frying especially with vegetables. If the vegetables are past their prime and are already soggy even before they hit the cooking pan, there is no way to serve them tender-crisp they way stir fried vegetables are meant to be served.
Have all the ingredients ready before you start cooking
Stir frying is basically cooking over very high heat over a very short period of time. You can’t throw in one ingredient into the wok then go back to the chopping board to prepare the rest of the ingredients. If you do that, the first to go into the wok will be terribly overcooked (if not actually burnt) by the time you finish preparing everything else.
Cut the ingredients into roughly the same sizes to ensure even cooking
Because stir frying requires a short cooking time, make sure that your ingredients are cut small enough so that they cook in just a few minutes.
If you’re using different types of vegetables such as a mixture of carrots, beans and leafy vegetables, you need to add to the wok first the one that takes longest to cook.
You can’t ditch the cooking oil and you need one with a high smoking point (no, non-clarified butter or extra virgin olive oil won’t do at all). I know that the current fad is oil free cooking. But this is stir frying. If you don’t want any oil at all, forget stir frying and just boil, steam, grill or broil your food.
Keep the heat high and the ingredients moving during stir frying
Start with high heat and end with high heat. Heat the wok first before pouring in the cooking oil. Swirl the wok to coat as much surface with oil. Then, make sure that the oil is smoking hot (meaning, fine wisps of smoke float on the surface) before you start stir frying.
Then, once you have your ingredients in the pan, the best way to ensure that they cook evenly is to keep them moving. Toss and stir, stir and toss. If left stationary, the ingredients that touch the surface of the pan cook faster than the ones that don’t. That will result in uneven cooking and that spells disaster.
I mean, really, who wants to eat mushy carrot with one mouthful and still raw carrot with the next mouthful? It’s even worse if we talk about unevenly cooked meat!
Keeping all those tips in mind, try stir frying. See the archive for stir fried dishes for inspiration.