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Stir-Frying (Pad)

Kasma Loha-unchit, August 14th, 2009

Stir-frying is a quick-cooking method that is similar to the western way of sautéing, in which relatively small pieces of food (usually bite-size) are tossed about quickly in a hot pan with a small amount of oil. High heat must be maintained throughout the stir-fry for proper searing of foods to seal in their natural juices. Although stir-frying can be done in a flat skillet or large pot, it is best accomplished in a well-seasoned wok. See my article on Using a Wok.

Kasma Stir-frying in Class

Kasma stir-frying in class

I do not recommend non-stick pans for stir-frying, because they do not hold heat very well and are not oil-friendly. Cooking oil does not distribute over their surface but tends to bead here and there; as a result, food does not get evenly seared and flavored with it. As for electric woks, I do not regard them as woks at all. Not only do they have a non-stick surface, the heating element covers only a small area on the bottom, so the rounded contour of the pan never gets heated for effective cooking. For more on this see Wok: Flat or Round Bottom?

Because a stir-fry proceeds at a rapid pace, make sure you have all the ingredients ready before beginning. Place them in separate piles by the stove in the order that they are to go into the wok.

Spicy Seafood Stir-fry

Spicy seafood stir-fry

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Unlike some styles of Chinese cooking, Thai stir-fries are seldom thickened with cornstarch or other thickeners, but instead, the sauces and seafood juices are left natural to preserve the fresh flavors of the herbs and intensity of the seasonings. Should a lot of juice cook out from seafood because insufficient heat is maintained during the stir-fry, the cooked seafood may be removed with a slotted spoon and the sauce reduced over high heat to thicken before recombining with the seafood. Stir-fried dishes, when properly done, should have just a small amount of richly colored and naturally thick sauce surrounding the pieces of seafood. If the seafood is swimming in a pool of liquid, the flavors in the dish will be diluted.

On the other hand, if your stove is an especially hot one, reduce heat or add a little cooking liquid to help in the stir-fry so that the seafood does not burn and leave you with a very dried-out dish. This situation, however, is rare with most American home stoves.

Stir-frying a Chilli Paste

Stir-frying a chilli paste

For stir-frying, nothing can match the wok and its companion spatula. Although a flat skillet may be used, you can toss food particles much more vigorously and with greater ease and satisfaction on the rounded surface of the wok without having to worry about splattering and spilling onto the stovetop. Food is cooked more evenly and is less likely to burn, your arm is less tired and your stove remains much cleaner after stir-frying than when a flat skillet is used. Try stir-frying a big batch of leafy greens, or big chunks of crab in the shell, and you’ll see what I mean.

For a successful stir-fry, always begin by heating the wok before adding anything to it. Wait until the surface literally lets off wafts of smoke – about three minutes over high heat. (You may also test the heat by sprinkling in a few drops of water – they should sizzle and turn to steam without hesitation.) Then swirl in the oil to coat the surface, using the wok spatula as needed to spread it around, and wait a short while longer to allow the oil to get hot (about 15-20 seconds). Now you may begin your stir-fry. The rule-of-thumb is: always add cold oil to a hot wok and never cold oil to a cold wok.

Stir-frying greens

Stir-frying greens

Preheating opens up the pores in the wok, so that when oil is swirled in, they absorb some of the oil and become seasoned before each stir-fry, lessening the likelihood of food sticking to the wok’s surface. If you do not have a very hot stove, preheating also ensures that as high a heat as possible is maintained throughout the stir-fry for proper searing of food. If oil is added to the wok before heating, it will burn and smoke before the wok is thoroughly heated, giving a false impression that the pan is hot enough to begin the stir-fry. And if you do, you will likely burn the garlic only to find that when the bulk of the seafood is tossed in, the heat fizzles out quickly, causing the seafood to sweat out most of its juices.

When the oil is hot, add the garlic – it should sizzle but not burn. Stir for a few seconds to flavor the oil, then follow with the seafood and other ingredients to be stir-fried. Toss frequently, making sure all the food particles, large and small, get turned and moved around so that they cook evenly and do not burn.

Listen to the sound of food cooking in your wok. The sizzling should be loud and lively. If it slows down, slow down also on the stirring as this can dissipate heat. Spread the food up along the heated sides of the wok rather than lump them in the center, making use of as much of the heated surface of the wok as necessary. Stir just enough to cook and brown food evenly and prevent burning.

Stir-frying Basil Chicken

Stir-frying Basil Chicken

If you stir too much while the wok is losing heat, your seafood dishes will likely turn watery and the flavors will become diluted. For an average home-stove, try not to stir-fry more than one to one-and-a-half pounds of seafood at a time. It also helps if the seafood is well-drained and not icy cold from the refrigerator – let it sit out at room temperature for at least twenty to thirty minutes before beginning the stir-fry.

Here are a few other suggestions should your stove be less than ideal in terms of heat: (1) add the salty seasoning towards the end of cooking; (2) if there is more than one liquid ingredient, do not add them together, but space them out by fifteen to twenty seconds so that one gets to heat up and evaporate some before another is added; and (3) sprinkle the liquid ingredients directly on the hot metal just above the seafood being stir-fried so that they are heated immediately and reduced quickly to concentrate their flavors.

Stir-frying in a wok has the additional advantage of requiring less oil than a flat skillet because of its rounded bottom. While one wok can stir-fry a small or large quantity of food, different-size skillets often are needed to cook widely varying quantities.
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Check out Kasma’s Thai recipe index for plenty of stir-fry recipes.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, August 2009.

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