It’s not Christmas, but still. In one of the other cooking post comments, several of the Glibertariat complained that their stir-fries were just not… right. And most of the stir-fries I’ve gotten outside of heavily Chinese areas have been somewhere on the line segment between mediocre and really shitty. And that includes 95% of Chinese restaurants run and staffed by Chinese, but located in white, Hispanic, or black neighborhoods- they’re giving the people what they want (in the case of Jews, pork and shellfish- that was the code word for forbidden meats, “Chinese food”).
So sit back and I will attempt to make a Guide for the Perplexed. I clearly am not Chinese, or of Chinese origins, but I have decent cooking chops, traveled a lot over there, lived in Asian immigrant communities, and am not bashful about asking questions to chefs when I taste something really good, and that has reduced my level of ignorance. The word “Chinese” will be used a lot here, because that’s my personal epicenter for stir-fry cooking. But really, there’s a whole lot of other Asian cuisines that do these same sorts of things, so think Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, or what-have-you, the principles are the same. Shit, you can even appropriate Chinese methods to prepare Italian-style food; that’s why America is great. Likewise, though I’m a vegetarian, what I’m talking about here is generic and applicable to the protein of your choice. If you prefer dead pig to seitan, you’re still making shitty stir-fries, and I’m still going to save your ass despite that offense to Yahweh.
We regularly fuck up stir-fries. Stir-frying is just a technique, widely applicable and flexible, and we still fuck them up. Here’s a partial list of the things that are most commonly wrong:
- Too soggy. Everything in the dish is more like an Irish stew.
- Singed ingredients that are raw in the middle.
- Uneven cooking, so you get a combo of vegetables that are mushy and raw.
- Gloppy. There’s a weird sauce-fetish that I think derives from old school American Chinese take-outs. The ingredients are drowned in a thick gooey brown or white sauce. And the sauces’ flavors tend to dominate the dish as well.
- Sweet. And the worst offender is the sugar-fetish.
In order to help you avoid the common traps, I’ve got a couple of recipe-ish things here, but what I really want to harp on is some stupidly simple methods which come up again and again. While I’m at it, I’ll also beat you up about the shitty equipment you use. I hope that one or another of my random pieces of brain lint give you an easy fix so you’ll stop making shitty stir-fries.
Step One: Ingredients
The rule of thumb for good Chinese cooking is 60-30-10. 60% of your time should be seeking and obtaining good ingredients, 30% of your time doing preps, and 10% or less actually cooking.
By “good ingredients,” I don’t mean “exotic ingredients,” but rather quality stuff whose flavors and textures don’t need obscuring. The Chinese have been great about adapting their cuisine to local ingredients and freely appropriating. Yeah, it’s fun to use things like Szechuan pickled radish or fermented black beans, but that won’t make your shitty stir-fry less shitty. It will just be shitty but now exotically shitty. Here’s a crazy idea: buy great green beans or peppers or bean sprouts or mushrooms or chicken/beef/pork/seafood and don’t worry as much about the spices and condiments. Now you have a shot at a decent dish, even if you’re fresh out of huangdou jiang.
If you use canned bean sprouts or green beans or asparagus, I will personally come over and explain your porn history to your spouse and children.
The only real necessities peculiar to Chinese stir-fry cooking are soy sauce (have both dark and light on hand), toasted sesame oil, and Shaoxing cooking wine. Use a high smoke-point oil like peanut. All else is negotiable; I keep a variety of pastes, spices, and vinegars handy for specialty dishes, but my everyday stir fries do fine without ’em. Whatever you do, avoid the brand name generic “stir fry sauces.” Read the ingredients; most of them lead off with water and sugar. There will be other forms of sugar listed as well. And xantham gum for extra gloppiness. That stuff is a sure path to shittiness. Unless you like shitty, in which case, go get some deep dish with pineapple and spare the rest of us.
MSG frankly is rather common and not the devil that excess sugar is. Use it wisely and sparingly, but don’t reflexively avoid it.
Step Two: Tools
Since prep should be an outsize part of your time investment, it goes without saying that you need really good sharp knives to make the work go smoothly and quickly. I have a rather, um, eclectic collection. My default knife for stir-fry prep is a cheap Chinese cleaver. It says “stainless” on it and it isn’t. Which is OK, it takes a nice edge, but needs honing every ten minutes or so. Which is also OK because I bought it about 40 years ago for $8 at a Chinese grocery, given it a lot of hard use over the decades, and it’s still doin’ its thing. So while a $300 Shun is a delightful thing, it’s not really a necessity- I didn’t see many of them used in great kitchens in China.
My second-most used knife for stir-fry prep is also a cheapie, this one a 10″ Victorinox. It feels good in the hand, sharpens easily, and has held up well since we got it a few years back. Costs less than a couple of movie tickets and popcorn.
Third most used knife is also a Victorinox, a 3.25″ paring knife, and cheaper than a slice of pizza and a Coke. Great for fine trimming (like the stems of tomatoes or the eyes of pineapple). I think these knives are Swiss, despite the lack of noticeable holes.
And obviously, you want your knives sharp. There’s folks among the Glibertariat who are masters of getting the finest possible edge. I am not one of them, so I cheat and use one of these, a Chef’s Choice Asian sharpener. It gives a good enough edge that I have no problem getting paper-thin slices of garlic or cutting through the skins of over-ripe tomatoes, and it’s so fast and easy, I can sharpen mid-prep without losing much time.
OK, next we bring the heat. Do you have a trendy wok, nicely ceramic non-stick coated and heavy stainless-aluminum clad construction? Toss the fucker, it’s a piece of shit. Ditto the abomination of cast iron woks. Donate them to a homeless turtle shelter or something, they’ll do more good there than on your stove. Know what you need? Something cheap, thin, and unlaminated steel. The kind of piece of shit you get for $20 at the Chinese grocery. Unlike nonstick, you can get these smokin’ hot. Unlike laminated or cast iron, you can get them smokin’ hot very rapidly. And when you turn down the heat, they cool very rapidly, so all in all, the shitty steel woks give you much better temperature control.
Shape is important. Round bottoms are the best BUT you have to have the right kind of cooking surface for that- I have a wok stand from Thailand which is superb, putting out approximately the same amount of heat as the engine from a Saturn V booster stage. I can get the wok to literally red heat in 20 seconds. It is absolutely the best stir-fry cooking I’ve ever done, with the food taking on a subtly smoky “wok hei” aroma and the food cooking in record time. THIS is the right way to do things. I shit you not, wok hei is the difference between indifference and real difference.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch- you either need a professional ventilator hood or you have to cook outside. And our outside cooking has been limited recently because of a heavy mosquito season. After our first frost, I’ll be able to do this again.
Lacking a wok stand like that, don’t even THINK about using a round-bottom pan on a flat cooktop, even with a wok ring, unless you have something like a 100,000 BTU burner. With normal stoves, you will have really shitty heat and that means really shitty, soggy, badly-cooked stir-fries without even a trace of wok hei. Find a thin steel shitty wok with a flat bottom. Not optimum, but you can at least turn out some half-decent product. Here’s mine:
Whichever you use, you want it well-seasoned and to maintain that seasoning. It’s the best non-stick surface you can get. I’ve got about 20 years of season on this wok, and as you’ll see below, I can fry difficult foods like eggs with no sticking.
You also need another utensil for the process- a steel spatula or wok turner. I don’t have one, so I get by with a big steel spoon (seen in the videos below). It works, but I’m a shitty person for not getting the right tool. Don’t be like me. Don’t be a shitty person. Get the right tool.
Did I mention heat? You want the ability to get that wok screaming hot, and the courage and attention to use it properly, which means not getting distracted and letting food burn, and most importantly… mis en place. You want EVERY ingredient to be prepped, chopped, measured, and handy. If you don’t make at least ten dirty little bowls and dishes for you ingredients, you’re doing it wrong and that’s why your stir fries suck. God invented dishwashers and orphans- make use of them.
Second, precooking. Most stir-fries use ingredients from their raw state, added sequentially. And that’s another reason most stir-fries are shitty. To get the best and most even degree of doneness with disparate ingredients, you need to precook (slightly undercooking) each of the major ingredients in advance, then bringing them together at the end. Typically, the protein will be cooked first, removed, then set aside. Various additives can be either parboiled and refreshed (i.e., dunked into an ice bath after boiling) or stir fried separately to get each one to the optimum cooking point. Then the actual building of the stir-fry commences by cooking aromatics (garlic, ginger, scallions, and the like), then adding the cooked ingredients and seasonings/sauces to reheat and finish.
I can’t overemphasize the latter point: stir-fry should be done in discrete stages which are brought together at the end. For years, my stir-fries were shitty because of misguided ideas about trying to time the sequence so that the ingredients were added on top of one another in the right order and would magically cook properly. This is an especially bad idea because not only does the timing become terribly critical and can’t be adjusted on the fly to accommodate variations in ingredients, but you also lose control of the cooking temperature- the first ingredients put in the wok will insure that later ingredients cook at a lower temp and with higher surrounding moisture. That is not generally a good thing.
The other advantage of the cook-shit-separately is that distinctive flavors and textures will remain distinct and not all blend together in a mish-mash. This is why German or British cooking is shitty and Chinese cooking is great. And why you need to spend time getting great ingredients.
These are sort-of-recipes, but each illustrates points made before. Neither is “authentic,” but they each use mostly non-exotic ingredients and (when cooked right) show off the quality of the main ingredients. And each is linked to a video showing most of the process; the videos are pretty shitty because we didn’t have time to block out the shots or to do editing/voice-over, but future ones will be better.
Because of the aforementioned mosquitoes, I had to use my kitchen stove and the flat-bottom wok, so the heat was somewhat inadequate. But still, they turned out delicious.
Stir Fry Green Beans
This is loosely based on a classic Szechuan dish and is an example of a dry stir-fry. The Szechuan version uses pickled radish and Szechuan peppercorns, so feel free to exotify it if that’s your desire. Traditionally, the precooking is done by deep-frying in coolish (300 degree F) oil instead of the water-blanching that I do, and yard-long beans are used. Again, feel free- the important thing is to have the beans pre-cooked before the stir-frying commences.
1 lb fresh green beans, ends trimmed
1/4 cup raw peanuts
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
5 or 6 dried red chiles
2-3 white parts of scallions, chopped
1 tsp Korean red pepper paste (gochujang); can substitute garlic-red-chile paste or chile-black-bean paste
1 tsp light (not lite!) soy sauce
oil to cook
Drop green beans into a pot of rapidly boiling salted water. Boil for 3-4 minutes or until the beans are about half-done. A few beans may need to be sacrificed to determine this; cook’s privilege. Drain and toss into an ice water bath, then after they cool completely, remove from the bath and drain. Set aside.
Mix the pepper paste and soy sauce together. Set aside.
Heat the wok until it’s smoking, then add in one or two tablespoons of oil. Toss in the sliced garlic and toss it around until it gets aromatic and starts coloring a little bit, 15 seconds or so. Remove the garlic from the wok. Add the dried chiles and stir around until they start to brown, then remove and set aside. Add the peanuts, and stir around until they start to color, 15 seconds or so. Remove the peanuts and set aside. Optionally, you can lightly crush or chop them after cooking for a finer texture.
Seeing a pattern?
Now it’s time to bring everything together. Add the chopped scallions, stir for a few seconds, then add the green beans. Stir-fry until the green beans are starting to show some black spots, a minute or two. Add the pepper paste/soy sauce mixture and a little extra soy sauce if you think it’s needed. Stir for a few seconds, then add the sliced garlic, the dried chiles, and the peanuts. Stir to combine, then remove to a serving bowl and eat up.
Tomato and Eggs
This is a standard Cantonese dish, seen in every university cafeteria in the province, and a home-cooking favorite. It’s stupid-simple and delicious. As with many standard dishes, every family makes it a little differently and will swear everyone else is doing it wrong. By contrast with the last dish, this one is very saucy, but the sauce comes mostly from the water in the tomatoes and is amazingly flavorful.
5 eggs, beaten
4 scallions, white and green parts separated and chopped
5 medium or 6 small tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 tbs ketchup
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tsp sugar (omit if your tomatoes are really good)
1 tbs shaoxing cooking wine
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp white pepper (or more to taste)
1 tbs minced ginger
1 small onion or large shallot, slivered
1 tsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbs water
oil to cook
Mix together the ketchup, soy sauce, sugar, shaoxing, sesame oil, and white pepper, set aside. Heat the wok until it’s smoking, then add a couple tablespoons of oil and swirl around. Pour in the eggs. Let them fluff up a bit, then stir them around for a minute or so until done- they should be set but not browned. I like my eggs a bit loose, SP prefers them somewhere in the middle of the Mohs scale. Your choice. Scoop them out of the wok, chop them a bit with your spatula or spoon, and set aside. Wipe out any leftover egg.
Put a bit more oil in the wok. Add in the ginger and stir it for a few seconds. Lower the heat a bit, then add the whites of the scallion and the onion. Stir for a minute until they are fragrant and softened slightly, then bring the heat back up and toss in the tomatoes. Stir-fry for a minute or so until the tomatoes are heated through, then push them to the side of the wok. Add in the ketchup mixture and bring that up to a boil. Then stir everything together, stir in about half of the green parts of the scallions, and add the eggs. Stir, then add in about half of the cornstarch slurry (make sure the slurry is stirred before you pour it in) and cook until the sauce thickens. If you want it thicker, add more cornstarch.
Turn out into a serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining chopped green parts of the scallions. Serve over rice.