A discussion thread for a recipe on a Disqus channel I followed made me realized that there are some misconceptions about the stir-fry technique we associate with Chinese and other Asian quisines. This recipe was for an Italian Chicken Stir Fry. Could you use traditional Italian ingredients and make a stir fry dish? Sure! But it is not the ingredients which make it a stir fry, it is the technique.
This recipe involved cooking methods you’d find in many Italian recipes. The chicken is marinated then seared in oil and set aside. Then the vegetables are sauteed in oil. Then the chicken and sauce ingredients are added and everything is cooked together. While generally, this seems similar to many stir-fry dishes, there are some crucial differences.
Stir-frying and sauteing are very similar and they can seem at first glance to be two different names for the exact same thing. A stir fry is not a saute. A saute is a quick cooking in a small amount of oil. In fact, such a small amount of oil is used it can be considered a dry-heat method of cooking. A stir fry, however, involves even higher heat and more fat is used.
In a saute, the different ingredients can be cut to different sizes. For example, a small dice of onions might be quickly sauteed, and the onions allowed to brown, but, also, relatively large pieces of chicken might be sauteed. This is why in the recipe mentioned the pieces of chicken were quickly browned first and then set aside.
On the other hand, all the ingredients for a stir fry are cut the same small size. Despite the huge chuncks of brocolli you might find in your Chinese takeout, the vegetables and meat or poultry in a stir fry are chopped small. Constant stirring with more oil means that the temperature of the wok or pan stays relatively stable. All the all the ingredients are constantly exposed to the high heat and cooked evenly and very quickly. A wok is usually used for an Asian stir-fry because it’s shape is perfectly suited to stir-frying techniques. A saute can be a cooking technique that is used once to make a dish that involves other cooking methods. While a dish that primiarly relies on sauteeing may be called a sautee, a stir fry is always a stir fry. In other words, while the technique is important, the point is to make a discrete ‘stir-fry dish.’
Stir, Stir, Stir!
In the words of Martin Yan in Chinese Cooking for Dummies:
“Stir, stir, stir. That’s how the technique got its name. Rapidly toss and stir the ingredients to expose all their surfacres to the heat. Don’t load the work with vegetables and meat and just stand there and stare at it. Good stir-fry dishes require plenty of elbow grease. Remember that it’s stir-fry not stare-fry!” 1
While this Italian chicken dish I mentioned would take around 15 minutes to complete, stir fry dishes are very quick! A stir fry really should not take more than around 5 minutes. And, while for the Italian dish the chicken was removed while the vegetables cooked (so as not to overcook the chicken), stir fry ingredients are added in a sequence without removing ingredients (although this may happen from time to time). The shape of the wok allows you to push ingredients you want to keep warm up to the side while quickly frying other ingredients.
Everything goes very quickly and to do it properly everything must be prepared and ready to go in advance. The vegetables should be bright and crisp, never soft and mushy.
Perhaps the best way to see the difference between a stir-fry and a saute, or a dish that involves sauteing, is to see the two in action. The first video below is from SisiYemmeTV, cooking a dish she calls Stir-Fry Chicken Spaghetti. It certainly looks delicious but it is by no means a stir-fry dish.
Now, watch CiCi Li make Stir Fry Beef with Scallions. First, notice the flame. That is not ‘high heat’ that is a inferno. This is the kind of heat that is used in stir-frying. Wowza! Now, notice the amount of oil. The previous video uses a small amount of oil. Stir-frys use a lot of oil. Here, three cups of oil are added to the wok. This is indeed a FRY. Not all recipes will use this much oil, and the shape of the wok makes it easier to actually fry the ingredients in a smaller amount of oil. If you tried to do this in a flat-bottomed pan you’d need even more oil. It is hard to tell with editing, but even though the beef is removed and the oil is taken out to fry the scallions, the whole thing doesn’t seem to take more than about five or six minutes, not counting the advance prepartion such as marinading the beef, of course. The ‘stir-fry spaghetti’ takes 30 minutes.
Here are some more specific resources to help you make the perfect stir fry dish:
When meat or poultry is marinated in soy sauce, wine, and corn starch, which is often the case with such Chinese stir-frys, a large amount of oil helps keep the meat from sticking to the wok. Much less oil can be used when using a non-stick wok, such as a Circulon Contempo Nonstick 12-Inch Stir Fry Pan, but a great deal of care must be taken, just as with any non-stick cookware, to not damage the surface.