It's easy to think stir-fry is easy. Marinate your protein, toss some veggies in the wok, and add leftover rice. Right? If that's your mental recipe for your mid-week fry, you're getting the basics right but missing the most important element. "Stir-fry has less to do with the ingredients and everything to do with technique," says Jonathan Wu, chef and partner at Manhattan’s Fung Tu, a Chinese-American joint famed for its culinary pedigree (Wu trained at Thomas Keller’s star NYC restaurant Per Se) and its stellar seasonal stir-fry (this spring, he's adding soft-shell crab, ramps, capers, and pickled mustard seeds).
Anyone can master stir-fry — you just have to be smart about how you cook, starting with your knife skills. "Everything must be cut into a similar size so it can all be cooked quickly and evenly," Wu says. For a noodle stir-fry, condiments cut up in batons will blend perfectly. A consistent medium dice works great with rice. And if you've chopped your flank steak into strips, cut your veggies the same way.
Before you turn on the heat, get your mise en place in order and make sure all your ingredients are ready and waiting near your wok. Making stir-fry is a fast-moving process, so don't burn your dinner because your carrots were on the wrong side of the kitchen. As a general rule, your protein goes into the pan first, followed by slow-cooking vegetables like carrots and peppers and then by softer ingredients like mushrooms and sugar snap peas. If it's seared meat you're seeking, brown it and then remove it while the vegetables cook, re-integrating it into the stir-fry at the end of the cooking process.
Some chefs recommend parboiled your veggies. That's incorrect, according to Wu. "Going from a raw state straight into the wok helps us keep vegetables fresh, vibrant, and crisp," he says. To get perfectly tender insides, add a little liquid to the pan — chicken stock or water both work well. As a bonus, the liquid will steam and fluff up your rice.
And about that rice or noodles: Leftovers are the way to go. "Because leftover rice has less moisture, it will stick together less and stick to the wok less," Wu says. Just make sure it's not too dried out, because that's not good, either. He recommends a medium- or long-grain rice, which are less sticky.
Your stir-fry needs a wok. Don't skip it. Sure, you can pull off something stir-fry esque without a wok, but "one has to go in with the caveat that it won’t be the same," says Wu. A true stir fry reqiores wok hay, a smokey flavor that emerges when you use a wok to heat oil to its smoking point. Wu recommends canola oil, which has a high smoke point and a neutral flavor.
"Discerning Cantonese consider a stir-fry without wok hay to be like bad wine, dead and flat," says stir-fry guru Grace Young in her cookbook, The Breath of a Wok. For wok hay, you’ll need two things: A hot wok and cold oil. Adding cold oil to a cold wok creates vegetables burnt on the outside and soggy on the inside. Heat up your wok as much as possible before adding the oil to get that wok hay flavor.
Stir-fry is an adventure in heat management. "If that pan cools down, it’s not stir-fry," Wu says. "It's a hot sauté. Everything is going to get waterlogged. Overcrowding the wok will cool everything down," he says. And make sure your ingredients are always moving — wok hay is smoky, not burnt, but that's what you'll get if you don't toggle the wok back and forth to keep the food in motion. "If any food stays in contact with the wok for too long, it's going to burn. You've got to constantly agitate it," he says. Done correctly, you’ll have tasty, smoky stir-fry in no time at all.
Market Fried Rice
- 160 g brisket, brined and braised and cubed
- 20 g ginger, minced
- 20 g garlic, minced
- 20 g scallion white, minced
- 500 g jasmine rice, cooked and dried for a day or two in the fridge
- 120 g rhubarb, sliced
- 120 g celery, sliced
- 100 g eggs + 20 g garlic chives, sliced; beaten and scrambled
- 15 ml soy sauce
- 5 ml black rice vinegar
- 50 ml vegetable stock
- 100 g baby spinach
- 5 g celery seed, toasted
- 20 g scallion green, sliced
- Heat a wok over high heat.
- Add enough canola oil to film the bottom of the wok.
- Add the brisket, ginger, garlic, and scallion whites. Toss rapidly.
- Add the rice, rhubarb, celery, scrambled egg, soy sauce, black rice vinegar, and vegetable stock.
- Season with celery seed and a pinch of salt.
- Toss rapidly and use the wok spatula to break up and rice that is clumped together.
- Add the baby spinach, toss and cook for a few seconds until it wilts.
- Divide among 4 bowls. Garnish with the scallion greens.