Wonder Wok

The Kitchn’s Cooking School
Lesson 14: Sauté

The cooking technique of stir-frying has intrigued me for a while. In fact, when it comes to cooking Thai food at home, I very often resort to stir-frying. It’s quick, easy, and cheap. And you always get something flavorful

The first time I stir-fried morning glory—a very popular Thai dish you can easily find at street stalls—it came out overly salty and oily. That came from not knowing the ingredients well enough. In Thailand, vegetables and meat are usually stir-fried with a combination of fish or soy sauce, fermented soybean sauce, and oyster sauce—each intensely salty in its own way. I soon found the right balance, and stir-frying became something I was comfortable with. So comfortable, in fact, that most Thai food I make at home is stir-fried.

But I knew this was a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of situation. I didn’t really understand stir-frying and need to study it more closely. I got so into this lesson that I made two stir-fry recipes (baby bok choy and chicken with vegetables) and one sauté recipe (chicken breasts sautéed in red onion and lemon) from it on the same day.

I liked how the stir-fry recipes list ingredients in different groups—vegetable, aromatics, stir-fry sauce, and marinade (for the chicken)—so that you see the function of each ingredient and what makes up  a stir-fry dish.

What made me even happier were the sauces for both the stir-fry recipes, both of which are by Grace Young, an award-winning cookbook author and expert on everything wok-related. Instead of three kinds of salty sauces and sugar for contrast, which is the usual Thai way, Young contrasts salty ingredients (soy sauce and chicken broth) with an acidic ingredient: rice wine (brown rice vinegar in my case). I actually prefer this flavor combination because of the brightness, and I never add sugar in my stir-fry dishes anyway. So the stir-fried baby bok choy came out great. And for some reason, the flavor of the garlic was just absolutely gorgeous.

The stir-fried chicken with bell peppers, snap peas, and cashew nuts also went well. The flavor is more rounded. I initially forgot to put in the cashew nuts (as can be seen in the photo), but I put the whole thing back in the wok and stirred in the cashews. Everything tastes better with cashews, I think. Next time, though, I would take more time flattening the chicken breast and cut them in slightly smaller pieces.

Chicken Cashew

Even though it’s so quick, there are more details that go into stir-frying than I thought: the way you heat the wok, when to add oil, how to pour in the sauce, the order the ingredients go in, how long to marinate meat, and even covering the wok for a few seconds after adding the sauce to the vegetable. Young’s books, Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge, The Breath of a Wok, and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen are definitely on my list of cookbooks to read.

Chicken Onion Lemon

A quick note on the sole sauté recipe of the week: It’s another great way to cook chicken breast—easy and elegant. Next time, I would use less lemon, maybe just one or two thin slices instead of thin slices that amount to half a small lemon. Maybe just a squeeze of lemon on the chicken? The recipe tells you to cook the lemon with the red onion, but the sourness from the lemon bleeds into the onion. And I wish I could taste the sweetness of caramelized onions—one of the greatest flavors in the world.