Published March 1, 2006.
The most important rule for stir-frying at home is this: Don't use a wok. Woks aren't designed for a flat stovetop and provide less heat than a large skillet.
Woks are conical because in China they traditionally sat on cylindrical pits containing the fire. Food was cut into small pieces to shorten cooking time, thus conserving fuel. Unfortunately, what is practical in China makes no sense in America. A wok was not designed for stovetop cooking, where the heat comes only from the bottom; the bottom of the wok gets very hot, and the sides get only very warm.
A deeply flavored stir-fry in which the food is browned and caramelized rather than pale and bland; a real stir-fry—not a stew.
To quantify their differences, we heated oil in a wok and a heavy 12-inch skillet over high heat on gas burners. Once the oil was smoking (at around 415 degrees), we added stir-fry ingredients to each pan. The wok’s temperature plummeted dramatically, to 220 degrees at its center, rising only another 50 degrees over the course of cooking. The skillet’s temperature dipped to 345 degrees, then recovered quickly, continuing to rise to almost 500 degrees. This higher heat translated to better browning and more flavor.
A horizontal heat source requires a horizontal pan. Use a large skillet, 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Even with a skillet, you don't have enough heat to quickly sear and cook either large amounts or large pieces of food. For that reason, simply chop the vegetables into smaller pieces so they will cook quickly. You also need to cook relatively small amounts of food at one time—too much volume will draw down the heat of the pan, and you will end up with stewed meat and vegetables. Add vegetables in batches. Onions, carrots, and cauliflower require a good deal of cooking and should be added first. Fresh herbs, scallions, tomato wedges, and tender greens should be added at the end of cooking. All other vegetables are added in between. Finally, follow the most important rule of stir-frying: get the pan very hot—preheat for about four minutes over high heat—and keep it that way.list of recipes