When spring approaches, I find myself less inclined to fire up the oven for slow roasts and braises. All my favorite summer produce—tomatoes, eggplant, stone fruit—still feel a lifetime away from their pick-and-eat peak, so it’s this time of year when I’m most likely to break out a wok and throw together a fresh and flavorful stir fry.
The bulk of prep for stir fry cookery—a bit of meat marinating and noodle soaking, and plenty of mindful knife work—happens in a cool kitchen. Preheat your wok for a few minutes before cooking and you can have a fresh, hot meal off the stove in minutes. Stir frying is one of the easiest and quickest ways to cook, but you’ll want a few key pieces of equipment to capture the coveted wok-hei, the faint but distinctively smokey “breath of the wok”.
I reached out to Chef Zilong Zhao, the head chef at MáLà Project in Manhattan, a restaurant that specializes in an elaborate stir fried dish called Szechuan dry pot, for some tips on building a home wok station. Here are a few of his—and my—stir-frying favorites.
The most time-consuming steps of stir frying come before the the wok is even over the fire. An organized mise en place is essential, so stage your ingredients in the order in which they are to go in the pan. Pick up an inexpensive set of small bowls (‘monkey dishes’, in restaurant-speak), slice, dice, and grate everything ahead of time, and lay your components out by the stove. Many stir fried dishes take only minutes to cook and an organized arsenal will allow you to focus on what’s happening in the wok. Duralex
A Pot and Spider Skimmer for Blanching
For dishes like Szechuan dry pot, which contains several different types of protein and vegetables, Zhao suggests par-cooking ingredients individually in a pot of boiling water “so that they are moist and soft enough to retain the juicy sauce later when wok-frying.” This step also allows fresh vegetables and delicate seafoods to be added to the wok at the very end; at that stage, these ingredients will warm back up and absorb some of the flavorful juice without losing their freshness and individuality. Calphalon; Helen Chen
My favorite Mandarin-style wok comes with a stay-cool wooden handle and its own wok ring, which modifies your gas range to hold the wok closer to the flame; it will not work on electric or induction stoves. Which brings me to:
If you prefer to work with lower-maintenance cookware, this heavy duty, stainless version from the restaurant industry powerhouse All-Clad is the easiest to care for and clean (as well as the priciest at $245). In her book on healthy stir-frying, Stir Cazy, Ching-He Huang suggests prepping your stainless steel wok before using by reducing apple cider vinegar in it a few times to create a tighter, more non-stick surface (do not even talk to me about teflon). Kat Craddock
Our Stir Fry Favorites
I’m not a huge proponent of single-use appliances, but I am still proud of the meals I was able to produce in my college dorm room using a contraband toaster oven, a rice cooker, and an electric tea kettle. If you like gadgets, have plenty of counter-space, or don’t have regular access to a reliable stove, this superb tool from Breville is the wok for you. Kat Craddock
The dial offers a broad temperature range. The wok heats far up the sides for a wide, even cook surface, which minimizes the steaming effect that occurs when ingredients are packed too closely together. The bowl snaps out of the heating element for easy cleaning and serving.
I’m not 100% on board with the teflon coating (don’t so much as touch it with that lovely metal wok spatula above: This one comes with its own, no-scratch plastic version), but if it gets you cooking more stir fries at home and saves space on your stove top, more power to you. It comes with a metal steamer tray (which I’m wary of using on the teflon surface) and a snug-fitting glass lid. With one of these and a great rice cooker, I could get by without a stove until winter.