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Wok this way

Food and wine expert David Rosengarten offers tips on how to whip up an authentic stir-fried meal at home.
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Super hot temperatures and prepped ingredients that don’t overcrowd the wok are some of the keys to that wonderful crunchy texture you want with stir fry. On NBC’s “Today” show, David Rosengarten, editor of the Rosengarten report shares some advice on how to stir fry three dishes in three minutes. Read some of his tips below.

It’s easy to make stir-fried, Chinese food at home that tastes like the food in Chinese restaurants. All you need are the right ingredients, and the right techniques.

TOP STIR-FRY INGREDIENTS Here are the top eight ingredients that will make your food taste authentic:

1. Soy sauce. Buy a good Chinese brand for your Chinese cooking. There are three basic types: light soy sauce, thin soy sauce, and dark soy sauce (sometimes called black soy sauce.) For most stir-fries, the thin soy sauce works best.

2. Sesame oil. This is often used as a last-minute drizzle in stir-fries to boost flavor. Make sure to buy a Chinese or Japanese brand that is dark in color; the sesame seeds have been roasted to make this flavorful oil. A light-colored sesame oil, from unroasted seeds, is available in health-food stores, but doesn’t have much flavor.

3. Cornstarch. This is an important ingredient for stir-fries, because it helps to thicken sauces. To use it, mix a few teaspoons in a cup with a little bit of cold water until a creamy liquid is formed. Then, with the thin liquid in your wok at a boil, pour some of the creamy liquid into the wok. Stir rapidly. The stir-fry will thicken immediately. If you want it to be thicker, add more of the creamy liquid.

4. Hoisin sauce. This is a sweet, reddish-brown paste made from beans. It has many uses in Chinese cooking. I love a little bit of it mixed into the sauce of some stir-fries, particularly when you want a little color, body and sweetness.

5. Oyster sauce. This amazing product — thick, very dark brown — is made from just a tiny percentage of oysters, so it does not taste fishy at all. But it does add an unmistakably authentic Chinese taste to stir-fries with brown sauces. An absolute must, in my book, for stir-fries featuring greens.

6. Chili Paste with garlic. This is sometimes called “Chili Sauce with Garlic.” Whatever the name, it is a must in any kitchen that turns out spicy Chinese food. A tablespoon or two of this thick, chunky, deeply flavored, bright-red sauce will vastly improve most Szechuan and Hunan dishes.

7. Black vinegar. There is no substitute in the world for the dark vinegar made in China’s Chekiang province. It is made from fermented glutinous rice, is less tart than standard supermarket vinegar, and has a distinctive smoky-funky taste. Great as a flavor booster in stir-fries.

8. Shaoxing wine. Many cooks use a little dry sherry in their Chinese stir-fries — but that’s just as a substitute for this terrific rice wine made in eastern China. It has a little more body than dry sherry, and stands up better to the flavors of a Chinese stir-fry.


Precook some ingredients:

It’s a myth that stir-fries are simply fried food that’s stirred. Sometimes food is steamed, or boiled, or roasted before it goes into the wok. Most often it’s deep-fried (without batter) before it gets combined with the other ingredients in a stir-fry. Doing this confers several advantages. First of all, the additional cooking processes often lend more texture to the ingredients. But another implication of pre-cooking is absolutely crucial for the home cook: with many of your ingredients pre-cooked, the wokking takes no time at all.

Heat the wok properly:

The reason stir fry tastes like it should in a Chinese restaurant is that they have tremendous heat under their woks. Chinese stir-fries must be cooked over high heat. Chinese stir-fry chefs speak of “the taste of the wok” — by which they mean a sear, a burn, a charring that stir-fried ingredients get from a hot wok.

Now restaurants, of course, have huge infernos under their woks, which is great for the food. If you have a cool, quasi-commercial range at home — like a Garland, or a Viking with larger than normal burners —you’ll be fine.

If all you have is the regular household ring of fire, you”ll still be fine. Just remember to put your large wok over the highest flame available to you — and let it sit there for a few minutes before you start adding anything. If you think your heat’s on the low side, you’ll have to adjust the quantity of food downward; perhaps a cup of ingredients is all your wok can handle.

Don’t overcrowd the wok:

The biggest mistake that home cooks make is putting too much food in the wok! Crowding a wok causes the food to stew, not to fry. The best way to defeat crowding is to buy a large wok. Restaurants, of course, use enormous ones that wouldn’t even fit on our home ranges. But you should buy, for your home, a wok that measures at least 14” across the top.

Another tip: re-adjust your notions of how much food you can cook in that wok. You cannot make a stir-fry for eight people at home! I recommend using twp cups of total ingredients, or less, in any stir-fry in a 14” wok.

Coordinate timing the dishes:

In Chinese restaurant cooking, so many dishes can be turned out so quickly because all of the ingredients — including lots of par-cooked ones — are lined up and within 1-2 minutes of being finished.

Most Chinese cookbooks teach you to chop, dice, mix in advance, to have your ingredients ready to go before you stir-fry. But by taking that one step further by having all of your prepped ingredients within 1-2 minutes of being finished in the wok — you can line up three sets of ingredients, for three separate dishes, cook them, and have them all on the table within three minutes of each other.

David Rosengarten is the editor of the fact-filled food and wine newsletter, The Rosengarten Report. To read the recipes you saw on “Today,” you can visit his Web site at: