How many times have you tried stir-frying a bunch of vegetables only to find that it tastes nothing like it does when you get it from a Chinese restaurant? If you’re reading this article, I think you know what I mean… Why can’t you get it right? Why does it turn out soggy? And, what are you missing?
In this article, I will demystify stir-frying, and get you on the path of hot, crunchy righteousness that will have you stir-frying like an Asian chef.
Lost in Translation
In the world of food, there are generally two schools of cooking – Asian and European. The French and Spaniards evolved, codified, and standardized, what is today commonplace “cooking” in the Americas: Pots, pans, stoves, ovens, and chef knives. Your kitchen at home, along with all the cooking stuff you’re used to, most likely, can be classified as the European school. In fact, some of you may not realize that any other type of kitchen or cooking style exists.
The Asian school, however, is different. Their pots are different, their stoves are different, they don’t normally use ovens, they don’t all have fridges (they buy their food fresh every day), their knives are different, their tools are different, you get the idea. It’s a totally different way of looking at and preparing foods. If you’re from Asia, parts of the Middle East, or parts of Africa, the Asian way of doing things is probably what you’re used to.
Stir-frying is an Asian method. And when someone tries to do it in a European kitchen, the finished product can end up, well… lost in translation! Vegetables that are supposed to be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, end up soggy. Meats that are supposed to be tender and thin, end up chunky and tough. And sauces that are supposed to be silky and delicate, end up watery and overly-flavored.
Is it possible to make a proper Asian stir-fry in a European kitchen? The answer is yes, but only if you understand how an Asian chef does it.
Fire, Lots of Fire!
The first element to a proper stir-fry is the heat. Lots of heat! Foods are stir-fried over a very hot fire, thus the outside of the food sears, traps in the moisture – which steams the inside of the food. That’s how you end up with a crunchy outside and steamed inside. And that’s also why you have to constantly stir the food while it’s cooking – as in “stir-fry” – otherwise it will burn!
Asians cook over large fires at very high temperatures. Even poor Asian homes, more often than not, have gas or wood burning stoves which get much hotter than electric stoves. Electric stoves are a North American gadget. They were built in order to take advantage of America’s power grid, and because, well, people buy them! They’re not better than gas. I often tell my customers, that even the cheapest gas stove, is still better than an electric stove in terms of heat output and pleasure to cook with.
If you’re cooking vegetables under low heat, what ends up happening is all the water cooks out of the vegetables, pools into the bottom of the pot, does not evaporate fast enough, and you end up boiling them in a kind of soup. Hence, that limp, soggy, soy-sauce-flavored-stew you probably end up with. All because you don’t have, or didn’t use, enough heat. You gotta CRANK UP THE HEAT when you’re stir-frying!
It’s Not an Argentinian Steak House!
Another difference between the American/Euro people and the Asians, is how they eat and handle meats. And although I could write a whole, very interesting book, on how people eat based on an event that happened 10,000 years ago in the Indo European area of the world, I will keep this brief.
Much of Europe was forested, and thus Indo Europeans hunted and ate meat as their main diet. And meat continues to be a huge part of our diet. Whereas Asians did not have as many fertile forests, and came to rely on a diet high in grains and plants instead. Meat was, and still is, eaten in much smaller portions when compared to the American/European way of eating. (And this is also why I think different body types are made to eat different foods in different quantities for optimum health… but that would be part of that book I was telling you about).
An Asian stir-fry consists of thinly sliced, small pieces of meat, many of which have been tenderized before frying (with cornstarch, egg white, and/or protein-busting enzymes like papain). Thus making the meats soft, plump and juicy. You will notice that Asian stir-fries have pieces of cheap meat, that would otherwise be tough. But because they have been chemically tenderized, and sliced really thin, end up being soft, juicy, and enjoyable. And there’s not 50Lbs of meat on your plate! It’s a small amount compared to the vegetables.
Now, let’s look at the average American stir-fry. You buy a bunch of chicken breasts, steak, pork, whatever. You don’t tenderize or marinade them, you cut them into huge chunks, and you boil them in your “veggie stir-fry soup” for like, 15 minutes (which ends up draining the meats of all their moisture and toughens them up like bricks). So you end up with dry chunks of protein leather with a side of limp, soupy vegetables…
Before stir-frying your meats you want to thinly slice them, and marinade them for 4 to 12 hours in either one of the following: 1. Corn starch. 2. A combo of cornstarch and egg whites with a tiny bit of soy sauce. 3. Sprinkle them with some meat tenderizing powder, like papain and add a little soy sauce. Under some hot fire, this will give you those thin, juicy, tender, flavorful pieces of meat you crave if you’ve ever had a good stir-fry!
The Yin and the Yang
Let’s say the Yin is the gentle whisper, and the Yang is a blaring rock concert!
How come my stir-fry tastes nothing like it should? I notice that many people like to flavor their stir-fries with a bunch of soy sauce, so it’s overly-salted and way overly-spiced (the Yang), or they make it so bland that there is no taste (the Yin). So, what’s the deal? Is there an optimum amount of soy sauce? Is there a balance between the Yin and the Yang?
Well, what if I told you that soy sauce plays a very small role in stir-fries? In fact, that is what I’m telling you. The most crucial part of a good stir-fry is the sauce. And if you master a good stir-fry sauce, the rest is easy. So, what’s in a good stir-fry sauce?
A good sauce is comprised of a base, flavor enhancers, and a thickener – yes, a thickener so it doesn’t turn out like soup!
The Base – is usually a good tasting stock. Chicken stock or beef stock are good. Make them yourself out of bullion so that they taste nice. That liquid stock you buy at the store is garbage – it’s so watered-down and weak that goldfish could swim in it. You want to start with a nice flavorful stock. For the average stir-fry for 4 people, let’s say you start out with 1 to 2 cups of warm stock (not hot, warm. I’ll tell you why in a sec.)
Flavor Enhancers – these are the little ingredients that flavor your stock. They can be all sorts of combinations, but this is my go-to Chinese combination: 2 tbsp of soy sauce, 1/2 tsp of white pepper, 1 to 2 tbsp of Chinese cooking wine or sherry, 1 tsp of vinegar, 1/2 tbsp of sugar or honey, 1/2 tbsp of sesame oil. These are all ingredients you should have on hand if you want to make basic Chinese dishes. Note that Chinese soy sauce and Japanese soy sauce are totally different and should be regarded as such. It’s like the difference between Ketchup and BBQ sauce in our world – two different things. Use Chinese soy sauce for this recipe. And if you want to get nit-picky, use 1 tsbp of dark soy sauce and 1 tbsp of light soy sauce.
You will also want to start out any good stir-fry by frying minced garlic, or minced ginger, or both, in peanut oil. This gives it an additional layer of flavor.
Thickener – that velvety, smooth and silky texture found in most Chinese sauces come from the addition of a starch (not a flour). Most often corn, or tapioca starch. These can be used the same. I use corn starch because that’s what I have. Never mix corn starch into a hot liquid. Always into a cold or slightly warm liquid. That way it won’t start to thicken until you actually start cooking it. Mix 1.5 tbsp of corn or tapioca starch into the sauce for the stir fry, and now you’re ready for something good!
Wok or Pot?
Asians use curved woks, and we use cylindrical pots. And although stir-fries flow smoother in a wok, you can use a skillet – especially a non-stick skillet and still end up with a good stir-fry. I use a wok-shaped skillet with a handle for my stir-fries. It’s the best of both worlds!
Remember that it’s not so much the shape of the pot, it’s mostly about how hot you can get it, and how much heat the pot will retain when you toss in the food. And I’m not going to get into the whole science of metals, alloys and materials here. Just make sure your cooking vessel gets smoking hot, and you put a lot of firepower under it before you start. Non-stick is a good idea!
The Order of Things
So, here’s how you make a good stir-fry. Finally… I know! Follow this order, and you won’t go wrong.
1. Prep all your ingredients and have them on hand BEFORE you start cooking. You should have: the sauce, mixed and ready to go, peanut oil on hand, a hot pot or wok, a little bowl of minced garlic or minced ginger (like 2 tbsp), your veggies all cleaned and chopped up ready to go, your meat separate from the vegetables, and marinated/tenderized. A wooden spoon.
2. Put your pot/wok/skillet over something hot (preferably a hot burner) and wait until it smokes. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. And from this point, commit, because there’s no walking away!
3. Add the garlic and/or ginger and start stirring. You want to cook this for a few seconds in the hot oil to set the base flavor. DO NOT BURN IT. As soon as it gets a little golden colored, you go to step 4. If it gets dark brown or black, you burnt it. Toss it in the garbage and start again.
4. Add the meat, stir, fry, and cook it just long enough for the meat to cook through. It should only take a very short time because you sliced it very thin, right? Remove the meat, put in bowl, set aside. Add more oil, let it get smoking hot again.
5. Add the vegetables and stir-fry until they are crunchy on the outside and cooked on the inside. Keep stirring and tasting to figure out when they’ve reached that point. If your stuff is hot enough, you have steam coming off the veggies (not water pooling on the bottom), this shouldn’t take longer than 3 to 4 minutes.
6. Once veggies are cooked, add the meat back in, stir, and add the sauce, stir-stir-stir! Once the sauce gets hot, it will thicken right away. Your job here is to coat all the ingredients in this wonderful sauce! Once that’s accomplished, you serve the stir-fry on a platter and enjoy!
This may seem like a lot to take in, but like driving a car, once you understand all the rules, it’s a smooth ride. Happy stir-frying!