If you want to know how to stir-fry with a wok, talk to Grace Young. After an afternoon in the kitchen with this passionate wok evangelist, we came away with our heads stuffed just as full with tips and techniques as our bellies were with the stir-fry itself. We've given you some specific tutorials and recipes from our visit, but we also wanted to revisit the basics that apply to any stir-fry. If you want to master this quick, healthy, seasonally-focused style of cooking, learn these essentials.
The three essentials to a good stir-fry are using super fresh ingredients, a hot wok, and quick cooking. These are truly the core of stir-fry cooking. More than anything else Grace talked about, sticking to these principles makes the difference between a mediocre stir-fry and one that sings.
3 Essentials for a Good Stir-Fry
• 1. Fresh Seasonal Ingredients: Buy the most fresh and seasonal ingredients you can find so that the flavors and textures in your stir-fry are punched up.
• 2. Hot Wok: Turn on a stove burner, as high as it will go. Set a 14-inch wok over this high heat burner. To determine when the wok is hot enough, start flicking droplets of water from the small bowl into the pan after 30 seconds. As soon as a bead of water evaporates within 1 to 2 seconds of contact, the wok is heated and ready for stir-frying. Do not overheat the wok.
• 3. Quick Cooking: Stir-fry cooking happens fast! When you're first learning to stir-fry, it can help to set a timer to help make sure you don't cook too fast or too slow. Stay focused on the ingredients, watching them for color and texture, so that you can pull them off the heat or move on to the next step the second they're ready.
There are also all the little tips you pick up as you go. They may be less crucial to the success of a wok-made meal, but they make the whole process go more quickly and smoothly with tastier results. Here are some of our favorite tips that Grace sprinkled throughout our cooking session.
Grace demonstrating how her thin, flexible fish turner is a better choice for stir-fry
than the thick, rigid wooden spatula.
Grace Young's Best Stir-Fry Tips
• Marinate the Meat: Tossing the meat with a little seasoning liquid is the secret to a truly flavorful stir-fry and a tender texture. You don't need to marinate the meat for long, though. As soon as it's tossed, it's ready to cook.
• Don't Crowd the Pan: As much as you might want to cook extra stir-fry to have for lunch the next day, you should avoid over-filling the wok. It's better to prep extra ingredients and then store those away so that they're ready for a quick stir-fry when you want it. Stick to the guidelines of 3/4 pound for beef or 1 pound of pork, chicken, or lamb and 2 cups of vegetables for a meat stir-fry and 4 cups hard vegetables or 8 to 12 cups of leafy greens for a vegetable-only stir-fry.
• Dry Vegetables: When stir-frying anything from snow peas to lettuce, it's important that the vegetables are very dry. Otherwise, the vegetables will steam and braise in the pan and lose their crisp texture. Giving the vegetables a whirl in a salad spinner is the easiest solution, but you can also pat them thoroughly with kitchen towels.
• Peel Ginger with a Spoon and Mince by Hand: Ginger is a central flavor to Asian cooking, appearing in almost every recipe. Grace likes to peel the papery skin off ginger root with a spoon: vegetable peelers and knives take off too much ginger flesh with the skin and a spoon is handier for getting into the nooks and crannies. Mincing the ginger by hand, instead of with a grater or Microplane, keeps it from becoming too pulpy and spattering in the hot hot oil.
• The Wok Should Sing: From the second you add the aromatics to the second you take the wok off the heat, you should hear the sound of sizzling. Not too loud, not too quiet. This "singing" means that your wok is at exactly the right temperature.
• Tumble the Stir-Fry: Think of stir-frying as a tumbling motion. You're constantly moving the ingredients touching the hot bottom surface of the wok up to the top and bringing those on top down. This way, every piece of meat or vegetable gets cooked evenly and quickly.
• Pour the Sauce Down the Side of the Pan: The last step in most stir-fries is to add a little sauce to the pan. Be sure to swirl this down the side of the pan to maintain the hot temperature of the pan. Pouring it in the middle brings down the temperature too much.
One last word of stir-frying advice: pay attention. We're all such multi-taskers these days that it's easy to get distracted with something happening in the next room or a new alert on our phones. But stir-frying happens so quickly that you really need to stay focused the whole time. As soon as the oil hits the pan, stick to the stove until the stir-fry is done.
(Images: Faith Durand)