Wok cooking makes it possible for busy cooks to put a meal on the table in under 20 minutes. The versatile tool fries and steams food quickly, and, in a pinch, doubles as a boiling pot. Vegetables retain their bright colors and much of their nutritional value. Adapt recipes to your family's tastes and create your own dishes from fresh vegetables and meat.
Prepare the meats and vegetables before you begin to cook. This is usually the most time-consuming aspect of wok cookery. Cut meat and vegetables into uniform bite-sized shapes, or check the produce section at the market for presliced carrots, zucchini and celery. Make sure the vegetables are dry so that they don't steam instead of fry in the wok if you're stir-frying. If using dried vegetables and meats, rehydrate in warm water for about 30 minutes, but then pat them dry. Create your own marinades for meats and seafood, or save time by using bottled creamy dressings or substituting canned mushrooms and using meat, like pork roast, that's already marinated. Cutting beef across the grain makes it more tender.
Maintaining a high temperature is critical to creating a stir-fry. Heat the wok for a couple of minutes before you add the oil. You'll need a cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut or canola oil, so it doesn't burn. Drizzle the oil down the sides of the wok and swirl it around to coat the wok evenly. Check to see if the oil is hot enough by carefully adding a drop of water. If it sizzles, it's hot enough. Another method is to dip the end of a chopstick in the oil. If the oil around the chopstick sizzles, it's ready.
Woks have rounded sides so the heat is evenly distributed, but a wok with a flat bottom works better on an electric stove. An electric wok is a real time-saver because you can quickly adjust the heat. Typically, stir-fry is a healthy cooking method because the vegetables cook quickly and retain their nutrients. If you want to cook with less, you can buy a wok with a nonstick surface, but because nonstick surfaces eventually wear out, it won't be the lifetime investment that a traditional bare-steel or cast-iron wok represents. Make sure you have a well-fitting lid so you can use the wok for cooking with a steaming basket or rack. Use a wide spatula or cooking chopsticks for stirring the food, and a wire skimmer for removing fried and boiled foods.
Briefly cook aromatics like ginger and garlic in the hot oil and then remove them. You can make sure the meat is cooked properly by cooking it in the seasoned oil and setting it aside to return to the wok once the vegetables are cooked. Stir and toss constantly as you cook. Start with the toughest vegetables and then add the rest in order of toughness. Add soft vegetables like spinach and bean sprouts only when you remove the wok from the heat. The residual heat is enough to cook them through. Some recipes call for adding a mixture of water and cornstarch as a thickener. Mix the cornstarch in cold water before you add it to the wok so it doesn't make lumps. Use day-old rice in fried rice recipes.
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