Stir-frying is an Asian cooking method that involves tossing food items in a high-sided frying pan called a wok with some heated oil over very high heat, to cook the food quickly.
In Shanghai, stir-frying is done over a medium heat and more slowly, as they want to emphasize overall texture. The heat used is much higher in Cantonese stir-frying.
In either form, though, a lot of BTU’s are needed to do the stir-frying properly. The heat should be high enough that meat won’t exude its juices and turn grey.
All items to be used in a stir-fry must be prepared and ready to cook before any cooking begins — there is no time for preparation while you are doing the stir-frying, because the cooking happens too fast.
The food items should be cut into small, evenly-sized pieces. Strips of meat for stir-frying need to be cut across the grain — this not only tenderizes the meat, but helps to prevent shrinkage.
Ingredients must not be wet; they must be thoroughly dried.
The oil used serves two purposes: to stop the food from sticking, and to help the flavours blend. The oil must be very hot before starting to help prevent the food sticking. Only a small amount of cooking oil is needed, but stir-fry aficionados swear by peanut oil, because it can stand up to very high heat without having its flavour affected.
The food must be seared, not steamed. You have to keep the food constantly moving by stirring and tossing it, so that it doesn’t burn from the high heat. Constantly, though, doesn’t mean non-stop. You stir about every 30 seconds or so, once things are going.
In Chinese restaurants, they will also move the wok about while frying. It works for restaurants because they have enough heat from their special stoves. On a regular household grade stovetop, this will cool down a wok and so is not recommended at home,
To help keep it easy to stir and toss in the space of the wok you have to work in, you cook your food in batches. Otherwise it will steam instead of fry, and come out soggy, or burn where pieces didn’t get stirred in time. Stir-fried vegetables should come out firm. In a 14 inch (35 cm) wok, cook at one time no more than ¾ pound (350g) of meat and 3 to 4 cups of veg (6 to 8 large handfuls.)
Items to be stir-fried are added to the heated wok in order of how long they will take to cook. Onions, if being used, are usually the first item put in, then followed by ginger, chiles and garlic.
When you add meat, you give the meat a cooking time of about 1 minute before you start tossing it. This allows it to sear and develop flavour.
The stirring is done with metal or wood implements.
Some people debate whether stir-frying is really technically frying, or whether it’s more like sautéing. That, though, seems a lot like splitting hairs, because most people would regard sautéing itself as a form of frying.
The term “stir-frying” probably started appearing in English in the late 1950s. Possibly one of the first references to it was in “Chinese Cooking for American Kitchens” by Calvin B. T. Lee in 1958.
The crisp texture of stir fried vegetables is called “song” in Cantonese.
Instead of “Stir-Frying”, the Chinese refer to it as “chowing” (“stir-tossing.”)