We are in the home stretch now. This is the final trio of ingredients necessary to make a simple Chinese stir fry, and they are really basic.
They are so basic that when you eat the your stir fried dish, you likely will not even think about them being there. But, they are there, just like they are there in the photograph of a chicken, bitter melon and sweet bell pepper stir fry above.
Without these supporting ingredients, your stir fry will lack in texture, flavor and body.
I like to think of these ingredients as the crew on a stage production. (I mean, we already have the cook as a director, the main ingredients as the stars of the show, the aromatics as the character actors, and the condiments as the supporting stars, so why not carry the metaphor to the end?)
The audience never sees the crew, well, usually not anyway. But without them, the magical suspension of disbelief would never happen. Think about a play where there was no costume mistress, no lighting designer, no stage manager, no properties manager and no stagehands. It would be chaos!
Well, the supporting ingredients in a good stir fry are like that–they keep chaos at bay. The folks eating your dishes may never know that they are in your food–all they will know is that it is good. And that is enough, and that is fine, because if you misused one of these ingredients to the point that its presence was obvious–well, your food wouldn’t taste or feel so good. Trust me on this one. I know–I have made a few “overuse mistakes” in the past.
The first and most important supporting ingredient is cooking oil.
Well, duh, I bet you are thinking. Of course it is important, but do we have to talk about it?
Well, yes, we do.
Traditionally, much of Chinese food was cooked in lard, because it was plentiful, cheap and delicious. When properly rendered and filtered, lard has a fairly high smoking point, in addition to an absolutely delectable flavor. But, among Buddhists who were strict vegetarians, it was not used, so vegetable oils have always been available for use in Chinese foods.
What sort of oils do I suggest people use? Ones with high smoking points are necessary. If you follow my general stir fry instructions, you know that I want your wok to be very hot. That means you need an oil that can withstand high temperatures without either scorching, smoking or catching on fire. Any of these unauthorized kitchen activities can not only ruin a batch of stir fry, it can put a damper on your whole day, so take my advice and use either peanut or canola oil. (Or, heck, if you can get it, unhydrogenated lard. You know you want to–it sure does taste good!)
I prefer peanut oil for several reasons. It is very healthy for you, being a monounsaturated oil, it has the requisite high smoking point and if you get cold pressed peanut oil, it adds an amazing flavor to any food cooked in it.
That said, I understand that there are lots of folks in the world who are deathly allergic to peanuts, so let it be known that I think that canola oil, also a monounsaturated fat, is also a perfectly good cooking medium to slosh into your wok. It has a more neutral flavor which folks who don’t care for peanuts will prefer, and it is less expensive than peanut oil. (For that reason, when I deep fry and flavor is not an issue, I will use canola rather than peanut oil.)
You can use soybean oil or corn oil–I just don’t like the way they taste in the wok There is something heavy and greasy about them and I just don’t care for them as much.
Lard, on the other hand, if I am not cooking vegetarian food or for strict Jews or Muslims, imparts an amazing flavor both to the wok and the food
Cornstarch is the second of the essential trio of supporting ingredients you don’t want to do without in your stir fries. It provides not only a structural element in that it helps thicken the sauce to a smooth glossy finish, but it also helps tenderize meat, and adds flavor when meat coated with it browns in a hot wok.
I almost always use cornstarch as an ingredient in marinades for meat and tofu for several reasons. One, it helps the liquid marinade ingredients stick to the meat or tofu. Two, a coating made of it and a liquid both insulates the outside of a piece of meat from the heat of the wok to a small extent, leading to a more tender cooked product, and it helps meats and tofu brown in the wok. Three, it is a thickener that makes a very clear, glossy, shiny sauce in a stir fried dish.
If you are allergic to corn, you can use arrowroot starch instead. I will warn you, however, that it is a stronger starch that does not require you to use as much of it as cornstarch. As I recall, you use 1/3 as much arrowroot as you would cornstarch. It is also more expensive, so be aware of that as well.
Cornstarch is not used in every Chinese stir fried dish–but it is used in a great many of them, and it pays to learn to use it properly and well. Go easy on it at first; use as little as you need to get the job done. Please-there is nothing nastier than gloppy, mucous-like sauce. (Trust me on this one–there was a very famous time I had made chicken with snowpeas for Zak, long ago, and I used too much arrowroot starch. When I scooped it out of the wok, the clear sauce did not drizzle, it oozed languidly, and glistened like, well, there is no other word for it–snot. It was horrid. I started to cry, and I put it down in front of Zak with the now infamous quote: “Here’s your mucous, Egon.” People still tease me about Egon chicken to this day, though I have never, ever repeated that mistake again.)
Finally, you need to have chicken or vegetable stock or broth on hand to use in your stir fries. It is invaluable for deglazing the wok after the cornstarch marinade has browned on it, and it evens out sauces perfectly. Water is too flavorless, and soy sauce is too salty and wine is too winey, but stock or broth is just right. It thins the sauce to the correct consistency, it adds a subtle bit of meat or vegetable flavor and it does wonders when cooking leafy greens, as a little bit of it poured into the wok near the end of cooking will make just enough steam to cause the leaves to wilt perfectly.
I freeze my homemade stocks in ice cube trays, then pop the little squares into plastic bags. One or two of those little frozen nuggets will be enough for a stir fry. Another product that I have used with good results are the one cup sized chicken or vegetable broths by Pacific Organics. They come in four packs, and I have found that the leftover opened bits will last for a week in the fridge.
Or, of course, you can always pour the leftover bits into ice cube trays and freeze them to be used later.
So, that is it. Those are my Rules of Three.
The only thing your stir fry needs now is a bowl of steamed rice.
And, maybe a garnish of thinly sliced scallion tops, a sprinkling of peanuts or sesame seeds, or some cilantro leaves.
But, the garnish is not necessary–it is just a nice touch.
I hope that this series has been a help in demystifying stir frying and Chinese cookery. I want to inspire cooks to be brave, fire up the wok and make something good tonight, even if you didn’t plan to.
With a handful of ingredients and some creativity, anyone can stir up a feast from their wok.
Good night, and good cooking!
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