Mastering the stir-fry

Magic happens when you put a few ingredients into a thin metal vessel over a flame. The heat triggers a chemical reaction in the amino acids and sugars, releasing what the Chinese call wok hei, the distinctive, often elusive, wok fragrance.

It can be hard to replicate wok hei on domestic stoves because the heat is less intense than the fierce gas burners used in Chinese restaurants. To overcome this, you'll need to crank up the heat and preheat the wok for a few minutes before you start, making sure the oil is shimmering or just starting to smoke before you add the ingredients.

Grapeseed oil is Tony Tan's oil of choice because of its neutral flavour and high smoke point, the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke.

Tan says he would never dream of using a non-stick wok, preferring a round-based cast iron or carbon steel wok, which he seasons before use.

Most woks have a ring on either side, which gets hot along with the wok. Protect your hand with a clean, folded tea towel or oven mitt when you're tossing the ingredients in the wok.

Many woks also come with a lid, handy for slow braising as it prevents the liquid from evaporating. But for a stir-fry, you want to cook the dish quickly in a small amount of oil with the lid off so the steam escapes.

After use, Tan washes his wok under hot water and cleans it with a cloth wipe or sponge. Scouring a wok with a metal scrubber and liquid detergent strips off the coating, so best to avoid this. He then dries the wok over a flame, removing it from the heat and rubbing on a scant teaspoon of grapeseed oil with paper towel to prevent rust.

Less is more

As with pizza toppings, less is more when it comes to successful stir-fries. Adding the entire contents of the vege crisper will give your dish in an indistinct, muddy flavour.

"There's no hard-and-fast rule but you don't want to turn it into chop suey," Tan says.

He suggests choosing up to five main ingredients, plus some seasoning ingredients. That might mean lean meat, shellfish or tofu, some onion or spring onion, and several vegetables, along with seasonings such as ginger, garlic, hoisin sauce, fermented black beans or shaoxing rice wine.

Here are some ingredients that work well:

  • Beef: fillet or rump cut across the grain into 3mm slices. If you like, you can put the meat in the freezer for 20-30 minutes, depending on thickness, to make slicing it easier
  • Chicken: breast fillet cut into cubes rather than strips so it remains juicy
  • Calamari: rings or cross-hatched tubes cut into 4cm squares
  • Pork: mince, fillet or tenderloin
  • Prawns: shelled, heads and tails off
  • Tofu: firm (pressed), cut into 2.5 dice
  • Seasonal vegetables: asparagus, bean shoots; beans; bok choy, broccoli, broccolini, cabbage, capsicum, carrot (cut into batons or thin discs), celery, choy sum, cos lettuce, mushrooms, snow peas.

Successful stir-fry combinations

Beef: broccoli/broccolini, ginger; or capsicum and chilli

Calamari: celery, spring onions and chilli

Chicken: shiitake mushroom and snow peas; fresh cloud ear mushrooms and walnuts

Pork: ginger and firm tomatoes; black beans, spring onions and tobanjan (hot bean sauce) or ground Sichuan pepper

Tofu: mushroom and bok choy; bean shoots, chilli and spring onions

Before you start

Prepare all the ingredients before you turn on the stove. A stir-fry cooks so quickly that you need everything ready and at hand.

Have the rice cooked and ready to serve when the stir-fry is done. A rice cooker is a handy tool - you can leave the rice to cook by itself, and it's one less pot on the stovetop.

Cut all your ingredients more or less the same size so they take the same time to cook. Bite-sized is best. Dry the vegetables with paper towels so they cook quickly rather than steam. Add thicker and firmer vegetables to the wok first - they take longer.

Measure out the liquids and have them within reach of the stove.

If your stir-fry contains meat, marinating it even briefly adds more flavour. Partially cook the meat first, then set it aside on a clean plate until the vegetables are tender-crisp. At the last minute, return the meat to the wok to reheat.

Add firm (pressed) tofu towards the end of cooking, ensuring it heats through. Avoid stirring it around the wok too much or it will crumble.

Don't over-crowd the wok. If you're cooking more than 500g of ingredients (enough for two people, or four with other dishes), cook in batches so the vegetables retain some crunch and the meat doesn't stew.

Use a wooden spoon or shovel-shaped wok chan to keep the ingredients moving.