Stir-frying might seem inherently connected to Japanese cuisine, but the technique only entered the country’s collective culinary repertoire relatively recently — likely around the mid-19th century, courtesy of the Chinese who immigrated to Japan during the Meiji period. But that doesn’t change the fact that this quick, high-heat cooking technique is now as indispensable to Japanese cuisine as poaching, braising and grilling.
Stir-frying is more than adding food to hot oil and quickly stirring it as it cooks. Five types of stir-frying — simple, dry, moist, extreme-heat and scramble — comprise the technique. Each type of stir-frying technique serves a unique purpose, and sometimes even a single type of dish.
Simple stir-frying refers to cooking a single ingredient in aromatics and a sauce. For example, you might make a simple beef stir fry by browning thinly sliced sirloin in a little peanut oil then adding a few basic aromatics, such as ginger, garlic and onions. You would then create a basic sauce, such as a soy-vinegar combination, and continue cooking just until the beef cooks through. The simple stir fry is quick, easy and perfect for when you want something hot and ready in minutes without much prep work or complication, and makes an excellent accompaniment to rice or udon noodles.
Dry stir-frying consists of browning just a few ingredients, such as a protein and a few vegetables, in a little oil then adding just enough liquid, such as stock or water, to allow them to cook through. This method doesn’t incorporate a sauce per se. However, it uses the liquids naturally released by the meat and vegetables during cooking for a touch of added flavor. To make a dry stir-fry, brown a protein in a touch of oil and then add thinly sliced vegetables. As the liquid released by the meat and vegetables evaporate, add just enough water to allow them to cook through. Despite the name of the technique, the finished dish will be moist and tender.
Moist stir-frying doesn’t differentiate much from dry stir-frying in technique until you get near the end of the cooking process. Instead of using just enough cooking liquid to finish cooking the meat and vegetables all the way through, you build an unctuous gravy-like sauce comprising aromatics, a generous amount of cooking liquid and a thickener, commonly corn starch. The ingredients then simmer in the sauce until cooked through, final seasoning adjustments are made, then your meal is prepared. Common gravy-like stir-fry sauces (not including aromatics) include rice vinegar and soy sauce; soy sauce, brown sugar, mirin, sesame oil and rice vinegar; and oyster sauce, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar and sesame oil.
Extreme Heat or Flash-Frying
Extreme heat stir-frying uses oil heated to between 400˚F and 450˚F as a means of instantly searing food as it’s placed in the wok and rapidly cooking it to prevent oil saturation. In other words, the food cooks so quickly — between one to five minutes — its natural moisture is retained and the oil it absorbs is minimized. Flash-frying works best with thinly sliced meat and vegetables, and requires you observe a few precautions for safe cooking.
First, you need an oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado, grapeseed or almond. Next, you need to lower the food into the oil using a slotted spatula or spider, a fine wire-mesh utensil with a long handle that keeps your hand away from any splatter when the food enters the oil. You must also dry the food as much as possible before adding it to the oil; moisture causes the oil to bubble aggressively as it evaporates. You also need to keep the food moving constantly in the wok during cooking; if it stays too long in one spot scorching is inevitable. You can flash-fry any food; beef chicken, shrimp and tofu all work. Just carefully lower the items into the oil, keep them moving during cooking using tongs or another metal utensil and remove them just as quickly using a slotted spoon or spider.
Scramble stir-frying creates a delightfully light scrambled egg custard that incorporates secondary ingredients without sacrificing any of its fluffy consistency. The basic ingredients are simple ones: a little oil, eggs and a touch of cream. Secondary ingredients are often cooked separately and added after the eggs cook to avoid compromising the texture. To make a scramble stir fry, thoroughly beat the eggs and cream until evenly yellow in color and frothy. Next, heat the oiled wok over low heat, add the eggs and stir frequently but gently using a spatula until just cooked through, about 10 minutes. If you find the eggs starting to dry out before they finish cooking, you can top the wok with a lid to steam them and help ensure a moist final dish.