How Overcrowding The Wok Is Ruining Your Stir-Fry

A wok is one of the most important tools for making authentic and delicious Chinese food. Due to the pan's versatility, it is highly adaptable to many kinds of cooking techniques and cuisines. The ability to cook food evenly at high heat is what sets apart food made in a wok versus another pan, explains Woks of Life. The shape of the wok allows for it to get hot and to create smoke that provides additional flavor called wok hei, or breath of wok, per Woks of Life. While a wok may most often be associated with stir-frying meats and vegetables, food can also be smoked, deep-fried, and steamed in a wok. In fact, a common mistake of using a wok is not getting it hot enough, which can lead to just steaming the ingredients when a stir-frying method is desired.

According to Serious Eats, the wok should be heated to a very high temperature before the food is placed inside it. Then, the wok needs to be kept on a high flame throughout the cooking, which is often in contrast to cooking with other styles of pans. If this is not achieved, the vegetables may just be steamed and lack the smokey and seared taste of a properly stir-fried meal. Several factors can lead to the temperature dropping in a wok, such as using wet ingredients, per Epicurious, or not cooking with room temperature meat. 

An improper temperature for a stir-fry

Everything has been primed for an amazing stir-fry. The wok is well-seasoned, and the oil has been heated to a high temperature. The vegetables and meat have been washed, dried, and cut, ready to be cooked. You cook your ingredients at high heat, but only to find when you plate them that they lack that quintessential stir-fry taste you were craving. The mistake may have been cooking too many vegetables or other ingredients at once, states Woks of Life. 

By overcrowding a wok, the temperature of it will drop, and the ingredients will no longer be stir-fried but steamed or slow-boiled. One way to avoid cooking too many ingredients at once is to prepare them in batches, advises Epicurious. How much you cook at once depends on the size of your wok. For a 12-inch wok, not more than 12 ounces of beef or 16 ounces of pork or chicken should be cooked at once. Woks of Life recommends that ingredients shouldn't take up more than a third of the wok's space at a time. This is where cooking the meat and vegetables in batches works best. Serious Eats suggests separating the ingredients into 8-ounce portions and cooking them one at a time, then keeping them in a bowl while the other ingredients are cooked. In the end, all the ingredients can be combined with the sauce and enjoyed with your choice of rice or noodles.