The Art of Stir-Frying
At some point, you have probably watched an expert chef on a culinary television show stirring and tossing around a variety of exotic-looking vegetables and other ingredients in a bowl-shaped Chinese wok. You may wonder what exactly he or she is doing.
Basically, stir-frying involves cooking food at high heat in a small amount of oil. With a few exceptions (such as allowing beef to sear briefly when it is first added to the pan), it's important to keep the ingredients moving constantly during stir-frying. The constant stirring motion ensures that all the food comes into contact with the bottom surface of the pan, where the heat is most intense. It also keeps food from sticking to the pan.
Like stir-frying, sautéing also involves cooking food at high heat. The major difference between the two is that food is normally cut into bite-sized pieces before stir-frying, while sautéed food is left whole.
Getting Ready to Stir-Fry
While the technique of stir-frying is quite straightforward, there are a few basic principles that make the process of stir-frying go more smoothly. It's important to prepare all the ingredients ahead of time.
As noted above, on average, it takes only five to seven minutes to stir-fry a dish. You'll be too busy stirring to have any extra time for chopping an onion or measuring out ingredients for a sauce to add at the end. Always double-check the recipe to make sure you have all ingredients prepared before you begin stir-frying.
Most stir-fry recipes call for meat, poultry, or seafood to be marinated prior to stir-frying. A marinade helps tenderize meat, and it's a great way to add extra flavor to a stir-fry. Always cut and start marinating the meat before doing anything else. Once the meat is marinating, you're free to complete the remaining prep work, such as chopping vegetables, preparing a sauce, and cooking rice.
Whenever possible, try to cut the stir-fry ingredients into uniform-sized pieces so that they will take approximately the same amount of time to cook. Many of the vegetables will need to be washed or rinsed prior to stir-frying. It's important to make sure vegetables are thoroughly dry before adding them to the stir-fry; wet vegetables won't cook properly and can cause the hot oil to splatter. To avoid this, you can wash the vegetables and leave them to drain earlier in the day (for example, in the morning before you leave for work), which gives them more time to dry.
Organization is key when it comes to stir-frying. Keep the sauces, prepared vegetables, and aromatics near the stove so that you'll be able to add them quickly when you start cooking. Have a colander or paper towels set out to drain the meat or seafood if needed.
The Basics of Stir-Frying
The process of stir-frying will unfold smoothly if you follow these basic guidelines:
Make sure that all the ingredients for the stir-fry are near the stove, so that you can reach for them quickly.
Add the oil to a preheated pan, tilting the pan so that the oil drizzles along the sides. Stir-fry ingredients don't just sit at the bottom of the pan, so the sides need to be oiled as well.
Before adding the main ingredients, add the aromatics such as ginger and garlic to flavor the oil.
If the stir-fry includes meat or poultry, add that first. Let it sear briefly, then stir-fry until it changes color and is nearly cooked through. (The beef should have no trace of pink and the chicken should have turned white.)
When adding vegetables, add the thicker, denser vegetables first, as they will take more time to cook. Feel free to add a small amount of water or soy sauce if the vegetables begin to dry out during stir-frying.
Keep these instructions in mind as you try out the recipes in the following chapters.