Stir Fry: The Basics

Stir fry is one of the most wholesome meals that is delicious, easy to cook, and great to share. It’s is versatile dish that is exemplary for a family gathering, a weekday supper, or to take to work. The beauty of stir fry lies in it’s simplicity. Although cooking this is a pretty straightforward process, there are certain factors to keep in check before switching on the stove so you can consistently get the right flavors out of your ingredients, every time.

The Wok

Woks are used in a range of different Chinese cooking techniques, including stir frying, steaming, pan frying, deep frying, poaching, boiling, braising, searing, stewing, making soup, smoking and roasting nuts. Wok cooking is done with long-handled utensils called chahn (spatula) or hoak (ladle).

Carbon steel:

Currently, carbon steel is the most widely used material. It is relatively inexpensive compared with other materials, light in weight, with reasonable durability. Carbon steel woks, however, tend to be more difficult to season.

Cast Iron:

Cast iron woks are very easy to season which makes them more durable than carbon steel. Cast iron responds slowly to heat adjustments and is slow to cool once taken off the fire. Hence, food cooked in a cast iron wok must be promptly removed from the wok as soon as it is done to prevent overcooking. Out of the many types of woks available, the Chinese ones are much lighter, making it easier to toss food on them. The only drawback to their light weight is that they are rendered brittle due to their thinness.

Non-stick:

Non-stick are extremely convenient but don’t provide Wok Hei (more on this later). Although they don’t need as much supervision as the others, non-stick pans have relatively low tolerance to high temperature. If subjected to excessive friction, the layer of non-stick material can peel of and blend with the food causing the accidental ingestion of harmful toxins.

Aluminum:

Aluminum is highly malleable which means it can be pressed into thin sheets without breaking. This makes it easy to make light weight aluminum woks that unlike Chinese cast iron skillets, aren’t prone to shattering. But due to their soft physical state, can be dented if not used with care. Plain aluminum is the most inferior in terms of thermal capacity but some aluminum alloys can withstand high temperature. They are studies that indicate that the use of Aluminum as cookware can be harmful for health, and in the doubt, you still have 3 alternatives to use against this material.

Seasoning the Wok:

Seasoning improve the longevity of your wok as it prevent from rusting and other forms of deterioration. Here’s how you can do it at home-

Step 1: cleaning the wok to remove residues from previous cooking

Step 2: wiping the wok dry

Step 3: applying a thin layer of animal fat or cooking oil

Step 4: heating the wok to generate the seasoned coating to evaporate any moisture that might have been trapped from step 1.

Heat

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One of the essentials of stir-fry cooking is Wok Hei, which means ‘the breath of the wok.’

Perfect stir-fries have a smoky and deep flavor. It is from the break-down of oils, amalgamation of polymers, and vaporization of fat that the stir fry gets its flavor. This is achieved thanks to a much higher temperature than conventional western cuisine. Upon tossing up, the food must make a journey over the edge of a wok into a hot air column. On a gas stove, the presence of this column of air is more consistent as the flame is always in contact with the wok. It is important for the wok to be in constant touch with the flame. This makes a gas burner ideal for stir frying. Heating the wok before adding any food in is an essential element of stir frying that make home cooks overlook.

Working with Induction:

Even though induction cook tops aren’t the most ideal for such a dramatic cooking technique due to a variety of reasons like lack of balance for round bottomed woks, risk of scratching the cooktop surface due to the tossing action, and inconsistent heat, they can still make some pretty good stir fry. For people living in homes with less ventilation, burners can be problematic and keep the fire alarm buzzing forever. Induction top cooks can invest in a flat-bottomed wok which can comfortably sit on a flat platform. Frying pans of skillets with thick bases also work well with induction cooking as they can retain the heat that induction cannot provide the amount of.

Temperature:

Having established the importance of a steady and consistent flow of heat, the next factor to consider is weather the fats we use can sustain high temperatures. Supplying more heat than the oil can take will cause degradation and oxidation. Although a certain amount of breaking down is required for that smoky touch, too much is almost guaranteed to sabotage the dish. Here are some common oils and their smoking temperatures to help you apply the right amount of heat.

Olive oil: 325°F, 163°C

Butter: 350°F, 175°C

Unrefined sesame oil: 350°F, 175°C

Peanut oil: 410°F, 210°C

Sesame oil: 410°F, 210°C

Rice Bran Oil: 490°F, 254°C

Hot Wok, Cold Oil:

Always pour the oil in after the wok has been heated. The scientific logic behind this lies in the something known as the Leidenfrost effect. Letting the oil heat with the pan (adding cold oil to cold pan) allows more time for the oils to cook and develop bad flavors. Adding oil to a hot pan brings it to temp faster and helps prevent it overcooking. The oil will quickly reach its smoke point but cool enough when the food is added. Adding oil to the pan before heating often makes the oil smoke before the pan is hot enough to properly sear the food. The oil could reach it’s smoking temperature before the pan does and cause your protein to stick. This can destroy a dish, especially if you're cooking something delicate like fish.

Now that the fundamentals have been established, the rest depends on what combination of ingredients you use. The beauty of stir fry is that once placed in an ideal environment, the dish makes itself. There are no restrictions around what or how much you can put. But it does have a basic skeleton that you should know about.

The Ingredients

Meat

The Proteins:

This is generally meat, but vegetarian options include Tofu, Tempeh, or Seitan. Marinating them a day in advance or over-night can really make a huge difference in the depth of the flavor, especially for meat. There is also another excellent way of cooking the meat known as “velveting” and this is how it is done-

Basic Velveting Marinade (double, as necessary):

·         1 Tbsp. soy sauce

·         1 tsp. Chinese rice wine, dry sherry or white vinegar

·         2 tsp. cold water

·         2 tsp. cornstarch

Combine all these ingredients well with your meat. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, cook the meat. Add the velveted and pre-cooked meat near the end of your stir fry, just long enough to warm it, so it doesn’t over-cook. The velveting marinade acts as protective coat which seals moisture and keeps the meat from overcooking, resulting in meat morsels that are silky soft and lusciously tender.

The Vegetables:

CUTS:

When it comes to the vegetables, let your creativity speak. Vegetables are not only healthy, but they also add colors, texture and flavor. Your knife skills are going to make a difference as the size and shape of a vegetable can be the fine line between a good and great stir fry. Because when you are cooking at a high heat and for a short period of time, you don’t want your veggies inconsistently cooked, something that can be easily prevented by having even cuts.

SEQUENCE:

The order in which you add your vegetables must depend on how much time it takes for them to cook. For example, carrots are hard and take more time to cook so adding them first will ensure they are perfect and ready by the time your dish is ready. Here’s a good sequence you can follow:

1: Onions, peppers, carrots, harder veggies: These need a more cooking time than most other ingredients.

2: Mushrooms, sugar snaps, soft veggies: These need less cooking, so add them in the near-final stages.

3: Bean sprouts: They’re best enjoyed with a bit of crunch so add them later.

COLOR:

We always eat with our eyes first. so think of yellow capsicum, carrots, and green broccoli: a colorful mix packed with taste!

The Aromatics:

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These sets the stage for the olfactory experience of enjoying stir fry. Garlic, green onions, shallots, ginger- you add all of them or choose your own combination.

The Sauce:

It’s ideal to choose only one sauce for a particular stir fry. The easiest and most common choices are store bought ones like soy, fish, or oyster sauce. But if you’re interested in making the sauces yourself, you can try some of these options.

The Garnish:

Often overlooked, this is one of the typical elements that separate home cook and Chef. Yes garnish is to make food look appealing, but more than aesthetic, it add freshness, texture and taste to a dish. You can chop some fresh herbs such as coriander, or shallots. Or even sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds or fried shallots. And finally, a lemon/ lime quarter is certainly not a bad idea as Acid will lighten up your meal.

Herbs

Now that you know everything about the variables affecting this nutritious dish, put on your chef hats and give it a try! But remember that no matter how immaculate you are in your measurements, equipment, or tossing techniques, nothing in the world can make your food remarkable without a desire to nourish, inspire, and share.