Stir Fry Technique: Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery

Last week, I received an email from a reader that made me stop and think. She asked a simple question, and in answering it, I realized I should make the whole thing public, because it is the kind of question that other people may be pondering when they read my recipes.

Persimmon of Notageek wrote: “I’ve noticed that, in stir-fry recipes on your weblog, you usually put cornstarch in the marinade at the same time as the meat. I know the cornstarch thickens the marinade into a sauce when you dump it on the heat, but what does it do for the meat in that marinating interval?

I, you see, am trying to not eat corn, as I get a rash. I have tapioca stach and arrowroot in my cabinet. Will
either suffice?”

I will answer the second question regarding the tapioca and arrowroot first, and then go into my long, and rather rambling answer to the first question, which evolved into a deconstruction of the stir frying technique that I repeat in most of my recipes. I think it might help readers to understand the whys behind this technique so that they can more easily replicate the hows.

Regarding tapioca starch and arrowroot–yes, they can be used instead of cornstarch in all of my recipes. They perform the exact same function, however, in my experience, they are stronger binders, so you use -less- of them both in marinades and as thickeners. I would use about half as much of either of them as I would use cornstarch. Therefore, if you substitute either of them in one of my recipes, use half the amount directed for cornstarch.

Now, as to the first part of the question, I realized that though I have repeated the method that I use to stir fry umpteen-eleven times with each recipe I post, nowhere have I ever really truly explained it all, beginning to end. So that, when someone looks at my directions to “toss meat with soy sauce, wine and cornstarch, then allow to marinate for at least twenty minutes,” they may follow those instructions, but they may never really know what function the cornstarch fulfills in the recipe. Extrapolating from the cornstarch mystery, I realized that there are likely oddities to my method that also may stump other readers, so I might as well slow down and record exactly what I am doing and why so that everyone is on the same page with me when they go to recreate my recipes.

So, from beginning to end, here is my explanation of my method of stir frying, which tends to differ in a few respects from the instructions one is apt to get in the average Chinese cookbook.

Step one: Cut your ingredients into equivalent-sized and shaped pieces.

This rule is quite effectively stated in all good Chinese cookbooks. In order for the food to cook evenly, quickly and aesthetically, the pieces must all be as close in shape and size as possible. If you examine photographs of my completed stir-fried dishes, you will note that most ingredients have been cut into similar shapes and sizes, as much as is possible given that vegetables and meats do not come in neat geometric shapes. I won’t go into long explanations on how to manage the art of cutting for Chinese stir fry–that is an entire series of posts in and themselves, but I do want to emphasize the importance of cutting into shapes that will cook quickly.

Back when Morganna made her umami chicken stir fry, she cut the chicken into very large cubes, which is inefficient when it comes to stir frying. In order to get them to cook evenly without drying out, we ended up searing the outside of the chicken in the typical stir-fry method, then adding liquid and allowing the chicken to simmer, or braise quickly to finish cooking the interior. This noticably affected the taste of the final dish–the sauce was bland, as it had been watered down by the use of more wine and broth than is usual. When I pointed out that if she had cut her chicken into smaller, thinner bits, the extra liquid would never have been added, Morganna’s eyes lit up with understanding as to why I tend to cut my meats into very thin slices or shreds. (Every step of a stir-fry is affected by every other step. In order to adjust for large chunks of meat, the sauce making is adapted, and can suffer.)

Step two: Marinate your meat or tofu in a mixture that includes cornstarch.

This step is the one that tripped Persimmon up. She understood the thickening property of cornstarch, and knew that somehow this action was in play when it came to using it in the marinade (especially since very few of my recipes have cornstarch added in a later step), but she could not fathom why it was used with the meat before it was cooked.

The main reason I add cornstarch to the marinade is because it holds the liquid of the marinade onto the meat–it makes it clingy. If you marinate meat with cornstarch in addition to the liquids, when you go to cook the meat, you will note that there is very little liquid left in the bowl after the meat is put into the wok. That is because most of it is clinging to the surface of the meat.

What happens to the liquid and cornstarch that sticks to the surface of the meat is one of the great secrets to building deep flavor in a very quickly cooked dish like a stir-fry. Much of it browns when it comes into contact with the wok, and helps brown the surface of the meat, thus adding to the flavor profile of the dish. And, through various other processes that I will outline in later steps, it helps thicken the sauce as it is formed through the cooking of the stir-fry. (I do not typically add a pre-mixture of sauce ingredients near the end of the stir-frying process. Generally, I add liquid ingredients during the course of the stir fry and allow them to thicken by the process of reduction or evaporation during the natural cooking process. This leads to a dish that has less sauce, but the sauce that there is clings tightly to the food, leading to a more beautiful appearance and is more highly and intensely flavored than a sauce that is simply poured in and allowed to thicken at the end of cooking.)

Step Three: Have all ingredients ready and lined up beside the wok, before you heat the wok.

I won’t belabor this point–it is pretty straightforward. Stir frying goes quickly, so have everything cut, measured and put into prep bowls near your wok so you don’t end up running around like a chicken with its head cut off while the food in your wok burns.

Step Four: Heat your wok until it begins to smoke, then add the oil and heat it until it nearly smokes.

This is only if you have a cast iron or carbon steel wok. If you have a nonstick wok, do not do this or you will ruin your wok. Only heat non-stick surfaces with oil or liquid in them. Assuming you have the cast iron or carbon steel wok, what you want to do is put it on your burner and get it as hot as you can. For most American stoves, flat bottomed woks work wonders, coming perfectly into contact with the heat source. Allow it to heat until the wok “exhales.” This is when the scent of the hot, seasoned wok is released by the metal of the wok–it is the scent known in Cantonese as “wok hay.” Until I knew the Cantonese term, I called it, in elegantly, “Wok smell.” Now I call it “the breath of the wok.” As soon as you can smell the wok hay, and see the pale ribbons of smoke rising from the hot metal, pour in your oil, and wait for it to heat up until it is nearly smoking. It will shimmer with convection currents when it is ready and the wok hay will intensify.

Step Five: Add your aromatic ingredients, in the order specified in the recipe and cook for a minute or two until they are fragrant and cooked to the point specified in the recipe.

This, again, is fairly self-explanatory. Aromatic ingredients include onions, garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, chiles, chile flakes, spices (whole or ground) and ingredients such as dried shrimp or fermented black beans. The purpose of adding these intensely flavored and scented ingredients first is so that their essence can fully permeate the cooking oil and add their strong flavors to the food as it is cooked. This is the first step in the flavor-building process that continues throughout the cooking of an excellent stir-fried dish.

Step Six: Add the meat, settle it into a single layer in the bottom of the wok and leave it there for about a minute or so to begin to brown deeply on the surface touching the wok.

This step is essential to the home cook being able to recreate the special flavor of a wok hay-filled dish that is cooked in a restaurant. Home stoves do not put out the huge amounts of heat that Chinese restaurant stoves do. The heat of a wok stove and the use of large amounts of oil are most of what contributes to the special, undefinable flavor and fragrance of Chinese restaurant food that most people long to recreate. It is the flavor of the well-seasoned, very hot wok that you are smelling and tasting. You can come very close to recreating this at home, even if you do not have a stove with as many BTU’s as mine. I discovered this technique by accident–I was once stir frying a dish, and the phone rang. As I was expecting a call, I answered it, but did not move the wok off the stove. I had a regular flat-topped electric stove, and had just put the meat in. I thus, left it to cook unsupervised. When I realized what I had done, I caught the wok in the nick of time and started stirring the meat madly–it had only browned on one side. When Zak and I ate–the dish was superb and tasted like it came from a restaurant. Years later, when Grace Young’s book, The Breath of a Wok came out, she described the exact same technique as one she learned from her parents, both excellent Cantonese home cooks, and I realized I waonto something. When I later met Grace and shared notes with her, she agreed that no other Chinese cookbook author had ever instructed thier readers to cook in this way, which leads to people creating stir fries that do not taste right.

This is the most important step. Put the meat into the wok, slide it into a single layer on the bottom of the wok, and leave it alone. Do not stir it. Do not touch it. Leave it alone for around 45 seconds to 1 1/2 minutes–until you smell the meat and cornstarch marinade begin to brown. At that time, stir fry as normal, until the meat is mostly done–it has cooked 2/3 of the way–2/3 of the surface has changed color to the color of cooked meat. You will note at this time, some small amounts of the marinade have stuck to the wok and begun to brown. Do not worry–it is supposed to do that, and you will take care of that in the next step.

Step Seven:
Add soy sauce, wine or some combination of the two to the wok and deglaze the cornstarch marinade, and toss the meat to season it.

This is where you begin building the flavor of the sauce and you deepen the color and flavor of the meat. Soy sauce added at this point, in a small amount, will color the meat and deglaze the browned bits in the wok, thus creating a bit of liquid that is enough to season the dish, but not enough to change the cooking method to steaming or braising. You can use soy sauce alone, wine alone, or a mixture of the two at this point. You can also add sugar at this point, if required to in the recipe, again, allowing the sauce time to build its flavor profile bit by bit.

Step Eight: Add vegetables, in the order of how long they will take to cook, and stir fry.

This step continues the cooking process of the meat, and allows the vegetables to cook as much as they need to. Use your judgement as to how long the vegetables will take to cook and add the ones that take longest (carrots, for instance, or the thicker stems of gai lan) first, and the ones that barely need to cook (water chestnuts or snow peas) at the last.

Step Nine: Add broth, any other sauce ingredients such as oyster sauce, hoisin or vinegar, stir fry until sauce thickens and clings to the pieces of food in the wok.

This is where you finalize the flavor of the sauce and mix the ingredients thoroughly together. The amount of broth, if you use it, depends upon what you are cooking. If you are cooking gai lan leaves and want them to wilt, you use a bit more broth than usual, and allow the steam of it boiling away as it reduces to cook the leaves, making them wilt to a velvety texture. If you are not cooking anything leafy, then you use less broth–if you use any at all. At this point, after this step, you can remove the wok from the heat.

Step Ten: Add garnishes, and any last minute flavoring items like spices or sesame oil, put into a warmed serving plate and serve.

This is the final step where the last bits of flavor and color are added to give extra mouth and eye appeal to the dish. After this, all that is left is to wash the wok.

There it is–”Barbara’s Way of the Wok in Ten Mostly Easy Steps.” I hope that it might have answered a few questions people might have had regarding my recipes, and I hope it might make the entire process a bit clearer in the future when you approach the art of stir-frying. It isn’t all you need to know about stir frying by a long shot–but it is a good start. I came across most of this on my own, through trial and error, but a lot of it I learned in dribs and drabs from various, mostly out of print cookbooks. The sort of stir fry you will make out of using this method is one that has a sauce that is highly flavored from multiple reductions and a single deglazing. The sauce will not be plentiful, but will instead glaze the food ingredients and cling tightly to them–but the intense flavor more than makes up for a lack of sauce. This is the way a lot of Chinese homestyle cooking is done, with very little, but very flavorful sauces.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Oh, thank you for posting this! It’s answered some of my questions about the mystery of stir-fry technique — I’ll have to try it next time.

    Do you have any suggestions as to what cuts of meat to use (or not use)? How to stir-fry chicken without drying it out?

    Comment by Mel — January 16, 2006 #

  2. Mel–flank steak is a great cut of beef to use–slice it against the grain, very thin. You can also use sirloin or what is sold as “London broil.” Always cut against the grain into thin pieces for beef.

    For chicken, there are two methods. You can cut it very thin and cook it very quickly–or you can cut it thicker, and sear the outside in the classic stir fry fashion, and then add more liquid than you normally would in the “deglazing” phase, and then “braise” the interior until it is just done.

    The trick with chicken is to know when it is just done, and not cook past it. Maybe I should do an entire post on that subject, now that I think on it.

    Pork–use pork loin chops for stir frying–cut very thin.

    Comment by Barbara — January 16, 2006 #

  3. Barbara,

    Would you be able to show us this through pictures at some point? A step by step picture guide. Your explanation is wonderful, but sometimes a bit difficult to visualize at the same time.

    I realize this would take some co-ordination with another member of your household, but it might be very helpful to your readers (or at least this one).

    Comment by Rose — January 16, 2006 #

  4. Rose, as I was writing, I thought–I should do this post again, with pictures, or else, have Dan shoot video of me demonstrating the steps of stir frying.

    Then, I’d just have to figure out how to do streaming video on the site….

    But yes, I am going to have to do another version of this post, this time, with at least ten photographs showing each step.

    Comment by Barbara — January 16, 2006 #

  5. Very fun reading!

    Do you have any opinion on velveting, i.e., blanching meat in oil or water before putting it in the pan? I’m not a fan of this at all because the meat doesn’t really brown and it’s a hassle to heat up oil or water in an additional pan. But some cookbooks really push this technique and lots of Chinese restaurants seem to use it.

    Comment by mzn — January 17, 2006 #

  6. Barbara, great info.

    Would you consider the tofu a meat for purposes of where and when to cook it in the process?

    Comment by barrett — January 17, 2006 #

  7. If I am going to do velveting, I always use the marinade of cornstarch and eggwhite and do an oil blanch. And, to be honest–I don’t do it often. (Water blanching doesn’t result in a nice tender texture, I don’t think.)

    Here is why I don’t do it–you are right–the meat never browns. Now–most velveted food items are not supposed to brown–they are supposed to stay pale. But–in homestyle Chinese cooking when you cannot rely upon 300,000 BTU wok stoves to produce abundant wok hay with the superheated woks, then you need to produce it in some other fashion. Browning your meat with a cornstarch marinade gives you a texture close to velveted meat, -and- gives you wok hay. It still will not taste like Chinese restaurant food, but it will be very good, it is less messy, and it tastes more like home food.

    Chinese restaurants velvet foods because it is easy for them to do so–and it produces stellar results–in a restaurant. That is not the case at home. I would only do it for very special holiday dishes at home.

    Barrett–just as I should do a post on stir frying chicken–one of the easiest meats to overcook in a wok–I should also do one on tofu. The answer to your question is not simple, because it depends on what style of tofu you are using and how you have treated it before you cook it.

    So, here is the answer as simple as I can make it–you can treat pressed spiced tofu as meat, always. You will not overcook it, or break it apart in the wok by stirring it. So that one is a simple “yes.”

    Extra firm Chinese style tofu–if you press some more of the water out, and then put it in a marinade with cornstarch, you can treat it like meat–but be careful to toss it gently when you stir it. It can still break against the wok shovel if you are not careful.

    Deep fried tofu puffs are pretty indestructable–you can use them like meat. You just don’t marinate them before adding them to a stir fry, and since they are already browned, you don’t need to brown them a second time.

    Barrett–the one thing I will tell you about Chinese vegetarian cooking–to get good wok hay–brown your onions deeply in the wok to a nice rich golden reddish brown, before you add the rest of the aromatics and the other ingredients. That will help develop a very rich wok-hay filled sauce that will be so flavorful, meat eaters will lick it out of their bowls.

    I guess I will be busy this week–a post about stir frying chicken–with pictures–and one about tofu. Preferably with pictures, too!

    And it is about time for another installment of The Chinese Cookbook Project.

    Comment by Barbara — January 17, 2006 #

  8. Wow Barbara,
    I’ve not really given much thought to the “whys” of doing certain things when I stir fry. This is really good. I need to work on improving my skills. Yes, photos please. Thanks!

    Comment by Shirley — January 17, 2006 #

  9. Barbara,

    This is a very timely post for me, since the books (and the chilies and the peppercorns!) that you sent me from the Menu for Hope raffle arrived yesterday. I see some stir-frying in my future.

    I was also thrilled to see that Land of Plenty has a recipe for a dish that I had back when I was in graduate school when I was taken to a Chinese restaurant by a couple of fellow grad students who were from China. The dish is called fu qi fei pian – it’s beef and beef heart simmered in a spicy sauce and served cold and sliced thin. We had it served with chili oil and some kind of very hot Chinese mustard. Mmmmm.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen it on a Chinese restaurant menu, or been served it since.

    Comment by Wendy Shaffer — January 17, 2006 #

  10. Barbara-This is just so excellent. Even some things I had already discovered for myself are clearer to me, now you’ve set them out in this fashion. It is just so helpful.
    I find that with asian cuisines, I tend to follow individual recipes more closely, instead of learning techniques and varying them. I think I am afraid if I don’t do them exactly, I will never know what they are supposed to taste like.
    Thus, there are a few asian diahes that I know well, but I don’t vary them on my own much, as I would western dishes.Time for me to concentrate on structure and technique , so I can grow a little.

    Comment by lindy — January 17, 2006 #

  11. Shirley–thank you! That means a lot coming from you! Email is going out to you shortly, btw.

    Wendy–that dish may have been ordered especially by the grad students, or it could have been on the Chinese menu. (The Chinese menu is one of the reasons I long to learn Chinese!) Many Chinese American restaurants have two menus: one for Anglo-Americans and one for Chinese-Americans. They are very different. The Anglo-American menu almost always reflects the typical Chinese restaurant menu we have come to expect. The Chinese-American menu has dishes that most restaurant owners assume most Anglo-Americans will not eat: chicken feet, organ meats, authentically Cantonese soups (which are delicately flavored–to some Western palates, they can be percieved of as bland), some medicinal soups, jook or congee, extremely spicy Sichuan favorites and the like.

    If you have a good relationship in a restaurant you go to, ask for the Chinese menu–if they have one, they will give it to you. Most likely it will be at least partially in English.

    That is where “the great stuff” is. I have been ordering from the Chinese menu at restaurants for about six or seven years now, and have never been unhappy with what I have been served.

    Another thing you can do is simply ask if they can cook a certain dish–many times, for example, there isn’t even an entry on greens in even the Chinese menu. But if you ask if they have choi sum, gai lan or pea sprouts–they will usually tell you, and they will likely have one of them. All you do at that point is specify how you would like them cooked: “With garlic and a little bit of ginger and wine, please,” is usually how we get them.

    Most of the time, waiters and owners are happy to fill your requests, and they are usually quite happy that an Anglo-American is showing interest in something other than the menu standards that most Americans like, and if you are really lucky, you can get a waiter or owner who will talk with you about food, and you can learn a wealth of information in that way. (Both about ordering Chinese foods, and cooking them.)

    I am glad the books and spices made it to you, Wendy–have fun with them, and come back and let me know how you are doing with them!

    Lindy–I tend to teach Asian food based on structure and technique rather than on individual dishes. Learning dish by dish can constrain a person, but once the techniques are set out sensibly, this frees the person to improvise. Because Americans are first exposed to Chinese restaurant cooking and not home cooking, we have this idea that all Chinese food is very similar. This is not so at all.

    Much of Chinese home cooking is improvisational based on what is fresh, what is in season, what is in the house, and how many people the cook is feeding that day. The Cantonese are masters of simply seasoning fresh foods to make them taste even fresher than they are, while the Sichuanese are able to, with a few seasonings, make a very saucy dish that will stretch the main ingredients farther because people will eat plenty of rice with it. (You will notice in my recipes that I sometimes use very little meat in proportion to vegetables or noodles–that is because I am following the Chinese way of stretching meat and using it as a special ingredient instead of the “star” of the meal.)

    So, when I teach, whether it is Chinese, Thai or North Indian, I always teach in a technique heavy way so that people can take what they have learned and apply it to other sets of ingredients and thus make more dishes than I have taught them.

    Comment by Barbara — January 17, 2006 #

  12. Hi Barbara, wow, kudos!! This is very in-depth info for wok-rookies out there. Love your passion for chinese cooking. Most of the time my american friends think I’m very fussy when I teach them my chinese recipes because I always insist that the wok or skillet be heated thoroughly before oil can be added and than garlic etc. Ah, I forgot to explain precisely how you’ve done with expaining the “wok hay”!

    P.s. If you’ve time check out my recent entries about my trip to France.


    Comment by Kel — January 17, 2006 #

  13. Jeez. Do you have any Chinese food for the attention span impaired? No, can’t order out. All the Asian food near me either sucks or is so full of MSG it makes my mouth funny for 3 days afterwards. I’ll have to do it myself.
    On a lighter note, I jacked a burner on my stove to flame thrower height. I can now make my wok sing and the food jumps as though it’s been hit with a cattle prod.
    To tell you the truth, it was a little inspiring that armed with my hot wok, I could, if inspired enough, cook a Chinese meal well.


    Comment by Dr. Biggles — January 17, 2006 #

  14. Welcome, Kel–yes, some people think that we who are passionate on Chinese technique are fussy. But, the fussiness pays off in amazing flavor and fragrance.

    I love your blog–this is the first time I have seen it. I will have to add it to my ever-growing blogroll. Thanks for stopping by–I hope to see you again soon.

    Now, Dr. Biggles–it took me longer to type this post than it would take me to cook up a simple homestyle stir fry for dinner. One protein, one vegetable, some aromatics, a marinade, a wok, a burner, a spatula and some oil, and you are done.

    Check out some of the Chinese recipes listed up in my sidebar–there are plenty of recipes in that that will take you maybe forty minutes to do–less once you get the hang of the knife work. See if anything inspires you there. If not, I may have to be challenged to make up something just for you.

    Cool on you for rigging the stove! That is why I chose the new stove I did–the one high BTU burner, so I could use my wok as it was intended. And it works beautifully.

    There is nothing better than being able to cook your own good Asian food, when you want to. It is fun, the results are tasty and you can amaze your friends and family. 😉

    Comment by Barbara — January 17, 2006 #

  15. Hey Barbara,

    This post just floored me! You know, growing up in a Cantonese household and all, some of this stuff is just second nature to me. But I haven’t really thought about why and how things are done. Sure, the cutting method and marninade method is just very evident, but cornstarch? I never gave it a second thought as I scooped it and mixed it with the meat (it feels great to do it with fingers, by the way :P).

    Through experimenting, I just found that the meat was better browned in that method LAST MONTH as well as deglazing with the wine.

    And I thought I knew how to wok, too. 😮


    Comment by Allen Wong — January 17, 2006 #

  16. Hey, Allen! Haven’t seen you for a long time! (I always mix the cornstarch with my fingers, too–it is easier that way, and you can tell when it is all mixed in right–and yeah, it feels neat, too.)

    Sometimes, I think it is harder when you grow up cooking in a way that is natural for you, to sit down and parse out -why- you do it that way. And with Chinese cookery, which is heavily technique laden–I think it is even harder.

    But, in order to explain it so outsiders or beginners can begin to understand it from a foundational perspective, you have to be able to explain -why- in addition to -how-. And Persimmon did me a great boon by asking me why I marinated meat with cornstarch in all of my recipes, and so I had to think about it. And as I answered her, I began to think about how that cornstarch changed the whole process of stir frying–and then, I had to think of why it was better to add it at the beginning, rather than at the end, the way I always used to.

    And by that time, I realized that I had never really sat and written down -why- I stir fry the way I do, and why it works better than the other methods I have used over the years. I had realized as I wrote this blog over the past year that I had developed a method for stir-frying that was reflected in the simliar patterns of my recipes, but I never really reflected on why.

    Once I sat and thought of it, and then started writing–I realized that when I teach Chinese cooking–I always teach this way, but I hadn’t taught it in written form. Only verbally, with hands-on students.

    One of the other factors that has helped me develop these ten steps is culinary school–having the French method of cookery–another technique heavy tradition–beaten into my head has changed everything I cook.

    At this point, French and Chinese technique are so ingrained that every recipe that I approach is probably colored by one or the other, or both of these traditions. I always look at recipes in books, magazines and newspapers through the lens of the technique, and that is how I interpret them when I cook them at home.

    Comment by Barbara — January 17, 2006 #

  17. As someone with attention deficite disorder, I learned a long time ago about your:

    “Step Three: Have all ingredients ready and lined up beside the wok, before you heat the wok.”

    I call it cooking via the bowl method. I use this method for ALL cooking — not just for the wok. If I don’t have all my bowls (ducks?) in a row before any stove burner goes on, then I can guarantee that disaster will strike!

    Comment by judy wyatt — January 18, 2006 #

  18. barbara, thank you so much for your patience in explaining all these. being a chinese and have been eating chinese cuisine all my life, i have been cooking (or trying) like one, from taste and peeking at my nanny and granma. but after your article just on stir frying had shown me a lot of things, where i read and keep nodding my head, and with OH exclamation. now i know why my kung pao pork did not turn out like how i had it outside. thank your once again for all these valuable information. i’m a chinese and a humbled one!

    btw, i had tagged you for a meme. hope you don’t mind and feel free to decide whether to take it up or not.

    Comment by rokh — January 18, 2006 #

  19. Wonderful post,Barbara!Thanks so much for patiently bringing it all to us.Is asking for photos too much?.:):)It would help.
    I learned a lot from the post as well as from the comments section.

    Comment by Sailaja — January 18, 2006 #

  20. Okay, I think I can handle it. I’ll give it a try soon. Been eating vegetables over the last two days and my body isn’t handling them well. I’ll keep it up and see if I can’t beat it in to submission. It’s my nature.


    Comment by Dr. Biggles — January 19, 2006 #

  21. Judy–That is called mise en place–French for “everything in its place.” Culinary students have that beaten into their heads–both French and Chinese cooking–both technique heavy traditions–emphasize mise en place. It teaches organization, and minimizes mistakes in cookery.

    Sailaja–yes, I am going to either go back and illustrate this post, or when I refine and post about how to stir fry chicken and how to stir fry tofu using these steps, I will illustrate those heavily so that the information can be extrapolated for this post.

    Biggles–if you need any other help or advice, email me or ask here. I stand ready to assist. Were that I lived in the Bay area–I’d just have you over and show you how it is done, and you’d get it.

    As for vegetables–you know, it is like a vegetarian suddenly eating meat. The digestive system needs to get aquainted with the new food before everyone is comfortable. Good luck.

    Comment by Barbara — January 19, 2006 #

  22. Thanks, Barbara,

    “Mise en place” sounds much more elegant than “cooking via the bowl method”. 🙂

    Comment by judy wyatt — January 19, 2006 #

  23. Oh, I get it alright. All them crazy little pieces of things every where. Only a few minutes of searing for wafer thin slice of meaty meats. Happy little veggies patiently waiting their turn. Blue oil fumes wafting up in to my overloaded pathetic vent hood, heh.
    All the neat little sauces and mixtures with seeds, oils and aromatic lovelies. Glistenny coatings of vibrant love over with sprigs of bright garnish with spiky fun.
    Uh, well that’s just my point of view.


    Comment by Dr. Biggles — January 19, 2006 #

  24. hello again, barbara! awesome list! the only things i would add, i think is

    1. get your pan as close to the fire as possible, assuming a gas setup.
    2. get the pan that’s best for your cooking equipment. with a gas setup, you can set your wok so the flames hug the bottom and sidees of the pan, but with electric you’ll have to get one of those with a flatter bottom.

    very informative post as usual:)

    Comment by stef — January 20, 2006 #

  25. Thanks, Stef–I think that I should probably write another, entirely separate post about woks anyway. It is so important to choose one that suits your range and cooking style that there are a lot of considerations to look at when choosing one.

    I did a post about it nearly a full year ago, but I think that I can probably go on about it and add more information after I have had another year’s experience cooking on four different stoves of various sorts and BTU levels.

    Comment by Barbara — January 20, 2006 #

  26. I’ve seen a lot of Chinese cooking shows where a corn starch slurry is added at the end. I love your alternative suggestion. I can’t wait to try your 10 steps!

    Comment by Micky — February 9, 2006 #

  27. Let me know how it goes.

    My use of cornstarch in the marinade and nowhere else comes from me learning homestyle cooking from old cookbooks, and from home cooks. The cornstarch slurry at the end is more of a restaurant style of cooking, in my experience, and results in a different flavor and a lot more sauce.

    I like less sauce that is richer in flavor, but which clings tightly to the food items.

    Comment by Barbara — February 15, 2006 #

  28. Hi,
    Wondered if you had a good recipe for the sauce you add to stir fry. I have tried to make sauces and they are not flavorful enough. Would appreciate information on this.

    Comment by Terry — February 23, 2006 #

  29. Terry–it depends on what sauce you are meaning? Brown, clear, or sweet and sour?

    One thing about following the steps in this post is that the sauce makes itself, and is made very flavorful by being cooked by reduction, and by the action of the cornstarch marinade browning on the sides and bottom of the wok before being dissolved by wine, soy sauce, and/or broth.

    I have found that by using this method, my stir fry sauces have a great deal more flavor than the sorts that are mixed together with cornstarch, then poured into the wok to thicken at the end.

    I still use those poured in at the end ones now and again, for special dishes–but not very often. Letting the sauce cook itself in the wok with the ingredients added as you cook, makes a superior-flavored sauce.

    If you have more specific questions, you can always email me, too.

    Comment by Barbara — February 24, 2006 #

  30. Wow- coming across this post (and this whole blog) has been amazing. I’ve spent the past 4 nights trying different stir fries using this as a framework. I even ventured into my local Asian market (and promptly discovered that all the sauces, oils, and vinegars were cheaper than the grocery stored). Thanks!

    I second the comment above about doing it all in pictures. I also have another request. I’m getting married, which means I get to ask for whatever I want kitchen wise. I have what turns out to be a fantastic wok (thank you garage sale!), but if you were advising the novice chef, and the novice Asian-inspired chef, what would you suggest that s/he get? I’d appreciate a post to that effect too.

    Thanks for sharing your passion and your expertise AND your experimentation. This right now is one of my richest learning experiences.


    Comment by Kati — March 11, 2006 #

  31. Kati–a friend of mine who does video and I are working on a pictorial version of this post–so stay tuned. I am glad that this post and my blog have helped you–that makes me very, very happy indeed.

    And I am glad that you have discovered the joy of the Asian market! The prices and quality of the ingredients you get there are far above what you get in the grocery store! Enjoy!

    Look for a post on Asian kitchen equipment later this week–your wish is my command.

    Comment by Barbara — March 12, 2006 #

  32. Very wonderful post. And I have even taken a class in Chinese cooking, the only cooking class I ever took, and I still learned things I didn’t know. Thanks for taking the time to spell it out for us.

    Comment by Kalyn — March 19, 2006 #

  33. You are very welcome, Kalyn!

    Comment by Barbara — March 19, 2006 #

  34. Thanks so much for all the great tips for stir frying. Can’t wait to make some new dinners for my family !!

    Comment by Marie — March 19, 2006 #

  35. Barbara– Thank you for this lovely post. My parents (both non-Asian) used to make “stir fry” and I liked it as a style but after going veggie realized that I needed to learn more because my tofu stir-fries were not cutting it! I am integrating your ideas (though I have no wok, sadly) and look forward to more info about stir-frying tofu.

    Comment by Alexis — March 20, 2006 #

  36. I have been dying to make a great stir fry, but never could. Thanks. Now I just need to find some good Indian-Chinese recipes.

    Comment by Raj — March 21, 2006 #

  37. Barbara, thanks so much for this excellent run-down of wok cooking. I’ve been making it up as I go along, but now I know some of the essential techniques to really do it right. I, too, would love to see photos or video, and would also like to know the secrets of cooking chicken in a wok. Whenever I do it, the chicken emits all this juice and starts cooking in its own liquid, which results in chicken that is tougher and less pretty than seared chicken. Don’t know what I am doing wrong. I have the same problem with beef, actually.

    I probably don’t let my wok get hot enough, nor do I let the meat just sit there and cook for a minute like you said. The reason I don’t let it sit there is because it sticks to the wok horribly when I do — I don’t think my wok is properly seasoned.

    I cannot eat cornstarch because of the empty carbs, so I usually use xantham gum as a thickener. Do you know if this would work in a marinade?

    Comment by Zoe — March 22, 2006 #

  38. Thank you for this article. I can’t wait for the video.

    One question: Whenever I’ve done stir-fries, I’ve added things according to cooking times, which means I put in the aromatic ingredients later in the cooking, as they seem to continue cooking and create an unpleasant taste, such as bitter garlic. How does one keep the minced aromatics from burning or overcooking?

    Comment by Vladimir — March 23, 2006 #

  39. Hot is good! My wife couldn’t figure out why her stir-fry tasted bad and mine was great. Only reason: she did a low heat for a long time and I blasted it at high heat for a short time. Thanks.

    Comment by cm — March 23, 2006 #

  40. To avoid burning the aromatics, and so I can cook larger batches, this is what I do. First, I do just the meat by itself in several small batches at the highest heat I can get. I brown the outside, without necessarily cooking it through. Then, at more of a medium-high, I start again with the aromatics, then add the meat back in at the end – for beef, just long enough to warm it back up, while chicken/pork get a brief saute to make sure they cook through (here I may add a bit of broth or wine to help).

    Comment by Nathan — March 23, 2006 #

  41. […] Barbara also has an interesting essay up on Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery. […]

    Pingback by Habeas Brulee » Blog Archive » Roundup of Food Blogs Posts I’ve Enjoyed — March 25, 2006 #

  42. Vladimir–I have always added the aromatics at the beginning, to flavor the oil. This is a classic Chinese cooking technique. Sometimes, you remove the aromatics before cooking other ingredients, but what I have found useful is if I see them getting too brown, to scrape them up on the sides of the wok, away from the intense heat of the bottom.

    Also, I have noted that at really high heat, if you leave the aromatics in from the beginning, and then you add your meat, which takes longest to cook, next, and cook it as quickly as high heat will take, the aromatics don’t have time to burn. Once you start stirring and keep everything going and moving and use sufficient heat to cook the meat quickly, and the vegetables even quicker, nothing has a chance to do more than get luscious brown.

    I’ve watched chefs in restaurants cook this way–they put the aromatics in first, then cook the meat, and stir like mad, and then the vegetables, and it is all done so fast that nothing has a chance to burn.

    Another thing you might also try is using sliced or slivered aromatics instead of minced. Minced are such smaller pieces, they may be cooking too fast.

    Nathan–those are good compromise methods, too, though I prefer the flavors that are added to the meat by cooking it with the aromatics.

    Comment by Barbara — March 27, 2006 #

  43. Zoe and Alexis–I will definately start working on primers for stir frying chicken and tofu–the techniques are very different, but there are similarities.

    Zoe–your problem with the chicken might be related to the fact that your chicken (and your beef) have been previously frozen. This changes the texture of the meat–and makes it expel a lot of water when you cook it. The only way around that issue is to buy meat from someplace else where you can guarantee it is fresh, not frozen.

    Another issue you may be having is that your wok isn’t hot enough to sear properly — or, you are adding too much meat at one time for the size of your wok, and are cooling it down too much.

    Depending on the size of your wok and the heat level of your stove and how much food you are cooking at a time–you may have to cook in batches.

    That is what makes stir-frying such a tricky technique to write about–there are so many variables. How hot is the stove? How hot is the wok? What is the wok made of? How close is the wok to the fire? How much meat do you intend to cook?

    All of these things need to be kept in mind by the cook in order to make a successful stir fry….which means, I need to revisit this topic again, and talk about it more, because I really only scratched the surface here.

    Thank you all for asking such good questions!

    Comment by Barbara — March 27, 2006 #

  44. GREAT information! I’ve reread it at least three times.

    I also seem to have trouble with garlic scorching particularly if I am doing things in batches. For instance, if I’ve added the garlic with the chicken, and them remove the chicken from the wok before I put the vegetables in, any garlic that’s left behind seems particularly vulnerable to burning at that point. I can only seem to manage the garlic by adding it later in the process although your point about it adding greater flavor if it’s there for the whole process makes total sense.

    I’m eagerly looking forward to your next better-wok-cookery post.

    Comment by Julie — April 3, 2006 #

  45. […] After the success of the jambalaya and flatbread at the weekend, I’ve been doing a good bit of reading up on cookery, recipes, techniques, and so on. I just found this: Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery – and I cannot wait to try it. I don’t know how well the wok we have will do, though – it’s non-stick. Perhaps I should go hunting in some of the oriental shops. […]

    Pingback by Now Is A Long Time Too » Wokery — May 4, 2006 #

  46. Hi I have a propane burner I use for my wok…when I marinade with cornstarch, it sticks to my well-seasoned wok, and starts to burn under the intense heat. Then the whole dish feels burnt. Aside from adding water as soon as that dried starch starts to form,what is left to do?

    Comment by Jonah — February 5, 2007 #

  47. Jonah–two things you can do.

    Turn the heat down just a little bit, or when the dried starch starts to form, splash it with chicken broth or stock or shao hsing wine, depending on which is more appropriate to your dish. Just a little splash will deglaze the nearly instantly cooked cornstarch, and will lower the heat of the wok a tiny bit, without steaming the meat you are cooking.

    Also, you can add a bit more oil to your wok. One of the reasons restaurant cooks use so much oil in stir frying is because of the high temperatures that they cook at–it prevents issues like yours from forming.

    But, the downside is that the food is then very fattening and greasy.

    I hope that this helps.

    Comment by Barbara — February 5, 2007 #

  48. […] 2. Tigers & Strawberries – Barbara is a professional, and it shows. Her blog is full of basic tutorials on stir-fry technique, becoming acquainted with each and every spice in your pantry, and more. Her blog is an incredible resource for anyone who wants to learn to cook Chinese, Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese food (and more!) from the bottom up, with great focus on understanding the basic building blocks of flavor and how to layer them together to great effect. […]

    Pingback by Habeas Brulee » Blog Archive » Thinking Blogger Awards — May 14, 2007 #

  49. […] Chinese and other Asian foods are different from my American (and by extension European) culinary tradition (well don’t I sound pompous; perhaps I should refer to food tradition). The techniques are just significantly different. While thinking about the differences, I realized I’m not even qualified to comment on what the differences are: that is my level of understanding of Asian cuisine. I’ve made a few successful stir fries (and I highly recommend this tutorial) but they were rather Americanized affairs. […]

    Pingback by General Tso’s Chicken or How to Create Pepper Spray in Your Own Kitchen « two yolks — September 25, 2007 #

  50. […] Sprouts Fried Rice is a prepared using sprouts,basmati rice and red chilli paste.Each grain of the cooked rice should be seperate and rice should be cold.Chinese wok-cooking is all about the timing of the ingredients and the proper tossing and mixing and maintaining proper temperature(flame).Barbara of Tigers & Strawberries has written a very interesting and in-depth article on home-style Chinese cooking,“Stir Fry Technique: Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery”.A must-read for those who love to cook Chinese.Here’s how the recipe goes: […]

    Pingback by Indian Food | Andhra Recipes | Herbs - Spices| Ayu » Blog Archive » Sprouts Fried Rice - Indo-Chinese Fusion Cooking — November 10, 2007 #

  51. […] Sprouts Fried Rice is a prepared using sprouts,basmati rice and red chilli paste.Each grain of the cooked rice should be seperate and rice should be cold.Chinese wok-cooking is all about the timing of the ingredients and the proper tossing and mixing and maintaining proper temperature(flame).Barbara of Tigers & Strawberries has written a very interesting and in-depth article on home-style Chinese cooking,“Stir Fry Technique: Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery”.A must-read for those who love to cook Chinese.Here’s how the recipe goes: […]

    Pingback by Sprouts Fried Rice - Indo-Chinese Fusion Cooking | — December 26, 2007 #

  52. I have tried stir-frying twice so far and have trouble on two points….first, if I heat my wok and then add the (peanut) oil, the oil begins to let off huge amounts of smoke instantly, and I have to reduce the heat quickly.

    Second, I tried adding the garlic at the point you (and every other set of stir-fry instructions I’ve ever seen) recommend, and it almost immediately turns into little blackened bits that must be thrown out…so now I add my garlic along with the sauce at the end.

    What am I doing wrong in these two cases? As far as I can tell, I’m following instructions…

    Comment by Kat — February 10, 2008 #

  53. If you just seasoned your wok, Kat, that instant smoking business will probably chill out over time and use. But, until then, heat your wok on slightly lower than super-high heat, and see if that helps you out. If you put the oil in a cold carbon steel wok and then heat it, your food is more likely to stick. I am not sure why it works that way, but it does–I have done it enough times to want to help folks avoid it at all costs!

    I tend to use garlic thinly sliced–in bigger pieces than minced, so that when it gets in the wok, it doesn’t instantly burn.

    There are other ways around it.

    You can cook the onion first, and brown it, add the ginger slices, and cook them, along with perhaps chili slices. Then, you can add the meat in a single layer over the bottom of the wok, and while you are leaving it undisturbed before stirring it, you can sprinkle your minced garlic over the top of the meat.

    The meat cools the wok a good bit because of its volume and size, which lowers the temperature. It also acts as a buffer for the minced garlic, keeping it from hitting the thin, super-heated walls of the wok en masse. This also protects minced garlic from burning.

    Try these tips, and if you have any other questions, do not hesitate to ask.

    Comment by Barbara — February 11, 2008 #

  54. Thanks Barbara! I have to say, this site is definitely the most comprehensive about wok cooking…thank you!

    Comment by Kat — February 14, 2008 #

  55. I’ve enjoyed your Blog very much. Since I also collect cookbooks. I have no idea just how many I have, but it numbers probably 600-700 at a minimum in five different languages. Not that I read all of them fluently but I’ve found that recipes usually have a common format and with a minimum vocabulary and a good dictionary I can get by. There are often interesting differences when comparing the original to the translation.

    Most of my books are in the Western tradition, particularly French and Italian. However, Chinese is also one of my interests. BTW, I found your ten steps very interesting. I, too, had noted the Grace Young approach from “Breath of a Wok”.

    Here’s a little book I stumbled across that you may find interesting, too (if you don’t already own it!). The title is “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters” by James D. Mccawley, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1984. It is still in print. See:

    In general, I’ve gotten to the point where I use cookbooks more for ideas rather than for just “recipes”. I use recipes occasionally for guidance but rarely fix one as written. This is not to disparage the writers of the recipes, but I’ve been cooking long enough that I know our taste. I’m 77 and I’ve been cooking for 25-30 years and cook most of our meals.

    My wife fed me and our three kids for a number of years and I decided to take some of the load off of her. BTW, we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary this year.

    I’ll quote Churchill (I think), sorry this is so long, but I didn’t have the time to write s short one!

    Best wishes and regards…


    Thomas Spillman
    Asst. Professor (retired)
    Information Technology

    Comment by Tom Spillman — July 19, 2008 #

  56. […] RecipesPanda Express Discount Coupons and also Your Favorite Chinese FoodHow to Cook a ChateaubriandTigers & Strawberries var _gaq = _gaq || []; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-10699154-23']); […]

    Pingback by Is a wok and anything else needed to cook Chinese food? | Chinese Recipes — January 13, 2012 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.