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A Hamster's Guide to Stir Frying

Stir frying is one of the simplest, quickest, most gratifying forms of cooking I know. The range of foods that can be prepared with this style is far more extensive than virtually any other form of cooking, requires little effort, takes up a tiny amount of time, provides nutritionally-balanced one-dish meals and mostly saved me from starving on ramen throughout college. Please refer to the table of contents below for quick links:

Table of Contents

1. A Basic Stir Fry (How to Go About It)
2. The Wok
3. The Meat
i. Slicing

ii.. Tenderizing

iii. The Authentic Chinese Take-Away Crunch

4. Fish
i. Pre-Frying

5. Marinading
i. General Purpose Marinade

ii. Soy-Based Marinade

iii. Ginger Marinade

6. Saucing
i. Black Bean Sauce

ii. Basic Vinegar Sauce

iii. Sweet & Sour Sauce


A Basic Stir Fry (How to Go About It)

The basic requirements for a stir fry are:

1. Thin slices of meat (beef, chicken, lamb, etc. -- see below for Fish) and/or pieces of vegetables (cut/sliced bite-sized)
2. Salt to taste
3. 1-2 tbsp of cooking oil
4. A pan large enough to hold the ingredients
5. A spatula, a soup ladle or a pair of long chopsticks (seriously, I always forget this part, and it's nuts to dash to the other side of the kitchen for a spatula while my beef browns)

1. Heat the oil in the pan. Turn up your stove to its highest setting. You will want to use the hottest griddle on your stove for this. If your cooker hood or kitchen has a ventilation fan, it's a good idea to switch that on.
2. Slide in the meat. (Throwing results in oil spatters and pain.) If you are not stir frying meat, skip directly to 5.
3. Start stirring the meat with the spatula. You may need to scrape the pan if the meat initially sticks.
4. When your meat is semi-cooked (ie. browned on the outside), add in the vegetables and seasoning. Tip: If you're having trouble scraping the pan at this point, or the bottom of the pan is browning too quickly, add 2-3 tbsps of water. This will also make a "sauce".
5. When the meat has cooked to your liking, and the vegetables have just turned started to turn colour (green vegetables should be "bright forest green", carrots should be "Mac & Cheese orange" and red peppers ideally "devillishly red"), take it off the heat and serve immediately.

Hints, Tips and Other Things:

The Wok

Contrary to popular belief, you don't actually need a wok to stir fry. Any pan large enough to hold your ingredients that gives you enough room to stir them easily will do. In fact, one of the best things I've found to stir fry in is a normal, medium-sized, stainless steel saucepan. The deep pan prevents oil from spattering all over the stove, there's enough room for me to stir it with a spatula, and the heat is pretty much concentrated on the food.

A wok is a wonderful, versatile thing. But if you're cooking for one (or two), it can get pesky to clean. You also do not require non-stick pans to stir fry. Many non-stick pans corrode with time, flaking nasty black bits onto food. Even expensive non-stick pans guaranteed to last gajillions of years can scrape under the right circumstances, and if you plan to stir fry often, that's a lot of scraping. Good stainless steel pans are the way to go here. They don't need any more soaking and elbow grease than regular pans either, and will resist any amount of steel wool you can throw at them.

The Meat

Slicing meat thin allows it to cook fast while browning it completely. It also makes the food easily accessible to chopsticks. Good, lean cuts of meat with just the barest hint of natural fat are great for cooking in this style. Meats such as beef and chicken are the best ingredients for a stir fry as they can be sliced thinly and seared really quickly. The caramelized fat these meats leave on the pan also make a wonderful base for sauces later on.

Slicing

Slice meat while semi-frozen -- there's less blood and fat to contend with, it's easier to trim your meat if you need to, and you can get thinner, cleaner slices. One average fillet of meat can usually last two stir fries depending on the amount of vegetables you balance it with.

Tenderizing

To tenderize your meat, add 1 tsp of sugar (preferably Chinese rock sugar, but any old sugar will do) per bowl of meat and marinade for at least 5 minutes.

The Authentic Chinese Take-Away Crunch

To get that authentic, ohmygod-this-doesn't-feel-like-meat Chinese hole-in-the-wall takeaway bite, add 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda per bowl of meat. Leave for under 5 minutes. Anything beyond 5 minutes results in meat that feels really creepy.

This method is guaranteed to make even the toughest, cheapest, skankiest cuts of meat edible. Now you know why Chinese hole-in-the-wall takeaways are cheap.

Fish

Choose fillets (with skin on) from a white fish, such as sole, grouper or snapper, with firm, moderately coarse flesh. Salmon also works, although it is preferable to chunk fillets of salmon rather than slice them, as they flake very easily. I wouldn't advise stir frying cod (particularly Norwegian cod), as the flesh breaks up with too much handling. Furthermore, it seems like such a waste to stir fry this delicate, oily fish.

Take care to remove any leftover bones and scales from your fillet before slicing. A moderate-sized fish fillet can, like a fillet of beef or chicken, last about two serves of stir fries (for one to two persons) depending on the amount of vegetables you cook with it. Once again, it's easier to slice fish fillets semi-frozen, as this minimizes wastage and allows for thinner slices. If your knife fu is extremely terrible, like mine, semi-frozen fish meat really helps make up for poor knife-gripping techniques.

Fish requires pre-frying before it's fried with the other ingredients and the sauce. This allows the fish meat to hold its shape and gives the flesh a smoother, firmer texture. It also helps prevent strong-tasting fishes, such as salmon and other oily fishes, from being too "fishy" after cooking.

Pre-Frying ~ Per 1 Bowl of Sliced Meat

Pre-Frying is a technique used not just for stir frying, but also to prepare fish and fish carcasses before stewing, souping and currying. It brings out the flavour of the meat while removing overpoweringly fishy smells -- essential in Chinese cooking, where strong-smelling meats tend to be ill-favoured (one reason why dairy and lamb does not make a huge appearance in Chinese cuisine). Fish requires specific ingredients to mask its scent, such as strong aromatics like young ginger, onions and pepper. Cooking wines are also used for this purpose, as are rich sauces such as salted black bean paste.

The idea here is to just seal the meat before it is manipulated further. You can fry the fish meat without any additional seasonings or flouring, if you so wish. The egg is an optional binder that will help crisp the meat -- again, something that can be omitted if you like.

1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

OR any other marinade (see below for examples)

1 egg white (optional and save the egg yolk! have an omelet for breakfast.)
1/2 tbsp cornstarch
Oil for shallow frying -- you'll need about 2-4 tbsps

1. Beat the egg white and cornstarch until mixed.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the seasonings and the fish. Take care not to break up the fish slices.
3. Add the egg mixture. Coat well.
4. Heat the oil in the pan. To test if the oil is hot enough, put a small piece of spring onion or onion, or stick a wooden chopstick into the oil. Small bubbles will form around the edges of these items when the oil is right.
5. Slide in the meat. Stir to prevent the slices from clumping but be careful not to break up the meat.
6. The fish will sear very quickly. We're aiming to get the meat lightly browned but preferably not fully cooked, with the batter hardened and no longer watery or soft.
7. Take the fish off the heat and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. You do not need to wait for the fish to cool in order to cook it again.

When you're ready to use your fish, add it in after adding the vegetables in the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry, at 4.

Marinading ~ Per 1 Bowl of Sliced Meat

Try to marinade your meat for at least 5 minutes to half an hour. If you'd like a slightly thickened sauce, add 1-2 tsp of cornstarch on top of any of the marinades below. You may also add 1 tbsp of cooking oil to the marinade to prevent any meat (except fish) from clumping during frying.

(General Purpose Marinade)

1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tbsp cooking wine

(Soy-Based Marinade)

1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1-2 tbsps soy sauce
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tbsp cooking wine

(Ginger Marinade) - Ideal for Beef & Fish; See Saucing for Thickening Methods

1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1 inch young ginger (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 stalk spring onion (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp cooking wine

Saucing

The simplest method of making a sauce for your stir fry is to add 2-3 tbsps of water when your meat is browning (leaving bits of fat on the bottom of the pan). When the water begins to bubble, take it off the head. If you added cornstarch to the marinade (see above) the sauce will automatically thicken while you watch.

Sauce Thickening Tip: If you did not add cornstarch to the marinade, you can still thicken the sauce by mixing 1 tsp cornstarch to 2 tbsp of cold water. Add water to the browning meat, as in the above, and when the water begins to boil, pour in the cornstarch mixture. Take the pan off the heat. The sauce will thicken upon standing.

The following basic sauces are fairly common ways to serve stir fries that can be upgraded at will. To help speed up the cooking process, you can mix together all the ingredients for the sauces in a bowl and keep them beside the stove while you cook, so when you do need to add the sauce, it's a simple matter of tossing it all in.

(Black Bean Sauce)

A (Vegetables):

1 bell pepper (diced)
1/2 carrot (sliced into thin rounds - optional)
1 handful french beans (optional)
1 inch ginger (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 small onion (diced)
1 chilli or more (deseeded and sliced into thin diagonal strips - optional)
1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
2 tbsp oil

B (Sauce):

2 tbsp salted black bean paste
1 tbsp cooking wine
1/2 tsp pepper (optional)
1/2 tsp sugar (optional)
2 stalks spring onion (sliced into thin diagonal strips)

1. Fry the onion, ginger, chili and garlic until aromatic.
2. Follow the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry from 2 - 4.
3. Add in all the ingredients under B except the spring onions. Stir until all the vegetables and the meat is cooked.
4. Take off heat and quickly stir in the spring onions until they have just turned bright green.
5. Serve hot.

Variations: Use hoisin sauce or hot bean paste (to ban jian -- Iron Chef Chen Kenichi's favourite ingredient) instead of black bean paste. Hoisin sauce is savoury and tart. Hot bean paste is fiery and salty.

(Basic Vinegar Sauce)

2 tbsp white rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 inch ginger (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Recommended Vegetables (use a handful of any one in any combination): french beans, sweet peas, bell peppers (diced), tomatoes (diced), spring onions (sliced into thin diagonal strips)

1. Fry the ginger and garlic until aromatic.
2. Follow the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry from 2 - 4.
3. Add all the ingredients. Stir until all the vegetables and the meat is cooked.
4. Serve hot.

Variations:

(Sweet & Sour Sauce)

A (Vegetables):

1 tomato (diced)
1 bell pepper (diced)
1 cup tinned pineapple or any fresh citruses (diced)
1 onion (diced)

B (Sauce):

All the ingredients from the Basic Vinegar Sauce (above) and:

2 tbsp sugar syrup from the tin (replaces the sugar in the Basic Vinegar Sauce above)
1 tbsp tomato sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce

1. Fry the ginger, garlic and onion until aromatic.
2. Follow the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry from 2 - 4.
3. Add in all the ingredients under B, including the ingredients for the Basic Vinegar Sauce. Stir until all the vegetables and the meat is cooked.
4. Serve hot.

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Comments

vampyrichamster
Jan. 20th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Cast iron is brilliant! Delightfully hardy and resistant to scratching, especially from steel wool (for those dried bits of sauce and fat).