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Rules of stirfrying?

What are the general rules of stirfrying in a wok? What is the particular order of the ingredients that go in, and what difference does it make? I've always had the impression that you put in the aromatics first, the proteins second (which is flavored by the aromatics, the vegetables third, and the carbohydrates and sauce last. Some say that you should add the sauce in increments throughout the dish, others say that the sauce should be built with the meat and vegetables before adding the carbohydrates in order for them to absorb all the flavors. Others like to do the ingredients separately and then stirfry them all together later on. Hell, some even say to just heat the wok up to the highest possible heat and dump everything in and stir like crazy.

What say you? What are your preferences, or what are the rules, and what differences does it make?

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  1. It actually depends on the cuisine as to the exact method used.
    For a lot of Korean stir fries, the preferred method is to do each item (similar items may be grouped) separately, and then add everything back in to the sauce to finish.
    This method almost completely eliminates the chance of overcooking, and also allows each ingredient to maintain a "flavor integrity", resulting in distinct flavors throughout the dish.

    Edit:
    There is still an order to follow as you leave the juices in the pan to build the sauce -
    Meat (sometimes with garlic/peppers)
    dense or thick cut vegetables (carrot, potato, various roots)
    medium vegetables (like onion, garlic, or peppers)
    light or thin cut/chopped vegetables (bean sprouts, spring onions)

    4 Replies
    1. re: hannaone

      I want to add that if you're using kimchi, add it in the beginning and leave it in the pan! That way it caramelizes a bit and softens up, coating the other ingredients.

      1. re: link_930

        Agreed.

      2. re: hannaone

        I also want to add that the cooking order is the same for if you leave items in, instead of doing them seperately, and taking each one out. Basically, in order of what takes longest to cook, goes in first. Meat takes awhile to cook, right? And hardier vegetables would also take longer to cook than things like bean sprouts.

        1. re: jimwormmaster

          That's the basic order, according to cooking time.
          As with anything though you can play with it a little to achieve specific results.
          Also some Korean stir fries ( maybe "assembled dishes" is a better name) will call for some additional method like a parboil before the stir fry.

      3. An ATK episode I saw a few months ago seemed to lean toward the one-ingredient-at-a-time stirfrying idea, with the sauce put on in the last few seconds when everything goes back in.

        I do my stir-frying in a cast-iron skillet because you can get that puppy screaming hot, much hotter than a wok or steel pan. I generally go meat, dense-ish veg, lighter veg, aromatics (with the exception of onions, which go in with the denser veg), sauce. I used to put aromatics in first, but found that garlic and ginger burn too quickly.

        3 Replies
        1. re: LauraGrace

          I agree with this approach. If you put too much in at once you will bring down the temperature of the pan too much and not get a good stir fry. The other really important aspect is to have the highest output burner you can get. I have a 24,000 BTU burner on my cooktop that is intended for stirfry. Great results. And do NOT use a round bottom wok - they are meant to be used in a wok burner and are not that effective on a flat bottomed cooktop.

          1. re: bnemes3343

            I would actually recommend the lodge logic wok, it is absolutely excellent. It is round on the inside but flat on the outside so it can balance. The thing is heavy as hell though, so it can pack quite a punch even on the wimpiest of stoves. You have to adjust your recipe though since it has such high heat retention.

          2. re: LauraGrace

            Yea I've read in so many places that you are supposed to heat up the wok until it's smoking and then add the aromatics and fry for 30 seconds or until fragrant. I found they burned almost immediately, so I just mix them in with the meat or vegetables.

          3. It's a nuanced technique with a lot of variation. I'm a total novice but here are a couple tips:

            1. Mise en place -- Critical. EVERYTHING must be chopped, measured (if you're doing that kind of thing), ready to go, and in very easy reach. A 30 second delay could mean the difference between cooked garlic and burnt garlic. A 1 minute delay is always disastrous.

            2. Heat -- As far as I know, there is one temperature to cook at and that's rocket hot. Probably much hotter than you can attain on your average home range. Nevertheless, blast the thing and let it heat up over the fire for at least 5 minutes before you start cooking.

            3. Cook in appropriate amounts -- That usually means much less than you think. If you've got a pile that's at all difficult to move around the wok then you've got way too much in the wok. Now you're steaming things and it's just never going to taste right.

            I am also lucky in that if I flip the grate on my range, the grate will cradle my wok and can great contact between the flame and the wok. It can get red hot on my little range top. I wish I had that 24, 000 BTU burner though. So, if you have an electric range or your gas range doesn't allow you to do what I've described, I'd just as soon use a large cast iron skillet to to my stirfrying. The wok rings elevate the wok too far from the flame to allow it to get anywhere near hot enough.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Frommtron

              That's what I forgot! Mise en place is THE KEY to stir-frying (well, that and dangerous, searing, nuclear levels of heat). My usual chop-and-drop method does NOT work in this application.

            2. Whatever you do, control when you put each item in for timing. You will learn that to cook a round slice of carrot at average thickness takes a set amount of time. If you instead very finely julienne the carrots, they cook faster and can be added closer to the end. The key is to know how long each item takes on your stove, and to know how this timing is affected by the presence of a certain bulk of other items in the wok. Keep the amount in the wok low. Don't try to do more than 1 lb of meat, or 1/2 lb meat with veggies until you know if your set up works for that. Actually, when I do a whole pound of meat, I will have velveted it first, now that I think on it. So it is already mostly cooked and hot when I dump it in.

              I completely agree with Frommtron that this type of technique works best if everything is chopped and organized, with things mixed into little dishes if needed. You can do some of the chopping and stuff a little in advance, cover them, then do other dishes, then do the stirfry at the very last second.

              I would not just dump everything in at once and stir like crazy. On many home stoves and with a thin wok, not stirring too much is a good idea. Let the meat hit the pan and sit a moment.