A. Create uniform slices of meat, poultry or seafood that can be easily handled with the diners’ chopsticks or fork. Always cut the meat against the grain into thin slices. Marinate or par-cook as desired.
B. Wash, slice and thoroughly dry vegetables. Soak any dried ingredients and squeeze out excess liquid. Separate the vegetables by the amount of cooking time each will need so they can be added to the wok in a rational order. The ingredients that take the longest to cook go in the pan first.
C. Prepare the aromatics and garnishes such as minced ginger, garlic, scallions and fresh herbs. It is easier to mince these ingredients if they have been lightly crushed with the side of a knife or cleaver so that they lie flat on your cutting board.
D. Gather any liquid seasonings such as stock, dry sherry, soy, oyster sauce, hot bean paste, hoisin, etc. If using cornstarch or other thickeners, dissolve them in cold water or stock and set aside separately.
E. Have oil, salt and all the rest of your mise en place, including wok tools and an appropriate lid, convenient to the stovetop.
In 1977, I read Irene Kuo’s book The Key to Chinese Cooking. It was the first book I found that focused on technique as much as recipes. I still return to it again and again. Kuo separated cooking processes into four basic categories: cooking in liquid, cooking in oil, cooking with wet heat and cooking with dry heat. In each of those divisions, there were different techniques with specific guidelines. Stir-frying was in the category ‘cooking in oil’ and she broke this down into four steps:
Quick exploding: The wok is heated on high until a drop of water instantly evaporates and a wisp of smoke appears. In order to keep ingredients from sticking to the metal, cold oil is always added to the pre-heated hot pan. With a swirling motion, the oil is poured down the sloping sides to immediately heat it as it goes into the pan. The cook rotates the pan to cover the entire cooking surface with hot oil. Salt and aromatics like garlic, ginger or scallion are quickly added and moved around so they don’t burn and their aroma explodes in the hot oil. Some cooks prefer to keep a jar of oil, flavored with salt, ginger and/or garlic in the refrigerator to simplify this step.
Rapid searing: The main ingredient is scattered into the pan. Press meat into the hot surface of the wok and leave it undisturbed for 20 seconds to a minute to establish the sear. The supporting ingredients are added at this point. Then, as Irene Kuo writes, “Ingredients are tossed, turned, flipped, swept, poked and swished ….you want them to spin, slither, dart and tumble, exposing all ingredients to the hot metal but leaving no time for burning or pulling out juice or flavor.”
Blossoming: Add any liquid seasonings to the pan and reduce the heat. You have the option to cover the wok to maintain a vigorous simmer. Depending on the ingredients, it can take one to three or four minutes before a crackling noise is heard that indicates the liquid has evaporated and the flavors and textures have blossomed.
Final Blending: This is an optional step. Remove the cover and thicken juices with a cornstarch slurry. My personal preference is almost never to thicken the pan juices.
Adjust the balance of seasonings, garnish if desired and serve immediately.