People often tell me they have trouble getting the hang of cooking in a wok
, I aim to make it easier for you to learn this basic skill essential to preparing good Chinese
stir fry dishes. This node is a brief summary of knowledge passed on to me by my grandparents, my father and my aunts, along with bits of my own knowledge thrown in.
Necessity, The mother of Invention
In wok DMan
tells us that the wok is shaped to accomodate the shape of the food, but I do not believe this to be so. Rather the shape of the food is meant to accomodate the cooking conditions. In the home of a Chinese peasant family firewood was a precious resource; the first 3 tasks of a Chinese wife were to check that there was adequate wood, oil, and rice for the day. Wok
cooking was devised to make the most efficient use of the fire wood. The meat is sliced thinly and the vegetables cut small for two reasons; first to cook quickly and therefore use less firewood, and secondly to be in bite sized pieces for eating with chopsticks. All of the cutting and mixing of sauces is done ahead of time
so they can be thrown into the wok with out hesitation. The oil in the wok is very hot and vegetables burn easily if they have to wait while you slice the meat.
The basic order of ingredients going into the wok is oil, aromatics, vegetables in order of longest cooking time to shortest cooking time, meat, sauce, and water. I will elaborate on this further.
The Right Tools for the Right Job
The first thing you need is a good wok. Jinmyo
has a thorough write up under On buying a wok
. My personal preference is to avoid spun steel, teflon, and electric woks. It's also important to make sure you have a metal lid large enough to cover the wok. A wok lid doesn't sit on the edge of the pan like a saucepan lid instead it rests on the inside of the wok. The lid needs to sit high enough to allow plenty of room on the inside of the wok, mine sits ~ 1 inch from the top edge of my wok. The other thing you need is a Chinese spatula, either a curved metal one like DMan describes
or a wood/bamboo one. I tend to use a bamboo
spatula but I also use a stainless steel one on occasion. This is not a job for your limp-wristed plastic spatula
The spatulas my grandmother cooks with were forged over 40 years ago in China in the village where my grandparents lived. My grandfather paid a fellow villager who had a forge to make 2 spatulas out of scrap steel. The spatulas are rustic but they do their job well. The dimpled surfaces from the blacksmith's hammer only add to their charm. The handles are still the original wood handles but they have been well worn with age and are now around half their original length. Beautiful pieces of family history that I hope to inherit some day.
Your Virgin Bride - Preparing Your Wok for its First Use
Next comes the big pain in the ass, to prepare the wok for use it must be seasoned
this is the process of giving the pan a permanent layer of cooked on grease to prevent food from sticking. After the first seasoning I don't treat it very delicately at all. I clean my wok with warm water and a plastic brush and after cleaning i set it on a hot element to cook off the water. When it's dry I pour a tablespoon
of oil in a ring around the edge of the wok and leave it to get hot. When the oil is hot I rub it into the metal with a wad of paper towel or a tea towel and let the wok cool before putting it away.
Not only does this keep the wok in good condition for cooking it is absolutely essential for me as my wok is not stainless
. The next time I use my wok this thin layer of oil gets extremely hot and cooked onto the sides of the wok thus the seasoning
builds up with each use.
The Lipid Truth - Choosing a Wok Oil
There are many so-called wok oils in the supermarkets. Often over priced hot pepper infusions, these are just silliness. In choosing an oil for stir frying the important things are that it is flavour neutral and has a high smoking point. In the past peanut oil
oil were used but in Canada Chinese
cooks tend to use canola oil
. Olive oil
smokes far too low for cooking at military heat
and will impart a decidedly un-Chinese flavour to your food.
The Meta Stir Fry
Step 1 : Preparing the aromatics
Cut the onions into any shape you like, if you like large onion pieces cut rings or wedges, if you are not such an onion fan cut them in a dice. The ginger if you're using it should be cut in matchsticks, not big huge slices. You may or may not peel/wash it. I never peel ginger myself and neither do any of my relatives. If you'd like garlic cut that up too once again, free form crush it, dice it, slice it; go nuts.
Step 2 : Cut the vegetables
The vegetables should be cut in bite sized pieces it is not necessarily that they be cut in nice slices, a cottage-style coarse chopping will be more than enough.
Step 3 : Slice the meat
Typically meat is cut on the bias in thin 1/8"-1/4" slices. The thin cuts through the grain ensure that the meat cooks quickly and remains tender. For a stir fry it's not necessary to buy a top cut of beef, but a pot roast probably wouldn't be the best choice.
There are other cuts as well such as minces, dices, or strips. The popular dish "mu goo gai pan" translates into chicken (gai) strips (pan) prepared in the style of Mu Goo (I don't remember where this is). Gai ding would be diced chicken. Very often the meat is bite sized chunks with the bone in. At the Chinese table it's acceptable to spit your bones out.
Step 4 : Prepare the sauce
The Chinese version of a liaison is cornstarch(or tapioca) and cold water. This is the basic sauce thickener and may have other flavourings added to it. For those of you who like measurements I'm going to say 1 tbsp cornstarch(or tapioca starch) and 4 tbsp water.
Step 5 : Heat the wok
Put your wok on the stove and turn your element on to it's highest setting. Yes I know that the dial on a stove is more than an On/Off switch but for stir frying you want a very high temperature. When the layer of oil starts to look tacky pour in 2tbsp of oil and let it heat up too. You can either wait for the oil to smoke or watch it and see when it starts to look wavy as though it's moving about a little bit.
Step 6 : Cooking the vegetables
The first thing to go into the wok is always the onions, stir them around a bit and let them become translucent. Next stir in the ginger and the garlic. Give them a chance to give up their flavours to the oil but do not allow them to sit long enough that the garlic browns. Burnt garlic makes the baby Jesus cry.
The order of the vegetables is in the order of longest cooking time to shortest. If we had broccoli, carrots, green pepper and fresh button mushrooms they would be put into the wok in that order. The mushrooms would actually benefit from being the last ingredient in the wok rather than being added before the meat. The period of time between adding ingredients needn't be long. The idea is to add something, toss it in the oil and add something else.
Stir frying is not as much stirring as it is turning over. With your spatula go under the ingredients in the wok and roll them towards the centre. Then move your spatula slightly forward of the place it started and do this again. When you are stirring you are trying to overlap like like an iris. This is an overly rigourous description of stirring things in the wok, once you get the idea you will no doubt develop your own style. The important thing to remember is that this is not an agressive stirring, although it may be done very quickly it's not the same as stirring a sauce to prevent cream from burning.
From time to time it may be necessary to pick the wok up and give it a shake or to give the handle a flick of the wrist to toss the ingredients the same as you would do with a conventional frying pan. This was the easiest way to lower the wok temperature in an old kitchen. Don't start flipping your stir fries in the air unless you're really comfortable flipping things in a frying pan. Your wok probably has a lot more food in it than you're used to.
Step 7 : Cooking the meat
With any luck your wok has a shallow enough curve to allow you to sit things on the edge. With your spatula push the vegetables out of the center and up against the walls of the wok so the middle of the pan is empty. This will keep the vegetables warm while you cook the meat.
Pile the meat in the middle of the walk in as thin a layer as possible and let it brown. After a couple of minutes use the same stirring technique as before to mix the meat and vegetables together. If the meat was pre-cooked you're ready to go on to the next step. If the meat was raw and you're concerned it may not be cooked through you can pour a small amount of water around the edge of the wok and put the lid on. Let the wok sit tight until the steam is forced out of the edges of the lid. At this point your meat will be cooked through.
Step 8 : Gravy baby
If you're using a bottled sauce now is the time to splash some on and toss your stir fry in it to coat everything. Pour the cornstarch mixture around the edge of the wok and push the meat and vegetables against the walls again so that the liquid pools in the bottom. When the liquid on the bottom starts to bubble stir it up until you have an even coloured gravy. Toss your ingredients in this gravy and serve.
This is the end
Since this writeup is already very long, and to allow for better recipe indexing I am going to post a sample recipe here
. Remember that stir fry is just one use for a wok. You can do other things like smoke
, and deep fry
. Boiling anything in a wok is a real chore and an exercise in futility. That's what pots
are for. Remember that if you're going to eat your stir fry with rice as is typical in southern China
you should start cooking your rice
before you even lift a finger to make the stir fry. Also, the idea is that the vegetables are cooked, but not mushy. We want to retain the individual texture of each vegetable, it's not ragu