Jeremy Pang
14 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
978 184949 5745
Martin Poole

Stir-frying, as its name suggests, is the motion of frying something while continuously stirring or circulating heat, and it’s that heat that is all-important – stir-frying is all about WOK HEI, or ‘wok’s air’ in English. Think of it as the ‘height of fire’, or the level of heat. It’s said that Chinese cooks have good WOK HEI if they have a true understanding of the heat of their wok and how to handle it in all situations. Unfortunately I have discovered that very few recipe books actually mention the importance of the height of fire, which strikes me as leaving out a crucial part of the recipe. A stir-fry’s success is based on the cook’s WOK HEI!

A stir-fry is, in its nature, incredibly quick to make – your average chicken stir-fry should only take about five minutes. This is why you slice or dice your ingredients into small pieces: it speeds up the cooking process and allows the ‘height of fire’ to do a quick, but precise job of cooking and sealing your food.

Many Chinese chefs insist that the golden rule of wok cooking is to have an extremely hot wok and a high source of heat, and I agree. Cooking on a high heat seals the flavour in your ingredients and keeps in moisture. However, domestic kitchens don’t have huge wok burners or even necessarily gas stoves, and it takes an extremely brave (or slightly crazy) home chef to be confident dealing with a smoking-hot pan straight away.

So perhaps the key to mastering WOK HEI at home is not how to heat up your wok, but actually how to cool it down. The methods outlined here will help you cook quickly, but also safely, keeping the cooking heat high but giving you a bit more cooking time so your stir-fry will be crisp and delicious – and most of all, not burnt!

Stir-fry: The golden rules

Be organised

Always make sure you have all your ingredients 100% prepared and organised before you start your cooking! Stir-frying is very quick and it will get very hectic if you are not organised before you start. The easiest way to organise yourself when stir-frying is to present all your ingredients – from harder vegetables, to meats, to softer vegetables – in a clockwise order around a plate so that you do not have to think or even look at the recipe once you start. This is what I refer to as a ‘wok clock’.

Use oil sparingly

Add a maximum of 1 tablespoon of oil before cooking, and then add oil bit by bit (½ tablespoon at a time) as and when you need it. You need just enough oil to cover the base of the wok. If too much oil goes into the wok at the start, the first ingredient you add will absorb it all and your stir-fry will be greasy.

Wait for the smoke

Oil should be smoking hot before you add any ingredient to the wok. However, if your wok is still smoking once the ingredients are in the pan, it needs cooling down.

Listen for the sizzle

Your wok must always make a sizzling sound. At times you may need to cool your wok down; however, one thing is certain when stir-frying; NEVER LOSE YOUR SIZZLE! No sound? Turn up the heat.

Harder veggies go in first

Some ingredients take longer to cook than others, like harder vegetables and chicken, for example. Put these in the wok first to ensure they cook through.

Meat timings

When stir-frying, all meat should be finely sliced or thinly diced to cook quickly. If you are looking for a quick ‘one-wok-wonder’ stir-fry, the meat generally will enter the stir-fry between the harder vegetables (e.g. carrots, broccoli) and the softer vegetables (e.g. choi sum, bean sprouts). If, however, you would like to try the more professional route, you may blanch the meat in hot oil thereby pre-frying the meat in the wok for 1–2 minutes and removing it. This extra step will help to seal in the meat’s moisture and flavour, and the meat can then go back in just at the end of the stir-fry, before adding the sauce.

Only use high-heating oils

High-heating oils such as vegetable, sunflower, corn, groundnut and rapeseed oil smoke at roughly 190ºC, which is much higher than olive or sesame oils. Wok cooking requires an extremely high heat, so make sure you only use these high-heating oils to cook your stir-frys.

Wok hei: Cooling down your wok 5 ways

Change the ‘height of fire’

Pretty obvious, this one! Turn the knob on your gas or ceramic hobs, or press a few buttons on the more modern electric and induction hobs.

Remove the wok from direct heat

If it’s a thin wok, it should cool down within 10–15 seconds. Once your dish has cooled enough and is ready for the next ingredient, place your wok back onto the heat again.

Stir and shake

Give your food a good stir with a spoon while shaking your wok back and forth.


Using your ladle or spoon to fold in your stir-fry is a great way of cooling your wok down without getting food everywhere. Keep your spoon facing downwards and fold from the back into the stir-fry to help the cooling process.

Flick and toss

Learn how to flick and toss your wok properly, giving it a long push forward and a quick flick back. Practise with a small cup of raw rice and you’ll soon master it (although a dustpan and brush might be needed after the first few attempts!).

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