Mazlan is an engineer by profession and a lover of food. In his free time, he likes to tinker around in the kitchen.
Chinese Stir Fry
Nothing beats a perfectly cooked Chinese stir-fry with lots of juicy and tender meat and no soggy veggies. It is big on flavor and with the added protein and vegetables, it is a wholesome balanced meal. This Chinese cooking technique with all the ingredients fried, stirred, and tossed in a very hot wok is actually easy to make provided you know the technique.
What This Article Covers
In this article, I will share the secrets to a successful Chinese stir fry so you can fix the common mistakes and dish out the perfect meal, every time.
Here are the 6 secrets to successful stir fry:
- Use a wok.
- Use the right cooking oils.
- Wok must be hot.
- Early preparation.
- Cook in batches.
- Add garlic.
Secret 1: Use Only Carbon Steel Wok
You really need a wok to cook a great stir-fry especially if it has little sauce.
Why a Wok and Not Skillet?
Because a wok with its small base and concave side can distribute heat uniformly. So, it cooks more evenly. The sloping concave sides also make stir-frying easier, preventing food from spilling, and stir-fry tossing is also effortless. The larger cooking surface means you can cook more ingredients. Lastly, a wok has a small base, hence you need less cooking oil.
We usually use the rounded bottom wok and in this part of the world, the metal ring to set the wok over the gas stove comes as a set when you buy the stove. The best size is a 14-inch wok made of carbon steel with a long wooden handle for easier handling.
Alternatively, you can opt for the flat base wok if it works best on your cooktop.
Why Carbon Steel Wok?
One of the good things about carbon steel is, it is affordable and durable. It is also
- Heat tolerant and does not release toxic fumes. Stir fry uses a quick blast of high heat with minimal oil. Carbon steel is perfect for this as it can withstand high temperatures up to 750°F. Other materials will emit toxic fumes when approaching 500°F. Carbon steel is, therefore, safer to use in stir fry cooking.
- It is naturally non-stick cookware. So you use less oil for cooking and also less oil needed to prevent food from sticking to cookware. It will ‘season’ and be naturally non-stick as you continue to use them.
- Added flavor. Once the carbon steel wok is seasoned, the stir-fries get a unique smoky, sweet essence that you don't get with the non-stick, aluminum, or stainless steel woks.
- Spread heat quickly and evenly. It also maintains the heat as you cook.
However, the downside of carbon steel wok is: you need to season first before using it to get a proper non-stick surface (see the link below under Recommended Reading on how to season carbon steel wok). It is not dishwasher safe and to make it last longer, avoid cooking acidic food as it will mess up its natural non-stick property.
How to Care for a Carbon Steel Wok
To clean; soak in hot water for 5 minutes.
Then wash under hot running water.
Don't use any detergent or scourer.
If there are food remains that need to be scrubbed, use salt and rub it over with a damp paper towel.
Lastly, wipe the wok dry and apply a little oil.
Secret 2: Use Cooking Oils With High Smoke Points
As mentioned earlier, stir-frying uses heat at high temperatures so you need cooking oils that perform well at high temperatures. This is the most important secret to a successful stir fry. Thus, your favorite olive oil, butter, ghee, camelina oil, and coconut oil are not suitable.
High-Temperature Cooking Oil
Cooking oils that have high smoke points are palm fruit oil (one of the highest smoke points among cooking oils), sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, avocado, and almond oils.
Vegetable oil is a blend of many different refined oils with varying smoke points. Depending on the oils used in the blend, it can go up to 400˚F. Likewise, peanut oil also has a high smoke point and varies greatly in heat tolerance depending on the brand.
Soy, corn and canola cooking oils have high smoke points but are usually from genetically engineered crops. They can be avoided if you are concerned about GMO food.
Secret 3: Hot Wok
Stir fry needs to be cooked hot and fast. In restaurants, they use high-power gas stoves that give out both gas and oxygen for faster and hotter cooking. You can't get this from your gas stove. So, you have to adapt to get almost close to restaurant quality stir-fries.
How to Tell If Your Wok Is Hot Enough
Set it to the highest heat on your gas stove. Then heat the wok dry with nothing in it for about 5 to 10 minutes. If drops of water sizzle or vaporize immediately, then it is hot enough. Continue to maintain this high heat throughout the frying as the wok is usually made of thin gauge material and doesn't have much 'stored energy or heat'. You also want the flames to rise up the sides of the wok.
Add cold cooking oil only after the wok is really hot. Roll the oil around to coat it well as the ingredients will get pushed to the sides during frying.
Don't Have a Gas Stove?
If you don't have a gas stove, your outdoor coal-fired grill is actually great or even better for fry-up food. The heat from this grill is pretty close to the Chinese restaurant's high-power gas stoves. But you need the removable center flap grill grate (see photo below) for your coal-fired grill. It will be easier to place your wok over. I used something similar, which unfortunately is not listed on Amazon, but that grill grate is just as good.
Even though a wok is made of thin gauge material and doesn't have much 'stored heat' it regains its heat significantly faster than a skillet. That's why a wok, designed for fast heat, is perfect for stir fries.
Secret 4: Early Preparation
Remember we said earlier that stir fry needs to be cooked hot and fast? So, preparing all the ingredients in advance is essential. Place them in bowls near your stove in the order of cooking, so you can stir-fry quickly in that hot wok.
Do the following:
Ingredients Must be Dry
All the ingredients (veggies, meat, chicken, seafood, etc) must be pad dry thoroughly with a paper towel. Otherwise, moistures can lead to steaming and will kill your stir-fry.
Veggies With High Water Content
Adding veggies with high water content will also mess up your stir fry as their moistures will be added to your cooking. Choose only vegetables that contain less water after being cooked such as broccoli florets, green beans, broccolini, carrots, celery, snow peas, sugar snap peas, etc.
Do not use ice-cold meat in your stir fry as the cooking temperature will drop. Also, any frozen meat must be thoroughly defrosted and any balance of moistures to be pat dry with paper towels.
Cutting the Ingredients
All the ingredients (veggies, meat, chicken, etc) must be cut into similarly-sized pieces for even cooking.
Prepare Rice or Noodles
If you are serving Chinese stir fry with rice or noodles, prepare them before you start your stir-fry as stir-fries are best served hot.
Slicing meat against the grain will shorten the meat fibers, which makes meat tender
Velveting is another important secret to a successful stir fry but is often ignored.
Velveting meat will make stir-fries taste better. It is a technique that creates a protective barrier that seals in the meat's moisture and prevents it from being overcooked and hence, tough.
So, if you are using beef (or chicken, turkey, prawn, etc) for your stir fry, coat the beef in the mixture of 1 egg white, 1 tbsp rice wine (or sesame oil), 2 tbsp cornstarch, and a pinch of salt and marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour (for a half kilo beef, and slice beef thinly). This will lock in the juices and keep the meat moist when you cook over high heat. Then boil the beef in simmering water for 2 minutes, strain, and pat dry with a paper towel before stir fry. Velveting your beef or chicken will give moist and succulent meat. Now that you know this often neglected secret to a successful stir fry, apply this technique for all your stir-fries.
Chinese Stir Fry Sauce
If you are using homemade stir fry sauce instead of the ready-made store-bought sauce, prepare them earlier before starting your stir fry.
Stir Fry Spatula
Get your stir fry spatula ready for your stir fry. It has a longer handle compared to the usual spatula used in western cooking. As stir fry is over a very hot temperature, the longer handle prevents your hand from getting burnt by the hot air. It also has a larger surface with sloped and sharper edges to easily stir, scrape and move the ingredients.
Secret 5: Cook in Batches So You Don't Overcrowd the Wok
When you put too many ingredients and overcrowd the wok, two things will happen:
- The wok temperature will drop and your 'not very hot' wok gives uneven cooking.
- Your meat and veggies will ooze liquids, start to foam, become wet, and end up steaming instead of searing.
Stir-fry has to be sizzling and not steaming. So, if you have a lot of ingredients, stir fry them in batches allowing the wok to reheat in between each addition.
How to Stir Fry in Batches
Since proteins and vegetables have different cooking times, cook them separately. Sort out your proteins (beef, chicken, seafood) and veggies into half-pound portions. Once your wok has reached the 'hotness level' as described earlier, pour in the cooking oil. Stir fry the portions one at a time letting them sears before setting them aside.
Wipe your wok with a paper towel and bring it to high heat just like before. Then cook the next portions, and so on.
Chinese Stir Fry Vegetables
It is best to stir fry the protein portions first before doing the veggies. For the veggies, start with veggies that need longer cooking time, e.g. carrots, before moving on to the quick frying veggies like mushrooms.
Stir-frying is done over high heat, but you need to turn it down before adding the aromatics. They must be cooked low and slow. Aromatics give additional flavor to your stir fry, but they must be added only in the last part of the cooking, before adding the sauce. You can use finely chopped ginger, garlic, lemongrass, chilies, or green onions (scallion).
When to Add Sauce to Stir Fry
Add all the cooked protein and the veggie portions back in and give everything a quick toss (you are not reheating them). If you have a stir fry sauce, this is the time to add it in. Pushed all the ingredients to the sides creating an empty space then, pour the sauce in. Once the sauce starts to darken and bubble, do the final toss until every piece is coated.
Serve with your cooked rice or noodles.
Velveting and Adding Garlic are the Magic Secrets to a Successful Chinese Stir-Fry
Secret 6: Add Garlic
If you prefer not to add any aromatics to your stir fry, please consider adding garlic for a better flavor. This is an additional step that you will not regret. As mentioned earlier, add minced garlic and/or other aromatics in the last part of the cooking, before adding the sauce.
Stir Frying Conclusion
Granted, the secrets to a successful stir fry also depend on your goal. None are perfect. So, experiment with the above setup and choose one that works well for you.
If you choose not to use the wok but follow the best practice of Chinese stir fry, then you might also create a delicious and satisfying stir fry.
What say you? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Mazlan