Caution: Girls Wokking. Methods, Tips and Ideas.
Last month my sisters, Mom and I spent the afternoon wokking up a storm. Being the research slut that I am, I spent the prior four weeks delving into books, perusing online, and wokking, wokking, wokking.
Wokking rocks! I think a lot of us believe stir-frying is healthy, family-friendly, and something exciting to get us out of the usual weeknight dinner rut. And it is. But, if you can’t get your wok properly seasoned, your noodles stick, and the vegetables in your Chow Fun are just not having a good time, it quickly becomes not worth it. All too often we give up after a try or two. My sister, Jill, the queen of witticism, nailed it:
I cannot tell you how livid I get when I waste my time and money on something that is gross. Then, I am livid and hungry. There is nothing worse than that. Ask my kids.”
Here are my notes from our “Caution: Girls Wokking” weekend experiment, copied, pasted and revised. Most of the information comes from Grace Young‘s book, The Breath of a Wok, which is truly the most respectful, in-depth, well-written book on woks. If you are interested in wokking at all, this book will inspire you.
I think of wok hay as the breath of a wok — when a wok breathes energy into a stir-fry, giving foods a unique concentrated flavor and aroma.” — Grace Young
Wok Hay, a Cantonese expression, is what we aspire to achieve. It is breathed into a stir-fry via the correct fire power (fo hao), and supposedly dissipates within minutes. So time your dish accordingly, and “relish those first irresistible succulent morsels.”
- The Best wok for home is a well-seasoned, flat-bottomed, 14″ carbon steel wok. It sits close to the heat source.
- Heat the wok completely. Heat until a whiff of smoke is released and a bead of water will evaporate in a second. Cold oil drizzled into a hot wok will dance or ripple on the surface.
- Hot wok / cold oil = ingredients won’t stick. Cold oil / cold wok = problems.
- The Best oils are ones with the highest smoking point: safflower (450°), grapeseed (446°), peanut (410°), corn (410°), avocado (520°), rice bran (500°). Note: heating oil changes its characteristics; some can become unhealthy when heated beyond its smoking point.
- Keep the wok as hot as possible. The biggest challenge is to keep the wok hot throughout the entire cooking process, or food will become soggy rather than stir-fried. To ensure success: 1) add ingredients one at a time; 2) don’t exceed the total amount of ingredients; 3) add sauce by drizzling it around the edges, rather than dumping into the center. These tips will keep the temperature from dropping. You want to hear that sizzle throughout the entire process.
- Maximum of 12 oz. of meat at one time. Any more than this and the meat turns foamy and gray within seconds, releasing its juices, crowding the wok, and making it impossible to sear.
- Spread meat around into a single layer to prevent pieces from clumping together and losing contact with the wok’s hot surface. Leave the meat untouched for 20-60 seconds, allowing it to sear and intensify its flavors; then stir-fry for 10-15 seconds; spread the meat into a single layer once more, and let it sear for at least 30 seconds; then continue stir-frying.
- Maximum of 3 to 4 cups of vegetables in a dish. Larger quantities quickly drop the temperature of the wok, consequently, the ingredients steam rather than stir-fry, and you’ll have a puddle of water at the bottom.
- Very dry ingredients. If washing greens or other vegetable, make sure they are completely dry. A salad spinner works well for washed greens.
- Place all vegetable/aromatic ingredients on a plate — it makes the process a lot easier to maneuver. Stir-frying is very hot and goes fast, it’s much easier to bring an orderly plate to the wok and swoosh in various ingredients with your stir-frying utensil, rather than scooping them up in multiple batches from a cutting board. (The garlic can burn by the time you get the ginger there.)
- Serve immediately. You don’t want to lose that wok hay. Stir-fry is like a souffle or risotto — they wait for it, not the other way around.
- The Chinese word for “stir-fry” in Cantonese is chau (chow). “The chau motion is not a stirring action, but is closer to a tumbling, tossing, or a quick scooping action. The goal is to continuously toss bite-sized ingredients in a small amount of oil in a wok over high heat so that each morsel is constantly exposed to the hot wok’s well. The result is a light searing of ingredients that allows them to cook both quickly and uniformly without burning or charring.”
- Velveting: This is a Cantonese cooking technique (known as waat) that produces light, delicate, tender succulence. Yes, that’s right. It is “accomplished by briefly marinating bite-sized pieces of beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, or scallops in a standard combination of egg white, cornstarch, and a little water or rice wine. The morsels are then blanched in oil or water and thoroughly drained in a colander before being stir-fried.” Blanching in oil is a little trickier and longer process. Alternatively, ingredients can be blanched in water with a touch of added oil, resulting in a very tender product, with much less hassle, and way fewer calories — this is an extraordinary low-fat cooking technique.
TIPS FOR FRIED RICE.
- Rinse raw rice. Chinese cooks always rinse rice until the water runs clear; this removes the excess starch that can make rice gummy.
- Fluff cooked rice while it’s hot. This technique loosens the grains, making it easier to stir-fry later.
- Day-old rice is best because it’s cold and much of the moisture has gone, making it easier to separate the grains when frying. (Warm, fresh rice sticks to the wok and turns gummy.)
- In a time pinch, spread out cooked rice on a sheet pan and refrigerate, uncovered, to cool it down quickly. When it’s cool, go for it.
- Avoid overfilling wok. In a 14” wok, you want about 6 to 8 cups of any combination of ingredients; most recipes call for 4 cups of cold cooked rice and no more than 2 cups of chopped meat or vegetables. You can easily change the amount of the individual ingredients, just be sure the total dish amount doesn’t exceed 7 or 8 cups.
- Always have a sizzle. The moment the rice hits the wok, it should sizzle, meaning the wok is sufficiently heated. That sizzle should continue throughout the process; thus, when adding ingredients, don’t add too many, too quickly — give the wok time to return to the proper temperature.
- Seasoning: Interestingly enough, Chinese fried rice is usually sauced simply with soy sauce; Thai rice with fish sauce; Martin Yan has a recipe that includes oyster sauce and sesame oil, which is unusual. I think it’s fun to mix and match and see what you like. For me, aromatics like garlic and ginger are essential for solid flavor; other good and interesting aromatics include shallots and lemongrass.
- Brown Rice is heartier, and therefore, may need a little more aggressive seasoning — sauce and aromatics.
TIPS FOR WOKKING NOODLES:
- Toss cooked noodles in a little oil. One of the most popular noodles to stir-fry are the thick, fresh egg noodles found in the Chinese market. After boiling according to package directions, drain in colander, rinse under cold water, and shake vigorously to remove excess water. Then toss in a drizzle of sesame or vegetable oil and spread out onto a baking tray to keep them separated.
- Broad rice noodles, also known as chow fun noodles, are best used the day of purchase without refrigeration. If they are cold, steam them for 10 minutes to re-soften; and allow to cool before cutting.
- Dried rice noodles must be soaked in warm water for 20-30 minutes until soft and pliable. After soaking, drain in colander and vigorously shake out excess water. Then toss in a drizzle of sesame or vegetable oil and spread out onto a baking tray.
- Avoid overfilling wok: In a 14” wok, you want about 6 to 8 cups of any combination of ingredients.
- Always have a sizzle. The moment the noodles hit the wok, it should sizzle, meaning the wok is sufficiently heated. That sizzle should continue throughout the process; thus, when adding ingredients, don’t add too many, too quickly — give the wok time to return to the proper temperature.
- Use a pair of wooden (plastic will melt) chopsticks or tongs in one hand and a metal spatula or wooden spoon in the other. Toss the noodles as you would a salad to loosen the mass.
- It’s considered bad luck to cut noodles before eating. Noodles are a symbol or longevity in Chinese culture; however, Grace has met many Chinese cooks who insist on cutting noodles into 6- to 8-inch lengths to make them easier to combine with other ingredients.