Chinese Stir-Fry basics: How the Pro does it

SHORT VERSION:

Hot wok, coat oil, turn to low heat, add meat right away. cook for 30 to 60s. Turn heat to high, flip meat, turn to low heat for another 30 to 60s. Turn high heat and quick Stir right before plating.

INTRO:

I recently posted a couple of easy Chinese stir-fry recipes for beef (both thinly sliced and strip shape.) The recipes were based on average American Kitchen setup with gas stove of firepower ~ 10k and regular skillet (flat bottom, typically with thick slab of metal attached for heat retention.) But an American kitchen is actually very different from Chinese kitchen (restaurant). So how does a Chinese Chef cook a stir-fry beef dish in a restaurant? Let’s find out.

THE DIFFERENCE IN KITCHEN

Let’s start from the differences in the kitchen. There are many differences but I will just mention the two most important differences for stir-fry: the heat source and the wok.

Chinese kitchen (restaurant) uses gas stove with firepower ranging from 80k to 150k BTU. Average American household kitchen uses firepower of ~ 10k. That’s 8 to 15 times difference in firepower, quite dramatic. The extra firepower gives chef the ability to play with fire and creating dishes quickly. This means Chinese chef, using Pro setup, can heat up the wok very quickly while the cookware in an average kitchen is slow to reach desired temperature.

This difference in firepower also influences the choice of cookware: Chinese wok vs. pan/skillet. An ideal Chinese wok should have a curved bottom so it’s easy to stir and toss ingredients.The unique shape also creates different “temperature zone” in the wok that a Chef can utilize for cooking. A good wok should also be made of very thin and conductive materials that can respond to heat quickly. But when using a under-powered kitchen, we first want to have high heat so we can create a “sear” on the meat. A skillet with thick metal bottom can retain and accumulate heat even when the stove is under-powered. Since timing is critical in stir-fry and we usually don’t have enough time to wait for the wok to reach high enough temperature after adding ingredients, a high heat retention skillet actually might work better compared to Chinese wok.

IDEAL STIR-FRY DISH

So now we know the differences in kitchen setup, but how it translates into different stir-fry methods?  To answer this, let’s look at what we want in stir-fry beef (or other protein): 1. nice sear on the surface, 2. evenly cooked to the right doneness so the meat is moist and juice inside, 3. remove the excess water from the meat to achieve more concentrated flavor.

The above requirements are actually very similar to what we want in a good steak, but #3 (the removal of excess moisture) is usually done through aging in cooking steak. For thinly sliced beef, we can just maintain the wok/skillet at high heat and quickly sear both side and let the residue heat cook the interior of the meat. But for thicker beef strips, a Chinese restaurant setup, with highly skilled Chef, can provide dishes that is almost impossible to achieve in average American kitchen.

FINALLY, HOW PRO CREATES STIR-FRY DISH

With enough firepower and a good wok, the following steps can create a great stir-fry dish. Below steps works best for thicker beef strips stir-fry. But, interestingly, there is actually not much “Stir” involved.

Here are the steps:

1. Heat up wok, coat the interior with oil, heat to high temperature, pour out the excess oil, then add new cold oil (This is the so-called “Hot Wok, Cold Oil”, good for cooking protein and prevent ingredients from sticking to the wok.)

2. At this point, the wok is still very hot, turn to low heat and then immediately add the beef strips (usually already marinated) into the wok, distribute the beef evenly to sear on the surface. Turning down the heat right before adding the beef strips allows the high heat on the wok to sear the beef surface, and then quickly drop the temperature down to a.) extract the excess moisture and b.) cook the meat more evenly. After ~ 30 s to 1 min of low heat cooking, it’s time to sear the other side.

3. Right before flipping the beef strips, fire up the wok to high heat again, then flip the beef to sear the other side. Turn the heat back to low right after the initial high temperature sear. Continue to cook over low heat for ~ 30 to 60 s. The switching between high and low heat helps to extract the excess water from the beef. These excess water should be eliminated so the stir-fry dish won’t be watery.

4. The final step is just to do another high heat burst with quick stir-fry to remove excess moisture and create a sear on all beef surfaces. This is also the steps to add other ingredients into the wok.

There you have it! The basic Stir-Fry, and how the Pro does it. The actual stir-fry step can vary from dish to dish depending on the ingredients. But we can always cook each ingredients separately and then combine them together at the end.

DON’T HAVE A HIGH FIREPOWER STOVE AND/OR CHINESE WOK?

No worries, you can still create delicious stir-fry dishes with a average kitchen. That’s the exactly the purpose of my blog. I personally also uses an average kitchen to create all my recipes. They might not be able to compete with dishes created by top restaurant chef, but they are surely easy to make and delicious!

Finally, if you have any questions of comments, please let me know! If there are recipes that are bothering you, please share them with me so we can create better, easier Chinese recipes for stir-fry, steam, boil, braise, stew, or deep fry.

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