The word “stir-fry” will instantly bring an image of an Asian chef working with a wok and a ladle working his flipping and stirring skills over high-burning fire. And you wouldn’t be too far off with the visualization.
Stir-frying or “Chao” is a Chinese cooking technique which involves fast-frying ingredients in a wok with a very small amount of oil, constant stirring and flipping – that’s part of the Chinese secret.
The Science of Wok Hei
The concept of “Wok Hei” or “Breath of the wok” is what makes an authentic Chinese stir-fry what it is. I’s that char aroma that coats the stir-fried food cooked in a wok which is created by the constant caramelization of the sugars of the meat and vegetables cooked in the wok.
Woks are predominantly used in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants all over the world – whether it’s a hawker stand or a Michelin restaurant. The reason is because of the distinct aroma and flavor it brings to the food that is cooked in it.
Woks are pans made of cast iron or crude iron with wide-mouths and a rounded bottom. Its thinness allows it to absorb heat fast and retain it –ideal for caramelizing the food being cooked. The rounded bottom makes it easy for Chinese chefs to stir and toss the food around for even caramelization.
Most Chinese cooks or chefs will season their woks with oil, animal fats, and sometimes oil with leeks. This is to create a layer of hardened oil that makes the wok non-stick. It also locks in a bit of flavor from whatever was used to season it. Some chefs go as far as not washing their woks with detergent, not wanting to wash off this gleaming asset. Thus, is so doing, flavor of every dish cooked in the wok will contribute to the flavor of the next dish cooked in it.
Temperature is also a big factor for achieving Wok Hei. Chinese Chefs stir fry using high heat which is ideal in searing meats and other ingredients in a stir fry. It also breaks down the oils that were in the pores of the wok when it was seasoned.
The wok, temperature, and constant stirring and flipping is what creates Wok Hei. That delicious smoky- char flavor that you just can’t your finger on. This is what makes Yangchow fried rice cooked in a Chinese restaurant very different tasting from fried rice cooked at home.
What’s in a Stir Fry?
A basic stir fry is composed of 3 components:
These vegetables that when cooked bring out a burst of flavor and smell that coats the other ingredients they are cooked with. Some aromatics commonly used in Chinese stir fry are garlic, ginger, chili, leeks, and green onions.
Protein and Vegetables
A stir-fry contains a mixture of meats (chicken, pork, beef) and fast cooking vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, bell peppers, cabbage, etc.
This is a mixture of seasonings that when combined bursts out with flavor. The seasonings commonly used for stir-fry are: soy sauce, sesame oil, hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and citrus juices.
Why Stir Fry?
Here’s some other reasons to start stir-frying!
- It’s light on the budget – stir frying involves little amounts of various ingredients which when combined makes for a very filling meal.
- It’s fast and easy to prepare – this cooking method is all about fast cooking. All you need to do is chop ingredients then you’re all set. And you just need one pan for the entire cooking process.
- It retains the nutritional value of the ingredients – since it’s all about fast cooking, ingredients retain their full nutritional value. The good stuff won’t get cooked off.
Stirring Up a Storm at Home
To make things even more convenient and quick, you can prepare your stir fry sauce in advance. Here are some simple stir-fry sauces for you to try.
- Homemade Kung Pao Sauce by omnivorescookbook.com
- Homemade General Tso Stir-Fry Sauce by omnivorescookbook.com
- Orange Chicken Stir Fry Sauce by dinnerthendessert.com
- Basic Chinese All Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce by recipetineats.com
How to use your Stir Fry Sauce
Here’s a tip on how to use your prepared stir-fry sauces.
- Heat 2 tbsp oil in wok over high heat.
- Add your choice aromatics. Fry for 10 seconds or until fragrant.
- Add ingredients in order of time to cook (from longest to cook to fastest to cook, leafy greens last)
- Add sauce and water/stock, your choice of flavorings (pepper, chili flakes, etc), and any leafy greens.
- Gently toss to combine and to let it cook for around 1 minute. The sauce will become thick and glossy.
- Serve immediately with white rice.
Here are some friendly stir fry reminders:
- Read your stir-fry recipe and take note of the order of events.
- Cut your meat and vegetables into bite-size pieces.
- Mix your sauce ingredients before you start. (or prepare them in advance using the simple stir-fry sauce recipe above)
- Make sure you heat the wok or pan before adding the oil. (medium to high heat)
- Heat the oil before cooking anything. Wait till its smoking.
- Season the oil with aromatics by cooking them until fragrant.
- Just keep stirring’ and swirling’ while cooking.
Uses for Your Left-Over Stir-Fry Sauce
These sauces are more than just for stir-frying. Here are some ideas you can explore:
- As sauce for a noodle dish. Add the cooked Asian noodles or pasta noodles a few minutes before serving.
- As coating for your fried food like chicken wings or fried tofu – Heat your sauce in a pan, bring it to a boil, then let it simmer a bit. Once done, pour over your freshly fried favorite.
We hope you find tips, and stir-fry sauce recipes and left-over ideas useful. Make one and keep them in the refrigerator. The next time you have to prepare dinner in a rush, you can short-cut a stir-fry!