In 1945, the New York Times published a lively column about a new cookbook. Rationing was still in effect, and the food writer Jane Holt cast around for a solution:
We have been rather at a loss where to find flavor to put into our one-pound-of-meat-stretched-for-eight-people main courses . . . which is why the Chinese, who can make even plain rice taste subtly delicious, are just the ones to teach us a thing or two.
Holt turned to Buwei Yang Chow, whose book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese popularized the term “stir-fry.” According to Chow, “When you stir-fry — stir, for short — you really are cooking in Chinese.”
Well, guess what? Check your retirement fund and you’ll notice that it’s high time to brush up on your stir-fry technique. Aside from being thrifty, a great stir-fried dish is, to me, as good as home cooking gets. Sometimes. As Barry Foy puts it in The Devil’s Food Dictionary:
Stir-frying is recognized for its ability to produce dishes with vivid colors, vibrant flavors, and varied textures . . . the technique has been adopted enthusiastically by American home cooks, with only minor variations, namely, the use of moderate heat, poorly matched ingredients, and insufficient fat and seasoning, to produce mushy heaps of bland, discolored slop.
Duh. Use a wok, right? Well, if you have an indoor wok burner or an outdoor contraption, yes. Otherwise, a frying pan is better. (If you do have an indoor wok burner, I am jealous and don’t want to hear about it. If you have one of those faucets directly above the stove, can I move in with you?)
Yes, you can use a wok on a Western stove, and what I’m calling a “Western” stove is becoming more popular in China. But I have used both woks and skillets extensively for stir-frying, and I think the skillet works better.
You can stir-fry in a carbon-steel, cast-iron, or nonstick skillet. A well-seasoned carbon-steel pan is best; they tend to be lighter than cast iron and have longer handles. However, carbon-steel pans are uncommon outside restaurant kitchens and cost more than cast iron. Nonstick pans work quite well for stir-frying, as long as you’re comfortable with getting the pan really hot — and superheating nonstick pans is a safety no-no.
Your pan should be large enough to do the job but not so large that it hangs well over the edge of your burner. For most stoves, that means a diameter of 12 inches.
The first commandment of stir-frying on a Western stove is: Don’t overload the pan.
If you’re making a meal for one, you might be able to get away with stir-frying all the ingredients at the same time. But if you’re a dinner-party type, forget it. You have to work in batches, transferring cooked food to a plate as you go.
What about that infomercial for “hand-hammered woks” where the English guy shows you how to push the cooked food up the sides of the wok? Actually, I love that infomercial, but as Helen Chen writes in Helen Chen's Chinese Home Cooking, “Put out of your mind any notion that stir-frying involves pushing food up the sides of the wok while cooking in the center. This is incorrect, and no Chinese I know cooks this way.”
When a stir-fry hits a snag, blame the protein. Meat, poultry, fish, and tofu can stick, turn tough, or fail to brown. Then you’re facing pizza delivery. Avoid Domino’s by checking the protein sidebar for instructions on preparing and marinating six popular proteins.
Crunchy fresh vegetables are welcome in a stir-fried dish. Raw vegetables are not. If you’re using broccoli, carrots, or other hardy vegetables, add a bit of water to the pan and cover to steam the vegetables for a minute or two if necessary.
Heed the warning of the common culinary-school admonition: “Let the food cook.” Line cooks at your local wok-burner-equipped Chinese restaurant can put food into a wok, flip it a few times, and serve it. But we’ve already established that you’re not working with that kind of heat. If you want a good sear on your ingredients, put them in the pan and wait a minute or two before stirring.
Don’t take my word for it. “I resist the temptation to touch the meat for 20 seconds to 1 minute,” writes Grace Young in The Breath of a Wok, my favorite collection of stir-fry recipes. “This is critical because it allows the meat to sear, intensifying the flavors.”
Producing smoke when you stir-fry is inevitable. I don’t know about your vent hood, but mine seems to have been designed to handle a faint wisp of steam. Some smoke detectors have a silencer button that disables the alarm for a short time. Mine doesn’t.
I used to remove the battery before stir-frying, and would remember to replace it several weeks later. That I am alive today to write this column is pure luck. Now I tape a plastic bag over the smoke alarm. I can’t forget to remove it, because there’s an ugly plastic bag hanging from the ceiling.
Okay, so here’s the home stir-fry procedure.
If you really love the idea of the wok, or if you already have one, go ahead and use it; woks are great on any stove for deep-frying, steaming, and making soup.
Both the traditional round-bottomed woks (designed to sit propped above a stove burner on a wok ring) and the newer flat-bottomed woks (designed to sit directly on a stove burner) still have their fans. Thai cookbook author Kasma Loha-unchit (Dancing Shrimp) says, “It is much easier to remove all particles of food from round woks without scraping the seasoning, enabling you to stir-fry two or more batches of food without having to clean in between batches.” And Grace Young recommends a flat-bottomed wok: “I feel that it is the only wok that is effective on an electric range, and it works equally well on a gas range.”
Me, I’ll stick with my skillet. Until I get that indoor wok burner, that is.
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better