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Principles of Stir-Fry

I originally wrote this in an email to my cousin, and have kept it around as a reference should I need to give it to anyone. Since I have posted already two articles on the subject of cooking, I decided it was time I re-visited it at last…

And here’s the final installment in Tai’s cooking rants!

What’s the secret to a good stir fry? The answer: sesame oil, plenty of fragrant spices, thinly chopped ingredients and… a wok. Accept no substitutes.

Stir fry, like curry and risotto, is a concept dish. There’s a vague principle behind it, which is not ingredient-specific. It’s not as easy to pull off as a curry, but it remains fairly straightforward.

Here then are the key steps in the making of a stir fry…

1/ The four components

There are four principle components to a stir fry: the carbohydrates (or soy alternatives), the protein (not strictly necessary but highly advisable), the vegetables, and the spices.

a/ The rice

I’ll refer to “rice” out of practicality, although this could refer to egg noddles, rice noodles, rice, or even soy noodles if you need to cut down on carbohydrates.

As a general rule, you should use types that have as little of their own taste as possible, so as not to create a conflict later with your vegetables and spices. Once you are accustomed to doing your own stir fry, and know what effect each has, then you can start using such things as risotto rice or whole meal pasta.

I tend to prefer Thai or Basmati rice, although American long grain is also suitable. In noodles, I prefer thinner ones, egg or rice I don’t mind. Super fine noodles however tend to be destined for soups, but will do fine.

Without wanting to bash any brands in particular, there is one specific company that makes its noodles taste like cardboard. My advice is: cook a sample of whatever you intend to use and taste it. If it has little taste when plain (no soy, no sauces, no seasoning, no nothing), it is usable. If its taste is strong, good or bad, it will interfere with the rest of the cooking.

b/ The protein

I’ll refer to “meat” to designate whatever you choose as the protein: sea food, poultry, pork, beef, venison… If you’re cooking for vegetarians, use ground beans or tofu…. you can even use potatoes and a bit of cornflour if you swing that way, anything that holds together in chunks.

Tofu is the one vegetarian protein source. Please don’t make the mistake of seeing it as a meat substitute, whatever anyone says. It is a food in its own right, and I would gladly use tofu one day and pork the next. It absorbs the flavours around it and is especially well suited to this kind of cooking.

Chicken tends to work well with herbs and fruits. Turkey is a good replacement too if you are slightly tight on budget, noting that you can still get away with a good stir fry with about a half a chicken breast’s worth per person.

Duck and pork tend to be better with sweet marinades, and then grilled – I once had a marinade recipe for pork for 4 people requiring 5 table spoons of sugar. Delish. If you do use sugar in the marinade, I must caution you: sugar caramelizes under heat. Anyone who has tried using sugar in a pot will probably admit having had to throw the pot away. In this case, you’d be better off grilling – place a pan covered in tin foil under the grid to minimize cleaning requirements.

Beef tends to be more “earthy” and I would more likely use seasonings like cumin, ginger and garlic with it. If you’re thinking spicy, beef stands up to it better than other meats I find.

Avoid fish, as this kind of meat is too delicate for the purposes of a stir fry. Rather, make a vegetable stir fry to serve along side fish.

Sea food can also be the basis for stir fry, although not being a seafood fan, I cannot advise on it.

You can also use any leftover meat from previous meals, with gravy instead of stock – this would be added then only in the finalization stage. Trust me, this works wonders šŸ™‚

c/ Vegetables

Whilst vegetables are vegetables, include here any form of fruit, leaf or root you wish.

Note that cabbage (which is often used in Asian dishes) has a bitter taste so you may want to shallow boil that for about 5 min before doing anything with it. Same goes for courgettes and aubergines. The added work means I generally omit these.

d/ Seasoning

By “spices” I will be referring to spices, herbs and various other seasonings.

Also, there are a number of common sauces to be found in an Asian kitchen. They are all pretty potent – a little goes a long way. They include (and are in no way limited to):

-sesame oil: a must, gives a distinct smell of “Chinese restaurant” and a sweet background taste

-soy sauce: another must. This replaces salt entirely, and should be used sparingly

-oyster sauce: very sweet – but don’t treat it like sugar. Use for anything in the protein line when you’re going to fry.

-hoi sin sauce: generally for chicken and pork. Very sweet. And kinda fruity in its way. Great for marinating something that’ll be grilled.

-fish sauce: also known as “nuoc mam” (say nwok-mam). Very fishy and rather salty. Used in soups quite often, and not strictly sea food: I recall a recipe for chicken noodle soup that relied heavily on fish sauce. The raw smell is off-putting, but its effect if used wisely and once cooked is magnificent.

2/ The utensils

There are four essential tools when working the stir fry path:
-the round-edged wooden spoon or spatula, of strong build
-the non-stick wok, as large as your hob can handle
-the super sharp 6-inch knife, or cleaver
-the big wooden chopping board – and I mean *big*

Keep in mind that the wok is designed to distribute heat evenly. Don’t use any ordinary pan.

I insist that the spoon or spatula be wooden and round-edged – not plastic, and certainly not metal. You need to use a non-stick wok where the food will not stick to the sides – a lot of heat and frying means that without the non-stick property this will happen a lot if you don’t keep things in motion constantly.

You will damage your pan severely if you use anything but a round-edged wooden implement on this kind of wok. Use a metal implement here and after two or three meals, you might as well be cooking on a car bonnet.

Always keep your knife sharp. Lots of chopping and dicing is involved. To avoid dulling the edge, when you scrape stuff from the chopping board with the knife, use the blunt edge, not the sharp edge.

So yeah, a chopping board too. Doing it on the counter will only destroy the surface, not to mention that it’s hard to pick up the counter and bring your chopped ingredients to the wok.

3/ Prepare the rice

Prepare your rice (or equivalent) in advance, as this should ideally be cold when you add it finally to the stir fry. If you’re in a rush, having it ready an hour before you start cooking the vegetables is decent. There is no inherent problem in using the freshly made hot rice straight from the pot, but for reasons unknown, it’s better if it has been cooled for a while.

Note that if you are using noodles that are of the quick-cooking sort, you can add these when finalizing. Just pour some boiling water into the wok and add the noodles. Don’t be too enthusiastic on the water. If the noodles are not cooked by the time the water is absorbed/evaporated, you can add more water. The opposite will yield mush and a longer time to get the excess to evaporate.

4/ Prepare your meat

Chop the meat into pieces no more than about half an inch at its thickest point. If it’s seafood, you can generally leave it as is.

Generally, you’ll want to marinate by adding some seasoning to the meat an hour or so before you cook it. This can be anything, from something basic like rubbing some crushed garlic over it and sprinkling with coriander and a bit of soy, up to a complex marinade as done for satay or char siu.

I have been known to use an alcohol base for a number of my marinades, as they add a nice flavour (and gives me a good excuse to buy more up-market bottles). For example, letting the beef soak up some red wine and a couple of teaspoons of sugar.

A note about using alcohol in cooking: stewing and marinating in alcohol is fine and dandy on any day, in any style, but one rule is golden: If you wouldn’t drink it, Don’t cook with it. That’s absolute.

5/ Prepare the vegetables

a/ Fire up the wok

You’ve prepared your meat, good. Heat the wok to “pretty damn hot”, with some regular oil and a hint of sesame oil. If you want to use one of the above mentioned sauces, why not. Remember that they’re all potent, and a little goes a long way.

At this point, you can add any combination of spices you want. Cumin is strong and potent, giving a beefy punch, garam masala is sweet, coriander seed is nice and mellow. Choose what you like according to what is needed, if anything at all.

Now throw in the meat, stir well, and get at the greens. The finer you can chop them, the better. Stir the meat from time to time to keep it cooking and not charring.

b/ Get the greens in order

Ideally, you want all the vegetables to be soft when they reach the mouth. This is where emphasis really needs to be put on the dicing as small as possible.

Remember that things like leeks, celery and most roots like carrots and radishes are very fibrous and will take longer to cook. Other softer items like onions, spring onions, tomatoes and sweet pepper will take a lot less time.

I would advise to only use about three or four different vegetables in one go, but that’s entirely up to your taste in the end.

To minimize time spent on the whole, chop the tougher vegetables first, add them to the hot wok, and then chop the less tough ones whilst the others are cooking. Remember to give the wok a stir every minute or so.

6/ Finalize the taste

The meat should be completely cooked by now, and the vegetables all soft. At this point, if there is any liquid left from marinating, add it in. Wait for the liquid to start bubbling before proceeding any further.

If you have any stock at hand, use some; otherwise stock cubes or stock powder/granules are fine too when dissolved in a bit of boiling water.

Add your rice (or affiliate) to the mix and stir it all up so that the ingredients are evenly spread out. Here is where you add the dry noodles, as mentioned previously.

Taste it. If the flavour needs enhancing, add some stock, or a little bit of soy – but not too much. Use soy sparingly, taste your food, and add sparingly again. Many of my own dishes went wrong from my hand slipping on the soy.

7/ Done

Take the wok off the fire, grab some chop sticks (or if you are less dexterous, a fork) and a plate or tall bowl.

I like to eat my stir fry accompanied with a nice pot of green jasmine tea. Pu’er tea is not bad either. Both are recommended by doctors, dieticians, Buddhists, Taoists, yogis, and my mum and I. It’s probably the only medicine any normally constituted person would be hard put to overdose on, and just about the only thing I will accept to take for colds, headaches, stomach aches and weariness.

Chow time!

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