Six Stir Fry Tips and an Aluminum Swan

Plus one wicked hot stir fry wok!

stir fry swan

When I attended the Culinary Institute of America one of my favorite classes was Asian Cuisine. What red blooded American boy wouldn’t want to cook on a 110,000 BTU wok? Professional woks stations are like an F-18 fighter jet standing on end with the afterburner blowing away trying to melt metal pans.

One day we took the wok off the 30 inch “Godzilla” burner, which I believe was 110,000 BTUs, and cranked the puppy to high. Two foot flames shot out of the burner. We also had three other woks, which burned at 90,000 BTUs that could crank out the heat as well.

The average output of a home stove is about 7,000 BTUs, about 1/8th the power of the “little” woks we used. Electric stove tops are measured in kW (kilowatts) and average about 2 kW, roughly the same as 7,000 BTUs. If you are cooking on an electric stove top you need a different type of wok than a full rounded bottom, one that makes full contact with the heating element.

I use a Calphalon flat bottom wok. Mine is a little bigger that this one from Calphalon by about 2 inches. Even on an electric stove top it does an adequate job.

Regardless, if you are going to make stir fry food at home there are a six key points to keep in mind.

  1. Prep the food properly
  2. Mise en place, have everything ready
  3. Don’t forget essential GGS
  4. Insanely high temperature wok
  5. The order of what gets cooked
  6. Keep the food moving at all times

In any cooking endeavor how the food is chopped is important. A carrot for soup is a good example. If you chop the carrot with some pieces large and some small and cook them all at the same time the small pieces will be done before the large pieces. Evenly sized pieces cook at a similar rate and look better in the finished plate.

I’ve talked about mise en place before. It means everything in place. In stir fry all your ingredients need to be ready to cook and ideally in order of what will go into the pan first. And first should be your GGS, or garlic, ginger, and scallions. Along with GGS, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and chili oil, are the essential elements in Asian cuisine.

The GGS will flavor the oil(s), which will coat the other ingredients. Don’t worry too much about the GGS getting burned. In all likelihood it’s not going to be in the wok that long. Use the temperature fluctuation as you stir fry to your advantage. More on that below.

What ever wok you use for stir fry it has to be absolutely screaming hot. Heat the wok then add the oil. The oil should start shimmering almost immediately so be ready to start cooking. If it doesn’t wait until it almost hits the smoking point. Here’s the order you should add stuff to the wok. Oil, GGS, slow cooking ingredients, sauces, then fast cooking ingredients. Timing will be everything and the more you stir fry the better you’ll get.

Order of cooking is important. If you add the snow peas to the wok they will cook quickly, but A meat will take a little longer. So you want to add the ingredients in the order of what takes longer to cook. You should remember to a certain extent it’s all relative because of the short cooking time. This is more important to the home cook because of the temperature of the home wok is so much lower.

In a stir fry sturdier vegetables need to be real hot in and cooked all the way through but not at the expense of other ingredients. These are cooked more to an “al dente” level with a little crunch left. Cauliflower is a good example. I repeat the importance of consistent size cuts.

The minute you start adding food to the wok the surface temperature will drop. Here’s where you take advantage of temperature fluctuation. While you start mixing and turning the food (always keep the food moving) the temperature will begin to rise again. Then you add the next ingredient, the temp drops, you stir, the temp rises, you add more ingredients, blah blah, soon the the food is done, you eat, and someone else cleans the kitchen. What a deal!

Now the story of the aluminum swan

Our Chef Instructor, Chef Cheng, was incredible. I saw her completely debone a chicken with a cleaver in 17 seconds. Not a bone left in the bird.

On occasion she would pop across the hall to get her lunch while we were prepping, which she would bring back to the classroom. One day she asked me to wrap it in aluminum foil and bring it to her desk. I was thrilled she chose me so I wrapped the food in foil and formed as beautiful swan as I could imagine.

Proudly, I presented it to her and she rolled her eyes. “Nice swan, David.” This became ritual, she would get her food, I would make the swan.

Finally, one day when I brought her the swan she took me aside. “David, you make better Asian food than swan. Please, stop making ugly swan. It hurt me to look at them.”

She was right. I stopped making swans. I do make a mean stir fry though.

  • reply Your sister-in-law Pat ,

    LOL–what a HILARIOUS story about Chef Cheng and ‘The Ugly Swan’!!! How many times did you create that strange bird for her?

    Those were some ‘HOT’ Woks you used at the CIA. Your class must have felt like a blast-furnace when you were all cooking. Holy COW. So you make a real mean stir-fry, eh? :)

    • reply Dave ,

      Pat, about 5 times before she couldn’t take it anymore.

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