How to stir-fry the authentic Asian way

This is your ultimate guide to show you how to stir-fry the authentic Asian way.
And trust me, if you follow all the tips listed here, you are well on the way to putting yourself in the elite league of master chefs.
This guide has all the information you need to create any great stir fry recipe.
The guide is divided into bite-size sections. Each section comes with actionable steps that you can take in the kitchen right away.
Are you ready? Let’s get started.

 


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stir fry

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many people, especially those who are unfamiliar with Asian cooking techniques, will wonder why stir-fry is different from other conventional western cooking methods.

Below is a list of the unique features.

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The Uniqueness Of Stir-frying

  • Stir-fry is one of the fastest cooking methods. The time required for a stir-fry is often shorter than 5 minutes. Stir-fry will help you get your meal to the dinner table fast.
  • Stir-fry foods are visually appealing due to the short cooking time, especially if you have plenty of colorful vegetables.
  • The short cooking method preserves nutrients and vitamins.
  • Stir frying is a healthy way to cook. It only requires a small amount of fat.

 

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Header 2 Stir-fry Over The Highest Flame You Can Get 1

stir fry high heat

photo credit Flickr by Janne Moren

You need high flame to create the signature aroma of stir-frying called wok-hei, or the "breath of wok". High heat will produce a chemical reaction take place (called the Maillard reaction), which will produce the complex flavor that you are familiar with for the best Chinese take-out. However, this does not mean that high heat is required for the entire cooking  process for a beef stir-fry. Here is how it should be done. Note the heat required at different stages.

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The Correct Way to Stir-fry- Step by Step

  1. Heat up the oil on low heat. Flavor the oil with your choice of aromatic ingredients, such as ginger and spring onion.
  2. Push the ginger and spring onion to the edge of the wok and set the heat to the hottest grade.
  3. Once the oil is piping hot, add the meat, quickly stir and toss.
  4. Use the wok shovel to arrange the beef in a single layer and let it sears for a while.
  5. Turn the heat up, add the stir fry sauce and vegetables such as spring onion and ginger. Quickly stir-fry for twenty seconds.
  6. Adjust the flame to medium heat. Add the cornstarch slurry into the food and stir-fry until the cornstarch is cooked and has thickened.

 

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Header 3. Make The Stir-fry Sauce In Advance 2

stir fry sauce ingredients

Common ingredients for marinating meat

Most street food vendors do not pre-constitute any sauces. Instead, they have all the condiments (soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, salt, sugar, etc.) ready in individual containers right beside the stove. They will pick all the condiments with a small spoon, place them in a ladle, and mix the sauce whenever they need. But I do not recommend his method unless your are a professional cook.

Making the sauces in advance will eliminate the unintentional error of omitting some components or using the wrong quantities. This commonly happens as the required quantities of the seasonings are relatively small.

Here are the three basic stir-fry sauce recipes that can be used for most of the common stir-fry dishes.

Stir-fry sauce (A) - suitable for fried rice as it has a stronger sesame oil flavor, and the color is lighter.

Stir-fry sauce (B) - suitable for fried noodles as most people (especially the customers in my restaurant) prefer a darker color. The quantity of dark soy sauce in this recipe is larger and has a stronger umami flavor (savory taste).

Stir-fry sauce (C) - suitable for stir-fry vegetables, chicken stir-fry and tofu stir-fry as the color is the lightest of all (so it will not make the vegetables look dull) and contains more oyster sauce which is suitable for most vegetables.  This is my choice for beef stir fry dishes.

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Stir-fry sauce (A) - suitable for fried rice:

Oyster sauce 90g

Chicken powder 90g

Light soy sauce 360g

White pepper 8g

Sesame oil 30g

Water 80g

Stir-fry sauce (B) - suitable for fried noodles:

Oyster sauce 140g

Chicken powder 140g

Light soy sauce 500g

White pepper 10g

Sesame oil 20g

Dark soy sauce 100g

Water 150g

Stir-fry sauce (C) - suitable for fried vegetables, tofu, meet (my choice for beef stir fry)

Salt 6g

Chicken powder 5g

Sugar 6g

Oyster sauce 18g

White pepper 1.25g (1/4 tsp)

Cornflour 8g

Water 50g

Feel free to experiment with all these combinations for your beef stir-fry.  (Stir-fry sauce C is my choice but you can change it). You can then make a larger amount to save preparation time for your next stir fry.

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Header 4. Use Only Young Ginger For Stir-frying 1

ginger root

photo credit Flickr by Artizone

The aroma, texture and flavor of ginger vary depending on the time of its harvest. Fresh young ginger has a tangy flavor, warmth and mellow sweetness that excellently compliments most stir-fry meat. That is why this combination is so popular in Asian cooking. On the contrary mature ginger has  more fibrous and spicy flavor.

Young ginger is the choice for beef stir-fries (in fact for all stir-fries), as no one will enjoy chewing a fibrous piece of mature ginger. Young ginger has a relatively thin, smooth and papery skin, with pinkish tips. Mature ginger has a darker color, looks wrinkled and shriveled.

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How to Peel and Cut Ginger:

  • Place the ginger on a chopping board or hold it in your hand, and use a vegetable peeler to scrape away the skin.
  • Use the edge of a metal spoon to scrape away any other part of the skin between the little nubs.  It is easier to use a spoon than a peeler in these areas as the peeler tends to peel away more flesh.
  • Use a sharp paring knife to slice the ginger thinly for stir-frying.

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Header 5. Cut The Meat (and other ingredients) Ultra Thin 2

sliced beef for stir frying

Cut the meat thinly for stir frying

The meat should be cut into small pieces for beef stir-fries. This will allow all the ingredients to cook within a very short time. Short cooking time will retain the juiciness, freshness and flavor of the beef. Prolonged stir-frying will make the meat tough, dry and weak in flavor.

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What You Should Do:

  1. Cut the large block of beef, (and chicken or lamb for other stir-fry dishes) to smaller chunks of about quarter to half a kg on a chopping board.
  2. Remove air as much as possible to prevent freezer burn.
  3. Place it in a freezer bag and freeze for about 30 minutes. The beef is now partially frozen. (Note: it takes longer for a larger chunk of meat).
  4. If the meat is frozen, do not defrost it fully.
  5. Cut the beef across the grain using the sharpest knife you have in a gentle sawing motion.
  6. The knife should cut through smoothly and the meat should be just firm enough. If it is too soft, place it back in the freezer for a while until it gets firmer.
  7. Wait until the meat slices fully defrost before stir-frying.

The trick for successful beef stir-fries is to slice the beef very thinly, cook on very high heat and in a very short time.

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Header 6. Prevent The Beef From Freezer Burn 1

Freezer burn

This is how freezer burn looks like

Always use fresh beef for beef stir-fries.

In some certain circumstances, you can purchase the meat in advance and place it in the freezer. However, you need to take care to prevent freezer burn.

Freezer burn is when pieces of ice form on your frozen foods. This happens because the frozen food has been exposed to air.

When beef is frozen, water molecules within the beef form ice crystals. These water molecules prefer the most hospitable environment, i.e. the surface of the beef which is the coldest place they can find. As a result, your beef will be dehydrated, tasteless and have a distinct metallic flavor.

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How to Prevent Freezer Burn

  • Cut the beef to small chunks. Keep it in a freezer bag separately.
  • Check the temperature of your freezer to make sure it is at zero degrees Fahrenheit. (-18 degrees Celsius). This is because freezer burn can only happen when temperatures fluctuate above 0 degree F.
  • Squeeze out as much air as possible from the freezer bag. The objective is to expose the beef to a minimal amount of air.
  • What if you do not have a freezer bag? No problem. Keep the beef in a plastic container instead of a freezer bag. Cover the surface of the beef with foil or cling film before attaching the cover. This will reduce the amount of space between the food and the lid, thus minimize freezer burn.

Want to know more about freezer burn?  Here it is : http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/freezerburn.html

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Header 7. Marinate The Beef The Right Way To Enhance The Flavor 2

marinate meat

photo credit Flickr by Peter Galvin

A good marinade helps to tenderize and add flavor to the beef. It also helps improve the browning effect of the beef.

The purpose of marinating the beef before stir-frying is to ensure flavor penetrates the inner part of the meat.

Whether it's chicken, pork, or beef, the basics of marinating are the same.

Notice that the marinade is a simple combination.  The meat will absorb more flavor from the stir fry sauce so just keep it simple.

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Simple Steps to Marinate Meat for Stir-frying:

  1. Slice 500 g of meat thinly against the grain.
  2. Combine the meat with 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce,1 tablespoon of light soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons of cornflour.
  3. Marinate for at least 15 minutes and you are ready to go.

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Header 8. Use The Best Cut Of Beef You Can Find 2

stir fry beef

photo credit Flickr by Daniel Hanson Moren

Choose a beef fillet cut that is marbled with some fat. Similarly get the best lamb and chicken meat you can.

Why is it important? Because beef stir fry is a quick cooking process. You can use a lower grade beef for stew, because as long as you cook it for an hour or two on low heat, the beef will be tender. However, there is no such luxury for stir-frying as it is cooked in minutes.

But what if you do not want to pay much for top quality beef or lamb?

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Here's the Solution:

  • The way the meat is cut has a profound effect on the tenderness. All meat has grain, which is the direction of the major fibers. Therefore it is important to cut the meat against the grain, which shortens the muscle fibers and effectively tenderizes the meat. It you cut along the grain, the meat will come out tough and ropey.
  • Remove as much tendon as possible from the lamb or beef.
  • Cut the meat as thinly as you can.
  • Be sure not to overcook the meat. Use high heat to stir fry for a brief period. Once the meat is cooked (changes color), remove it from heat.
  • Do not keep sliced meat in the freezer. Slice it only on the day when you need it. Frozen sliced meat will  discolor and lose flavor due to oxidation and freezer burn.

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Header 9. Be Adventurous - Improvise The Stir Fry Recipe 2

stir fry beef with ginger and spring onion

Lemongrass is added to the traditional stir fry beef with ginger and spring onion.

Cooking by instinct and improvising the recipes is certainly a lifelong learning process which takes courage and testing with sound techniques and knowledge of food.

Stir fry dishes in Asia evolved into different variations in different regions. For example, Thai pineapple fried rice is added with pineapple cubes, compared to the traditional Chinese fried rice that includes only savory ingredients without any fruits.

Learn more about the flavor of different spices and cooking techniques and let your creative juices flow and awaken your inspiration and ideas.

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How to Improvise on Your Recipes:

  • Substitute one flavor in the recipe with another. For example, use fish sauce and lime juice instead of soy sauce and oyster sauce.
  • Change the presentation of food. For example, use western food presentation for Asian food.
  • Exchange similar ingredients from one recipe to another. For example, use chicken instead of beef.
  • Use a different technique. For example, instead of pan-frying a steak, cut the beef into strips and stir-fry it.
  • Marinate with different flavors. For example, marinate with cumin, coriander, black pepper instead of soy sauce, sesame oil and oyster sauce.

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Header 10. Use A Cast Iron Wok To Stir Fry 2

caso iron wok

A well-seasoned cast iron wok.  Photo credit Flickr by Alpha

Wok is the most important cooking component for cooking any Chinese or Asian cuisine. You can certainly cook Asian food in any pan., but the taste will not be the same.  This is due to the material used to produce wok as well as the unique shape of the wok as against a flat based pan.

Since a wok is bowl-shaped, it distributes heat uniformly to the food sitting in the center of the wok.  For this reason, food can be cooked in a very short time. The wok can withstand extremely high temperatures required for stir-frying.

You can also easily toss the food due to its bowl-shaped. All these unique feature of a wok make it an irreplaceable cooking utensil for proper stir-frying.

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How to Choose a Good Wok

  • Always buy a bigger wok for stir-frying. Bigger wok allow the food pieces move and flip freely. Stir-frying is messy with small wok as you cannot stir and flip the food pieces easily and as it tends to drop out from the edge.
  • Buy a good wok. Cast iron wok is the best, which is why it is used in most of the Asian restaurants. Wok hei cannot be created in stainless steel vessel, as it mainly arises from the burning of the patina of polymers and fats embedded themselves on the surface of a well-used carbon steel or cast iron wok. That is why cast iron wok is superior over stainless steel wok.

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Header 11. Thickened The Sauce With Cornstarch Slurry 1

cornstarch slurry

Cornstarch slurry (texture resembles heavy cream)

One of the unique features of Asian cooking is the ubiquitous presence of cornstarch slurry in stir-frying. It is added to the stir-fry ingredients in the last 20 seconds to:

a) Thicken the liquid produced from the stir-fry sauce and the juice of the ingredients. Otherwise, the soy sauce, oyster, wine and the natural juices of the food will not be able to coat every morsel of food, but settle at the bottom of the dish as thin liquid.

b) Create a smooth texture of meat and vegetables.

c) Give a glossy sheen to the liquids as it thickens.

It is made with cornstarch and enough water to form a slurry that resembles thick cream. It is good to prepare in advance in order to keep things flowing at at the time of stir-frying.

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How to Prepare Cornstarch Slurry

  • Add one part of cornstarch to one part of water. The amount of water should not be too high, but just enough to form a thick slurry resembling thick cream.
  • Add the cornstarch slurry only during the last twenty seconds of stir-frying. The slurry should combine with the liquid and juices of the food. That means it should be in the center of the wok.
  • Make sure your wok is not too hot as the slurry can immediately congeal once it hits the surface. This is especially important if you use cast iron wok that has a higher heat capacity than steel wok. In this case you may want to remove it from heat and wait  a half a minute before you add the slurry. Be sure the cornstarch is cooked as uncooked cornstarch will leave an undesirable starchy taste to the food.

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Header 12. First Get Everything In Place 1

chef mise en place

Image courtesy of marin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The French term mise en place meaning "everything put in place' applies to Asian stir-frying too.

The ingredients required for stir-frying are added to the wok one after another in seconds. If the ingredients are not prepared in advance, or the sauce is not available on-hand, the entire dish can be spoilt as the wok-hei will be lost if the stir-frying process is delayed.

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Do the following before you start stir-frying

  • Cut all the aromatics required. Most stir-fries involve ginger, garlic, onions, chiles, etc. Figure out what you need, mince away and reserve.
  • Prepping the vegetables. Do whatever cutting you need for your dish, and reserve the cut vegetables. If you intend to stir-fry a large amount of vegetables, blanch and shock the vegetables with ice in advance.
  • Prepare the sauce: Combine the ingredients of your sauce in advance. Or you may want to make a larger amount, portioned it, and keep it in the freezer.
  • Marinate the meat. There is more harm in under marinating than over marinating. You may want to marinate the meat overnight in the chiller, or at least 15 to 30 minutes at room temperature before stir frying.

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Header 13. Blanch The Vegetables Before Stir-frying 1

blanch vegetables

Blanch vegetables - Keep the water boiling vigorously.

You can add any vegetable to a stir-fry.

You may want to blanch and shock the vegetables in advance of stir-frying. If you are going to serve immediately, there is no need to do so.

The color of vegetables will turn yellowish after some time no matter how brief the time of stir frying be. If you intend to serve the stir-fry vegetables later or leave them on a buffet table, you can blanch and shock the vegetables in advance.

Firstly stir-fry other ingredients except the vegetables. At the final stage of cooking, mix the vegetables with other ingredients and dish out. The vegetables will stay fresh for the next few hours.

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Here's Is How to Stir-fry Vegetables:

  1. Prepare a pot of boiling water. You can add salt if you wish.  Salt can enhance the flavor of vegetables - but also breaks down the vegetables over time and causes them to become mushy.
  2. Place the vegetables into the boiling water.  Being careful not to crowd them. The amount of water should be at least three times the volume of the vegetables. Keep the water boiling consistently. Test the vegetables for being cooked through after a minute or so.  To test larger vegetables such as broccoli, insert a small sharp knife into the thick part of the stem. If the broccoli clings to the knife, it needs more cooking. If the knife slides in and out easily, the broccoli is ready to be shocked.
  3. Prepare a pot of cold water and add some ice cubes into it. Once the vegetables are cooked, pour the vegetables into a colander to drain away the water. Transfer the vegetables into an ice bath immediately (this act is called "shocking"). Immersing the vegetables in ice water will halt the cooking process and avoid overcooking.
  4. Keep the vegetables in the ice bath until they are all completely cool, than drain well.

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Header 14. Use A High Output Stove 1

A high output stove

Intense heat is one key element unique to Asian cooking.

Use a high output stove that can generate high heat that enables every morsel of food to cook through in seconds.

So how can you achieve this at home with your relatively low output stove?

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Do Either One of These:

  • Buy a high output stove. It is not expensive. A search on Amazon will show you that it is in the range of USD30. It is very versatile:  you can use it for stir-frying or reduce the heat to cooking omelettes or stews.
  • Stir-fry small amounts. If you do not have a high output stove that can generate roaring heat found in restaurant kitchens, stir-fry in small amounts. It is especially useful if you use a cast iron wok with high heat capacity.  This way the stove will be able to generate sufficient heat (coupled with the high heat capacity of the cast iron wok) to cook through a small amount of food in a very short time.

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Header 15. Choose A Wok Burner (Stove) For Asian Stir-frying 1

wok burner

Wok burner with the wok ring

Woks are designed for use over the traditional Chinese pit-style stove, which is commonly called wok burner. The spherical bottom of the wok recesses nicely into the stove top, where the heat is directed to the bottom of the wok. Some wok burners are fitted with round grate rings to hold the wok securely on the stove.

A stove for wok has another very important feature.  Wok burners can produce intense heat, which is the integral part of stir-frying. Therefore, if you want to succeed in Asian cooking, it is important to get a wok stove / burner.

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What You Should Do:

  • Invest in a wok burner. Most Asian chefs who work in Chinese restaurants still prefer the old-fashioned round bottom wok. It is much easier to clean the food from a round wok without scraping the seasoning, and perfect for the traditional higher output wok burner. Round bottom wok is also more suitable to work along with a wok spatula.
  • Adapting a wok to the electric stove. If you have an electric stove, you might find that the flat-bottomed woks work better. However, as the wok spatula is intended for a round-bottom wok, you might substitute it for a wooden spoon or spatula. This way you will not scrape off the seasoning in the corners where the round sides meet the flat bottom.

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Header 16. Prepare The Spring Onion For Stir Fry & As Garnish 1

spring onion for stir fry

Curly spring onion for garnishing

Spring onion is often used as aromatic in stir fry due to its unique Asian flavor. It is normally added to other ingredients in the final step of stir frying, as it takes seconds to cook. It can also be eaten raw by cutting into fine strips or very short sections.

Method: Cut the spring onion into pieces about 4-5 cm in length and throw into the wok to stir-fry on high heat for about 20 seconds. Turn down the heat and proceed to the final steps by adding the cornstarch slurry.

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How to Prepare Spring Onion As Garnish:
  • Choose only fresh spring onion which is crisp and not wilted.
  • Cut the spring onion into about 4 to 5 cm long pieces.
  • Use a parry knife to slice the spring onion lengthwise into very fine strands.
  • Place the sliced spring onions into ice water for one minute.
  • Remove the spring onion strands (which are curled by now) and dry the on a kitchen towel.

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Header last - The next step

Are you ready to use one of the stir-frying techniques from this guide?
If so, I recommend downloading the The Definitive Guide to Stir-fry. (See below)
The step-by-steps guide show you how to use all the 16 tips listed here…
plus 2 bonus techniques that I didn’t have room for in the post.
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How to stir-fry the authentic Asian way was last modified: November 20th, 2016 by KP Kwan

20 Comments

  • Mary Frances

    Reply Reply April 6, 2015

    KP, thanks for your amazingly thorough and informative article on stir fry! I will have to experiment with using different stir fry sauces next time I cook my shrimp with asparagus stir fry! You can check out the recipe here:
    http://lovethesecretingredient.net/2015/04/02/shrimp-stir-fry-with-asparagus/

    • kwankp

      Reply Reply April 9, 2015

      Hi Mary,

      Glad to know that you like this article.

      My intention is to put up a comprehensive guide and share with as many people as possible, so everyone will benefit from it. Thanks for sharing you recipe too 🙂

  • GK Stevens

    Reply Reply March 20, 2016

    GREAT website! You know the real true cooking techniques. Thank you.

    • kwankp

      Reply Reply March 20, 2016

      Thank you. Hope the info helps to improve your cooking.

  • Gary Willson

    Reply Reply May 4, 2016

    KP,
    I enjoyed your guide. I have been stir frying for quite a few years, and I agree with most everything you said. I do differ on just a couple of things, though.

    1) When first putting meat in the hot wok, let it sit for about 30 seconds before stirring. Otherwise, the meat tends to stick to the wok.

    2) I use carbon steel woks, not cast iron. Cast iron isn’t as quick to adjust when changing the heat.

    • kwankp

      Reply Reply May 5, 2016

      Dear Gary,
      Thanks for your feedback, and agree with what you mentioned and thanks for sharing your experience.

      KP Kwan

  • Jaime

    Reply Reply May 5, 2016

    Thanks KP, got a cool website…and informative cooking techniques…sure i’ll learn a lot from here…

    • kwankp

      Reply Reply May 5, 2016

      You are welcome Jaime 🙂 Glad to know you like Asian cooking.

  • C H Gan

    Reply Reply May 25, 2016

    Hi KP, Thanks for a very comprehensive guide. I always finds it difficult to practice toss frying as home stoves tend to be higher than those used in the restaurant and give a limited kitchen space it makes the effort difficult. Also, when using the metal spatula there will be more metal scratching against using the round shape ladle. Does the scratching of metal release unhealthy element into the food. Appreciate your tips on the above. Thanks

    • KP Kwan

      Reply Reply May 25, 2016

      Hi Gan,

      Good to hear from you. I don’t think it causes any harm as wok is made of non-toxic metal. The only questionable pan is the surface of the non-stick pan. However, you should remove the charred debris (said after stir fried keow teow etc) as it may be carcinogenic.

      Fully understand the limitations as I cook at home too occasionally. Just use the wok shovel (wok ladle) to flip the morsel of food will do. Tossing and flipping are more of showmanship, in my opinion.

      KP Kwan

      • C H Gan

        Reply Reply May 25, 2016

        Thanks

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