Wok this way

How to stir-fry

January 20, 2009

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.

Here, then, are a few common slop-producing errors and how to avoid them, plus my foolproof stir-fry technique and two great recipes.

wok frying
A round-bottomed wok and wok shovel are traditional, but you don’t need them to stir-fry successfully.

Six common stir-fry errors

1. Using the wrong equipment

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.

2. Crowding the pan

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.”

3. Protein problems

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.

4. Crunchfest

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.

5. Too much stirring, not enough frying

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.”

6. Alarming developments

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.

Putting it all together

Okay, so here’s the home stir-fry procedure.

  1. Cut and marinate your ingredients, and mix your finishing sauce.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet (seasoned carbon, cast-iron, or nonstick) over high heat until the oil begins to smoke.
  3. Add protein and cook until well seared but slightly underdone. Remove to a plate.
  4. Add oil and heat until smoking. Add vegetables, working in batches if necessary. Hardy vegetables (carrots, broccoli, peppers) should go in together; same goes for softer vegetables (cabbage, onion). Add aromatics (garlic, ginger, scallions) and cook about 30 seconds.
  5. Return the protein to the pan and add sauce. Cook and stir until the sauce thickens and coats the ingredients. Serve immediately.

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 writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 25 comments on this item
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1. by James Berry on Jan 20, 2009 at 2:38 PM PST

Matthew: nice article! I think it’s stir-fry for me tonight.

2. by zegg on Jan 21, 2009 at 8:51 AM PST

I prefer a wok to a frying pan/skillet because I make a lot less mess that way. Somehow when stir frying all my vegetables are liable to jump out of a shallow pan.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 21, 2009 at 9:56 AM PST

I hear you, zegg, but I think it’s a matter of practice. You know the pan-flip trick they do on TV? It’s actually useful and very easy to learn. As in, I can do it, and I’m a klutz.

4. by msmit002 on Jan 21, 2009 at 11:34 AM PST

Do not leave the tail unpeeled; that drives me nuts.

Ha! Me too. Great article!

5. by michaelnatkin on Jan 21, 2009 at 11:55 AM PST

Tell it like it is bro. Of all the problems you identified, I think the biggest one most home cooks have is they are afraid to max out the heat. They think, well if this thing goes from 1 to 10, I probably should use around 6. I know people that don’t turn up to 10 even to boil water! Which cracks me up.

Michael Natkin - Herbivoracious.com

6. by EvaToad on Jan 21, 2009 at 12:07 PM PST

Seriously -- USE THE HEAT!

Also, thanks for mentioning the steam-and-cover trick for vegetables. Once I figured that one out (borrowing the technique from the cooking of dumplings/gyoza), I got rid of the burnt-but-cooked or raw vegetables I often ended up with in my stir-fry.

(I’m on the wok side, too. Mainly because I’ve always used a wok, just like my dad does. Also because they tend to be nice and light, and very easy to clean if they’re small, like mine is.)

7. by caleb bo baleb on Jan 21, 2009 at 10:05 PM PST

I have to admit we use the wok primarily for popcorn (unpopped kernels roll down to the bottom even when you shake it), and rarely for stir fry because it doesn’t turn out that well.

We’ll try the skillet next time.

8. by Kalinda on Jan 23, 2009 at 7:03 AM PST

It took me a few years to figure out how to stir fry with skillet as my dad always used a wok. I think I’ve pretty much got it down now, but I still think I’d vote wok. I really just enjoy using one. Sometimes I think I should just “borrow” my dad’s, it’s got a nice patina after 20+ years use.

9. by argus on Jan 29, 2009 at 6:14 AM PST

I’d rather use a wok if I’ve a gas burner stove. But here in Switzerland, it’s (almost) all flat contact electric stoves, so I use a big frying pan. One way I avoid making a mess is to use two spatulas, one in each hand to toss the contents every so often. Works a treat with frying rice, too. Fun, practical story, thanks!

10. by Dina Nishioka on Mar 27, 2009 at 10:17 AM PDT

Thank you! I grew up with a Chinese mom who sprinkles magic dust and her stir fries are perfect. Me...not so much. And I now realize my demise...cooking in batches and potentially steaming the hardier veggies a bit. I’m going to try it tonight!

11. by Phyllis Kirigin on Oct 6, 2009 at 6:56 PM PDT

You make some good points, but how about technique? Stirring? The only stirring should be thickening a sauce. Other wise, there is no stirring in stir frying. My Chinese teachers taught me the technique of running the spatula under the food in the center, lifting it up and turning it over and the repeating that technique from a different part of the wok. What say you?

12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 6, 2009 at 8:47 PM PDT

I agree, Phyllis. More frying, less stirring.

13. by anonymous on Sep 23, 2011 at 7:34 AM PDT

on-topic, clean, and courteous - Ha ha ha...
Thats me :)

Nice article.
I have just purchased a 28cm Stainless steel wok. Is this ok? Is there a difference between using stainless steel or the other types?


14. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 23, 2011 at 9:25 AM PDT

anonymous, a stainless steel wok is problematic at best. It won’t season up into a natural nonstick coating, so some foods will always stick, especially to the sides. I’d consider a cheap carbon steel wok or a cast iron skillet.

15. by Melinda on Sep 25, 2011 at 11:15 AM PDT

You are hysterical! Awesome writing and fantastic tips. And what is this I hear of a faucet over the stove?? Fantastic! I want one now.

16. by Brian on Oct 27, 2011 at 8:06 PM PDT

yeah yeah. what happened to the hand hammered wok guy? only with a hand hammered wok, do the juices collect and drain in the middle. if you want to add a lot of wine, you can add a lot of wine. it’s not even on youtube. what a jip.

17. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 28, 2011 at 9:48 AM PDT

Brian, you’re not going to believe this, but I have exchanged email with the hand-hammered wok guy. Major (wok-)brush with greatness.

18. by anonymous on Nov 6, 2011 at 1:05 PM PST

Question from a novice:
- I noticed you recommend adding aromatics at the end. How come? I’ve considered doing that for ginger since it seems to soak up a lot of oil, but I thought adding aromatics at the beginning was meant to season the oil.

Thanks, Gabrielle

19. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Nov 6, 2011 at 3:42 PM PST

Hi, Gabrielle. I find it’s really easy to burn the aromatics, and if you add them at the end, you minimize their contact with the hot pan. Yes, traditionally it’s done the other way. I don’t know what the trick is. (If any readers know, please divulge!)


20. by anonymous on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:08 PM PST

I love the wok! Stir fry: veggies, protein, & lots of flavoring. Yum!!!

21. by Kyrias on Apr 19, 2012 at 4:19 PM PDT

What I usually do is I start with a hot pan, pour in the oil, then slide in the slices of ginger first. Wait until it’s a bit wrinkled and shriveled, then toss in the scallion whites and garlic. I find that if I give it a minute or so for the garlic to brown a bit and toss in the protein, the heat of the average burner will not burn the garlic before the protein needs to be taken out. When cooking the vegetables, I use another batch of aromatics and again, with the moisture from the vegetables, the aromatics don’t burn before they need to be plated. If using szechuan peppercorns, star anise, or other such aromatics, you might consider flavoring the oil, then fishing them out before you even put in the ginger. It’s almost all timing and putting your aromatics in at different stages. The green scallion parts, for example, are almost universally put in near the end of cooking while the fleshier white bits go in at the beginning.

22. by paginas web on Oct 9, 2012 at 6:31 AM PDT

muchas gracias por las correcciones que nos distes en este articulo

23. by paginas web on Oct 9, 2012 at 6:31 AM PDT

muchas gracias por las correcciones que nos distes en este articulo

24. by ken schuster on Aug 30, 2013 at 6:24 AM PDT

I have a large stainless steel (All-Clad) wok. Am I completely out of the wok loop, or can it be used?

25. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 30, 2013 at 7:28 AM PDT

Hi, Ken. I know the pan you’re talking about, and it doesn’t stir-fry very well unless you have a very hot gas burner. I’d recommend getting a carbon steel wok (which you can find new for under $30 or used for $10) or a large carbon steel skillet (which your local Goodwill probably has for $5).

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Unexplained Bacon

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.

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