Before the Wok Gets Hot
Stir-frying food is a great way to produce tasty, fresh, filling, and healthy meals. However, if you are not prepared to start cooking when the wok gets hot, your meal could end up less than what you expected. And, you may end up pulling your hair out and giving up on your stir-fry adventure.
Of all the complaints I hear about how difficult it is to stir-fry, upon closer inspection I typically find the cook isn’t ready – both with knowledge and ingredients. There are simple steps to take to make sure you are ready to roll when this quick cooking method begins. Let’s take a look at the basics of preparation for a stir-fry meal.
1. The Wok and Tools
First let me say this – if you are going to really enjoy stir-frying, you need a wok. However, if you are not ready to commit just yet, a skillet will work. If you do use a skillet, make sure it is a very large stainless steel or cast iron skillet with a lid. Your wok should be a carbon steel material (NOT non-stick) with a flat bottom so it sits on a gas or electric burner without tipping, with high slopping sides and a lid.
Set your wok on the stove, and put the lid nearby. I also like to keep a ‘splatter guard’ handy; the flat circular kind with a handle. Then you’ll need at least one large spoon or paddle to stir. Wood works nicely and stays cool. Then you’ll want a slotted spoon or mesh scooper to remove food items without removing the oil and sauce along with it. Get out a couple heavy-duty pot holders, even if you have a wooden handle or other heat-resistant handle on your wok or skillet. Set out plates, platters, or bowls to use as needed to remove food from the wok as it cooks.
I consider the oil a ‘tool’ for stir-frying. Be sure your oil is conveniently located so if you underestimate the oil needed, you can easily add another drizzle. Get a measuring spoon or cup ready.
2. The Food
In the excitement to start stir-frying, I have been known to forget the rice. Since we eat brown rice most often, which takes 45 minutes to cook, this is a problem. Now, in my preparation work, the first thing I do is make the rice.
While the rice is cooking I start prepping my other ingredients. I take the meat or other protein out of the refrigerator and slice it as needed and set it aside. I want the protein (especially meat and chicken) to be close to room temperature. Ice cold meat thrown onto a sizzling hot surface tends to seize up and get tough. So, cut the meat, set it aside on the counter, and then start preparing the other ingredients.
Wash, dry, and cut all your vegetables and fruit. Be sure to cut the densest vegetables into small, equal sizes. For instance, broccoli stems and carrots can be cut into thin shoestring style pieces to cook faster and more evenly. Onions can be left a bit larger. Spinach can be left whole.
Frozen vegetables should typically be thawed and drained well, because throwing frozen food in the wok will cool everything down and slow, or stop, the cooking process. You’ll also want to grate the ginger and garlic, slice the mushrooms, and open cans, etc. Measure your sauces and seasonings and have them ready, too.
3. The Work Station
Now that the equipment and the food are ready, you can heat up the wok, right? Not quite. You want to create an ‘assembly line’ so you don’t end up reaching for the ginger before you get the carrots started. Even if you have a recipe in front of you, having the ingredients in order of cooking procedure removes the chaos of searching the recipe to see what to do next, leaving your stir-fry unattended.
Start by clearing the decks and creating plenty of work surface. I lay a couple big towels on top of the kitchen table to expand my ‘assembly line’ a bit further. Get your sink empty and ready to receive all your discarded bowls and containers as you dump the ingredients into the wok. Now that your ingredients are prepped and your work surface is cleared, read your recipe and put everything in order of how you will be adding it to the wok. This is your assembly line.
Now you are ready to fire up the wok. Once the oil is hot, you can simply grab the first ingredient and begin. I guarantee this assembly line idea will save you a lot of struggle and frustration, making your stir-fry a lot more fun, and delicious!