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Wok cooking is an ancient culinary technique that can elevate your home-cooked meals to restaurant-quality status. In this comprehensive guide, together we’ll explore the basics of wok cooking, with a focus on one of its most popular methods: stir-frying. There are four essential components to stir-frying in a wok – vegetables, protein, aromatics, and sauce. So grab your wok and let’s get cooking!
This is the second half of a series about how to use a wok. Check out the other half, which deals with how to purchase and care for wok equipment!
If you are new to cooking Asian, or Asian-American cuisines, you will need to pick up a few things. For most Chinese-American dishes you will need:
- Two types of soy sauce, light and dark. There are all sorts of light and dark soy sauces from many, many countries. I use a light Japanese soy sauce (regular Kikkoman soy sauce), and a dark Japanese soy sauce. There are also light and dark Chinese soy sauces, sweet Malaysian soy sauce, and so many more. Don’t get overwhelmed. Use what is available to you. I don’t use Chinese soy sauces because they are not as available to me and I know much less about them. If you are very familiar with Chinese soy sauces, could you tell me about them in the comments? Which ones should I try?
- Shaoxing wine – now, I do not usually cook with alcohol, but there really is not a good substitute for Shaoxing wine in Chinese recipes. It adds tang and depth, and is definitely worth purchasing. It will help you achieve that je ne sais quoi that separates most home cooks’ stir-fries from restaurant quality food. Shaoxing wine is available at any Asian grocery store, and you can also purchase it on Amazon. As it is a cooking wine, you do not need to be over 21 to purchase Shaoxing wine in the United States. You would not want to drink it, so I hear, but it’s excellent for sauces.
- Baking soda – this ingredient surprised me when I began my journey into wok cooking. Baking soda is added to many stir-fry meat marinades as a tenderizer. Baking soda will raise the pH on the exterior of the meat and make it more difficult for the proteins to bond. This prevents the proteins from squeezing water out of the meat as they bond and shorten, meaning more tender meat for you!
- Cornstarch – this will serve as the thickener for your sauces and an ingredient in your marinades. In marinades for wok cooking, cornstarch helps the marinade adhere to the meat, and gives the meat a little bit of protection from the high heat of the wok.
Prepare Everything Before You Start Cooking!
Once the food hits the pan, wok cooking moves extremely fast. There is no time to chop garlic while your chicken cooks. If you attempt this, your chicken will burn. I like to do my prep in the following order, no matter the recipe:
- Prepare the marinade, then slice and marinate the meat. Doing this step first gives the meat enough time to get all the benefits from the marinade while you prep the other ingredients.
- Wash the cutting board, and prep the vegetables. You want all of your vegetables to be as close to the same size as possible for even cooking in the wok. Put veggies in a bowl.
- Prep my aromatics (garlic and ginger, usually), place in a bowl. I add the ginger to the bowl for the sauce to prevent burning.
- Make sauce.
Make sure all of your ingredients have their own prep bowl so that you can add them to the wok quickly. Arrange the bowls near the stove for easy access.
A Note On Safety
Wok cooking gets very hot! The stove will typically be set to medium-high or high. I do not let my children anywhere near the stove when I am stir-frying. I don’t want them near the hot wok, and I do not want them to bump me and cause an accident.
I also wear shoes when I use my wok to protect myself from the occasional hot flying onion or pepper, as well as spills. I have not had a huge spill while wok cooking, but if I ever did, I would not want to be barefoot.
Beware of steam. Do not position your hand directly over the center of the wok when adding ingredients. Pour liquids around the sides of the wok instead of directly into the center. This keeps your hands safe from steam. Also, use a long-handled wok spatula for wok cooking. This gives you a little bit of space between your body and the heat and steam.
Wok Cooking Order of Operations
Make sure all of your bowls, including a serving bowl, are ready. Heat the wok over medium high to high heat until you see little whisps of smoke. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of a neutral oil, such as vegetable or grapeseed oil, around the perimeter of the wok. Carefully add your vegetables and keep them moving with your wok spatula until they are cooked to your liking. Pour them into the serving dish.
Add another couple of tablespoons of oil, and carefully add your protein of choice. Let the meat sear for about 20-30 seconds before you start moving it with your spatula. This will help prevent sticking. Stir-fry until cooked through. Remove to serving bowl.
Deglazing Removes Stuck-On Food
Deglazing means to add liquid to a pan to remove food or fond (tasty brown bits) stuck on the bottom. If your protein sticks to your wok, which may happen for the first few cooks if you have a new wok, remove your cooked meat and add about 1 cup of water by pouring it around the sides of the wok. Be careful! Let the water come to a rolling boil, which will help the food release, and scrape up the bits with your spatula. Carefully pour the liquid into the sink, rinse the wok, and continue cooking.
Add a little more oil and add your aromatics, stirring constantly. Do not chop your garlic too fine, or it will burn. Also, I like to grate my ginger on a Microplane and add it directly to the sauce. If you stir fry finely grated ginger, you will soon have carbon.
As soon as your aromatics are fragrant, about 15-20 seconds, pour your sauce around the sides of the wok. If your cornstarch is in the sauce itself, be sure to whisk it before adding to the wok. If you are using a cornstarch slurry, add a little bit of it with the sauce and see if you need more after it boils. Let the sauce come to a boil, stirring constantly.
I’ve found that you must thicken the sauce separately from all of the other ingredients. If you just add the sauce with other ingredients in the wok, it will not thicken properly. We are looking for sauce perfection.
Finish Your Stir-Fry!
When your sauce is thick and glossy, add the rest of your ingredients back into your wok. Stir to coat and warm through. Transfer your yummy dinner to a serving bowl, garnish with scallions if you wish, and dive in!
Don’t forget to clean the wok immediately after use, or you will be sad. It’s much easier to clean it right after cooking. Trust me.
I’m proud of you! You did it! You made an awesome stir-fry! Please let me know how your dishes turn out in the comments. I’m also happy to answer questions, or just chat ;). Also, I highly recommend J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s book, The Wok, for more information on stir-frying. You will be so happy you picked up a copy, trust me. He’s a wealth of knowledge. Share this post so that everyone can learn to be wok pros!
Sesame Chicken Stir-Fry With Vegetables - Gracious Cooking
Saturday 6th of May 2023
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