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Oriental Wok Stir Frying

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Stir fries are fun, easy to do, and very tasty: you throw your meat, vegetables, and spices together in your wok (or pan) and mix it all together until it's done. Voila! However, when you stir fry in this manner, what you usually end up with is a mish-mash of cooked food, all blended together into something that looks like paste. If you use a sauce such as soy sauce or hot sauce, the entire paste takes on the color of the sauce. There's no denying that it's a tasty paste, but it's tougher to discern the individual flavor of each portion. When you're having a stir fry with beef, vegetables, and rice, you want to taste the beef, taste the vegetables, and taste the rice. The tastes blend together in your mouth, but they shouldn't have to blend together in the wok before you actually eat them.

In order to produce a tasty, restaurant-style stir fry, it is necessary to follow a few simple preparatory steps. None of these steps are difficult. They do require a bit more effort, and an additional pan as well as your wok. But the end result is worth the effort.

Traditional Oriental wok frying was developed and perfected in the days when open fire pits and wood burning stoves were a cooking standard in every kitchen. This is one reason why a typical wok is thin, light, and designed to be hand-held: the thin layer of metal transfers the heat to the food almost instantly, and the cook holds the wok handle in his hand and keeps it in constant motion over the flame in order to evenly heat the food. Wok frying of this kinds requires an open flame, preferably a gas grill, and most home kitchen stoves simply can't produce heat of this kind. Many homes today use electric stovetop ranges, and the coil burners on a typical stove of this kind just aren't designed to get that hot. In order to do an Oriental-style stir fry on an electric stovetop, it's necessary to plan a different strategy and gather the right tools to cook in an environment like this. That's why, instead of a typical thin wok, I use a heavy cast iron wok for electric stovetop stir frying.

The most popular heavy iron wok is made by Lodge, but there are less expensive woks in this style from other manufacturers as well, including the Bayou Classic cast iron wok, an Asian-made Mr. Bar-B-Q wok in a size and shape similar to the Lodge wok, and even a Weber cast iron wok built to fit in a Weber barbeque grill. All of these woks are sturdy, very heavy, and are designed to fit on a stovetop range without a wok ring. They have flat bottoms to sit on the stovetop, but the inside cooking surface is rounded in order to create the special hot spot that occurs at the bottom of a hot wok.

Heating your wok

Using a heavy cast iron wok on an electric stovetop is very different from traditional wok stir-frying over a gas flame. The most important factor to consider is that a thin wok transfers its heat directly to the food, requiring a very high source of heat; while a thick, heavy iron wok retains its heat, absorbing it from the stovetop and building its temperature higher and higher as it sits there on the red-hot electric heating coil. If you let this cast iron wok sit on the electric stovetop for too long, it will actually become too hot for decent frying. Your oil will heat up immediately when you pour it into the wok, and it may even burst into flame – even oils with a high smoke point, such as peanut oil. Since you don't want to accidentally set your kitchen on fire, it is very important to remember this as you prepare to stir fry on your electric stove. Many Oriental stir fry recipes call for the wok to be set on "high heat" or on the "highest setting" of the stovetop. The heat retention properties of a heavy cast iron wok allow you to heat your wok to the proper temperature for stir frying, without turning your stovetop to its highest setting. In most instances, it is only necessary to heat up your stovetop at a setting of about 75% to 80% of maximum, or a setting of between 7 and 8 on a typical dial of 1 to 10.

With this in mind, place your heavy-duty wok on the stovetop range, set the heat for 80%, and wait between 5 and 7 minutes for the wok to become properly heated. You can tell when the wok is hot enough to stir fry when you can place your hand inside the wok at about two inches from the cooking surface, and you can definitely feel the heat from the iron at this distance. Take a few drops of water on your fingers, and flick them onto the surface at the bottom of the wok. If the water sizzles and dissolves in about two seconds, the wok is hot enough for cooking. At this point, you can pour your oil into the wok.

The traditional method of adding the oil states: "Hot wok, cold oil." Spread the oil around the sides of the wok and let it run into the center; this will coat the sides of the wok with oil and allow for the food to be spread out along the sides of the wok. Because the iron wok has stored a lot of heat, the oil will be hot enough for cooking in just about one minute. The surface of the oil will ripple and seem as though it is in motion. You can now add your meat (or eggs) to the wok for searing, and begin stir frying.

Cooking in a heavy wok

Wok purists bristle at the thought of using a heavy wok, because it can't be properly held in one hand in order to flip the food and keep it in constant motion. Because the wok is so heavy, you can let it sit firm on your stovetop, while repeatedly bringing your wok turner into the food to keep stirring it and moving it around the wok. If you feel it's necessary to use your free hand to keep the wok sturdy on the stovetop, you can do so. Or, you can take a second utensil, such as a spatula, second wok turner, or a hoak (an oversized wok stirring and serving scoop), and use it to toss the food in the wok as it fries, in the manner of tossing a salad.

Because this method of stir frying depends on using the wok itself to sear your food, temperature control is important. Adding your meat to the wok will cause a drop in temperature – but not as extreme as what you would have with a thin wok. You may need to turn the stovetop setting up to 90% or full in order to keep your wok at a high temperature as you sear. Once the searing is finished and you have removed your meat from the wok, you can bring the temperature back to the 80% level, add a little more oil and heat it for a minute, then add your seasonings (garlic, onion, etc.) to the oil.

However, you still need to gauge the temperature of your wok. This is because the wok is still absorbing heat from the range. At this point, all you have in the wok are oil and seasonings, and this is not enough to bring down the temperature of a heavy wok – it can do so with a lighter wok, but not this one. The wok will quickly burn your seasonings and oil if the temperature rises too high, and you might have to turn the heat setting down to 70% to prevent burning.

When the seasoning is giving off a delicious aroma and you know it's cooked, it's time to add your food! Before you do so, turn the heat setting back up to 80%, because there will be a temperature drop once again when the food is added to the wok. This is the ancient art of wok hei stir frying: using the hot wok to quickly sear your food and give it a thoroughly cooked taste, while not burning it outright.

After the seasoning has been cooked, the first ingredients to add to the wok must be the ones that will take the longest to cook: longer-cooking vegetables like carrots and huge chunks of broccoli first, then medium-time vegetables, then quick-cooking vegetables like celery last. Mushrooms can also be added after the vegetables.

Finally, after the vegetables have been cooked, you can start adding your previously cooked ingredients to the stir fry. Add the cooked meat back into the vegetable mix, and stir it all together to finish cooking the meat. If you want to mix the rice into the stir fry, add it after the meat and vegetables have been cooked. (Some recipes or preferences may instruct you to simply keep the fried rice separate, and add the finished stir fry to the rice.) Finally, for additional flavoring, add your sauce to the stir fry, and mix everything together.

The Steps to a Cast Iron Stir Fry

See also: Wok Hei - The Mystical Art of Stir Frying