Stir-Frying Basics

Convenient and efficient, here's a quick and easy way to provide good-tasting, healthy meals.

Mandarin Tofu Stir-Fry
  • Woks come in two basic shapes. The classic round-bottom wok with its accompanying ring stand is appropriate for use on a gas range. It is not, however, recommended for the electric range. The flat-bottom wok can be used on either an electric or gas range. No ring stand is needed to support this type of wok because the flat bottom allows the pan to rest directly on the burner. Electric woks are also available. They have the great advantage of being portable, so they are well suited to tabletop cooking. However, most electric woks don't maintain the high temperatures ideally needed for stir-frying, so the food may take a little longer to cook.
  • Woks made of aluminum and stainless steel require minimal maintenance. Simply wash in soapy water after each use. Some aluminum and stainless steel woks have nonstick interior coatings that need seasoning. (Follow the manufacturer's directions for seasoning.)
  • Steel woks are still the most popular, although they require more care. They come from the factory protected with a rust-resistant coating which must be removed before use. To remove the coating, scrub the wok, inside and out, with a plastic scouring pad and hot soapy water. Dry thoroughly, first with a towel and then by heating it on your range for several minutes. When thoroughly dry, season the new wok by evenly coating the inside surface with 2 tablespoons of cooking oil. Heat over high heat until both the wok and the oil are very hot. Allow to cool, and then rub in the oil with a paper towel. After each use, the wok should be soaked in hot water (detergent is not recommended) and scrubbed with a plastic scouring pad. Rinse and dry the wok. Then heat it on the range to dry completely. Add 1 teaspoon of cooking oil to the wok and rub it in with a paper towel.
  • All woks should be stored in a well-ventilated place. Long periods in a warm airless cupboard can cause the oil used on a seasoned wok to turn rancid.
Add a small amount of cooking oil to your stir-fry. If needed, you can add more while cooking.

The total amount of cooking oil needed in a recipe will depend on the type of wok or skillet used. Those with a nonstick lining tend to use less oil than their counterparts.

As a matter of safety, begin heating the cooking oil in a cold wok. Avoid heating the wok first before adding the oil. If more oil is needed during the stir-fry process, push the meat and/or vegetables to the side of the wok and pour a small amount of oil directly into the center; allow it to heat up before continuing to stir-fry.

Preparation is the key to making a delicious stir-fry dinner like this Beef Stir-Fry with Orange Sauce.

The single most important thing you need to do before you even think about heating your wok is prepare. Since stir-frying is a very rapid cooking technique, it requires the constant involvement of the cook. Once you begin, there is no time between steps to stop and prepare ingredients, so it's essential that everything be organized beforehand.

  • Cut and measure all ingredients. Meats and vegetables should be uniformly sliced to ensure fast, even cooking. If you partially freeze the meat, you'll be able to cut thin slices without difficulty.
  • Marinate, precook, or preseason any of the ingredients as directed in the recipe.
  • Combine all the ingredients for the sauce.
  • Cook the rice, pasta, or noodles called for in the recipe.
Stir-Fries aren't simply a Chinese dish anymore. Check out these Turkey Fajitas.

One of the fastest, most fuel-efficient ways to cook is the ancient method of stir-frying. It originated out of necessity in the sparsely forested areas of southern China where charcoal for cooking was scarce. Because of its thrifty use of both time and fuel, this cooking technique spread throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Here's a how-to guide to making your own stir-fries.

1. Begin by heating the oil in a wok or large skillet. When the oil is hot, add garlic, gingerroot, and/or onion, and stir-fry for just 15 seconds. This will release the flavors of the seasonings into the oil and subsequently season the vegetables, meat, and sauce.

2. Add the vegetables according to the amount of time each needs to cook. The denser and tougher ones, like carrots, go into the wok first. The more tender ones, like pea pods, are added last. Use a wooden spoon or a long-handled Chinese spatula for stir-frying. A Chinese spatula resembles a shovel and is ideally suited for the constant lifting and turning of ingredients that ensures even cooking. When done, remove the vegetables from the wok.

3. Meat, poultry, fish, or seafood are stir-fried next. To ensure that the meat cooks quickly and the juices are sealed in, do not overload the wok. Cook no more than 12 ounces of meat at a time. If larger amounts are called for, stir-fry the meat in two or more smaller batches and then return all of the meat to the wok.

4. Now add the sauce mixture. Push the meat to the side of the wok, stir the sauce mixture, and pour it directly into the center of the wok or skillet. Cook and stir the sauce until it is thickened and bubbly. Now return the vegetables to the wok. Gently toss together all of the ingredients to coat with the sauce. Allow the mixture to heat through and serve immediately.

Unfamiliar with popular asian ingredients? Here is a guide to help your cooking knowledge.

Asian Chile Sauce

A thin, orange-red sauce that combines chiles with sugar, salt, oil, and vinegar. Often used as a condiment, its heat level ranges from mild to fiery hot.

Asian Sesame Oil

Golden brown oil extracted from crushed sesame seeds. With an intense, toasted nutty flavor, only a small amount is needed to enrich stir-fries or cold noodle salads. Can be combined with other oils.

Chinese Five-Spice Powder

A spice blend usually made from equal parts star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns, widely used in Asian marinades, sauces, and barbecued meats.

Cilantro [(sih-LAHN-troh) coriander, Chinese parsley]

A zesty, earthy-limy herb. Use chopped leaves and tender stems or whole leaves in marinades and curries or as a garnish.

Coconut Milk

A creamy, slightly sweet liquid processed from shredded coconut and water. An essential ingredient in Southeast Asian curries, soups, and desserts. Refrigerate 1 to 2 days after opening. Freeze up to 2 months.

Dried Shrimp Paste

Don't let the strong odor turn you off -- cooking mellows the salty shrimp taste of this incredibly pungent paste and gives curries a rich authentic flavor. Available in cellophane-wrapped blocks, plastic tubs, or glass jars. Keep sealed in a heavy-duty plastic bag.

Fish Sauce (nam pla; nuoc nam)

A fermented extract of anchovies. This deliciously salty condiment adds a special richness to savory dishes like stir-fries curries, and dipping sauces.

Fresh Ginger

A tan, knobby root with a crisp, fiery sweet flavor. Adds a fresh zing to savory foods. Slice, mince, or crush its yellowish interior. Choose firm roots.

Galangal (guh-LANG-guhl, or guh-LANG-ga; Thai ginger)

Related to ginger, galangal is preferred in Southeast Asian cooking for its clean, slightly lemony taste. Can be sliced or crushed before adding to soups and curries. Look for its pinkish opaque skin, and firm white flesh.

Kaffir Lime Leaves (ka-FEAR)

Glossy dark-green leaves. Just one will add a citrusy-floral aroma and a wonderful zest to your curries. Discard whole kaffir leaves before serving; however, if they're shredded, leave them in. Refrigerate fresh leaves 5 to 7 days; substitute dried leaves, if desired.

Lemongrass

Firm, pale-green stalks that resemble green onions. Adds a fragrant, lemony essence to dishes. Cut off green top and slice white, tender core for marinades, sauces, soups, and spice mixtures.

Sichuan Peppercorns (SITCH-wahn; Szechuan peppercorns; SEHCH-wahn)

The citrusy-spicy aroma and sharp distinct taste of these small, flower-shaped berries is wonderful added to dry marinades for meats. Available ground or whole, often in cellophane bags.

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