Stir-frying has many qualities that make it excellent. And although it isn’t a particularly difficult or demanding cooking method, there are some basic steps that every wok chef needs to take in order to ensure that those excellent qualities are realized. Some of these steps can be altered; I don’t claim to know the best way to do anything, but these techniques have worked well for me during the creation of many stir-fry dishes that included the combination of vegetables, a protein, and a sauce.
The first step I take for any stir-fry recipe is to measure any seasonings and make the sauce. Don’t be arrogant. Stir-frying is a simple process, but because of its ability to quickly reach a very high temperature, it requires much attention. There won’t be any time for measuring ingredients after you start cooking.
Then, I go ahead and cut up all of my ingredients. You’ll need to try to achieve a uniform cut to help the ingredients cook evenly. If the ingredient is going to be eaten, cut it into bite-sized pieces—just for the protection of you and your guests. If the ingredient is an aromatic only used to season the wok, be progressive and demonstrate your tolerance for diversity.
There’s absolutely no reason that you shouldn’t marinate your protein. Soy sauce is my favorite marinade for stir-frying, but the options are plentiful.
In some situations, it can be helpful to read a recipe and line up your ingredients in the order they will be used. To reduce the risk of making a mistake, you should read the recipe, but the ingredients will almost always be added in this order: oil, aromatics, protein, vegetables, seasonings and sauce. Sometimes, I omit this step; I’m no square but the paragon of spontaneity.
Now, it’s time to preheat your wok. Always remember: yeet wok doong yul! That’s Cantonese for “hot wok cold oil.” This is important because adding oil to an unheated wok will decrease the effectiveness of the oil’s ability to keep food from sticking to your wok. Turn a burner on medium-high heat and place the wok on it. Depending on your stove, it could take as much as three minutes or as little as ten seconds. When a single bead of water evaporates within 2 seconds of being dropped into the well of your wok, your wok is hot enough to add oil.
Most recipes will call for 2 tablespoons of oil. The preferred technique of adding oil is to slowly pour it around the sides of the wok, lifting and tilting the wok as needed to coat the entire surface. Most recipes include the addition of aromatics in the directions. Most of them say to use garlic, ginger, and green onion. So, if the wok-seasoning process has been left out of your selected stir-frying recipe, just remember the three G’s: garlic, ginger, and green onions.
When the aromatics have started to burn, remove them from the wok and add the cut protein. It’s important to spread the pieces of meat evenly throughout the well of the wok. You don’t want half of your chicken burnt and the other half raw. Overcooked chicken is dry. Undercooked chicken is deadly. Without stirring or moving it around at all, cook the meat for one minute, or until it starts to sear. Then, stir the meat around, cooking it evenly until it seems to be approximately three-fourths done. Then, remove it from the wok and set it aside. Some recipes won’t call for the chef to remove the protein, but it’s usually a safe decision to make because an overcrowded wok loses its heat.
Before you add your vegetables, it may be necessary to add just a little bit more oil to the wok. Not everything can go as planned. Trust yourself, and I promise we can make it through this together.
Dry vegetables are essential to an adequate stir-fry. To avoid a soggy dish, make sure you remove any water from the surface of the vegetables. Then, add them to the stir-fry. Immediately start to stir the vegetables around, making sure they cook evenly.
When the vegetables are approximately three-fourths done, stir your protein back into the mixture. See all those juices that escaped your protein while you were working away on your vegetables? You should definitely put those back in there.
I know your dish already looks and smells amazing. But we’re not finished yet; it’s time to add the sauce and seasonings. Pour the sauce slowly down the sides of the wok—just like the oil. If you dump the sauce into the well, your wok will lose much of its heat. Now, sprinkle in your dry seasonings. It’s possible that your stir-fry is ready to be plated and enjoyed. Or, your protein may need a few more seconds in the wok.
I’m sure you’ve realized that these basic steps are guidelines that can be followed without a premade recipe. You can follow these steps, using your favorite meats and vegetables, to create your own recipes. Once you’ve read a few professional recipes and have an understanding of how to use seasonings and create your own sauces, your friends and family will surely mistake you for a master chef. The wok is a truly exciting tool for the creative culinarian.