Why Your Stir-Fries Suck, And What To Do About It

So, you’ve mastered the occasional salad, and a few main meals, and baking is pretty easy. You’re not confused when you see a frypan. You know the difference between baking paper and aluminum foil. Only rarely do you poke yourself in the eye with a fork. This isn’t your first kitchen rodeo.

So, you try to stir-fry. Everyone makes stir-fry, right?

And, for some reason, it just never works out how you expect.

In fact, they always taste better at the hole-in-the-wall Chinese place down the road. The place with the questionable hygiene and the bad Yelp reviews and the lucky cat.

Ni hao, diner!

Actually, if you’ve got a second —it’s not so much as the stir-fry from down the road is awesome, it’s the fact that yours is BAD. The meat doesn’t have any character. It doesn’t even have any browned surfaces.

In fact, it’s kind of… limp.

And speaking of limp, the vegetables are positively FLOPPY. And weird fluid leaks from the bottom of the dish after it’s been cooked.

All in all, it feels and tastes… amateurish. It ends up halfway to being a thin curry, but without the flavour.

Why are you so bad at this?



Let’s put it this way: Stove output is measured in BTUs, an incredibly archaic unit of questionable accuracy, but which generally means ‘energy to heat 1 pound of water 1*F at normal atmospheric pressure’. Most modern stoves have a range of gas rings, and usually one (near the front) that’s bigger than the rest. Sometimes it’s even called a ‘wok burner’.

Your stove wok burner produces about 12–15K BTU.

Here is a baby commercial wok range:


This beautiful industrial creature produces 105K BTU.

Yes, that’s not a misprint. 105,000 BTU.

So, a small commercial unit produces 7 to 9 times more heat than your stove. This is what commercial wok cooking is done with.

And you don’t have one.

(And as a side note, even if you did buy one, you’d spend a lot more money on a rangehood that allowed your massive burner to work in your kitchen without ending your family’s life. Have a look at that Chinese store again — see the hood over the stove? You’re going to need to remodel your house and redo all your ducting to get that inside.)

Finally, if you’re cooking on an electric or induction cooktop, divine intervention or an electrical fire will be necessary for anything like the same kind of heat generation.

In addition, cooking with a commercial wok is a carefully choreographed sequence of cleaning, resurfacing, draining, and cooking because unlike our home cooking, steps go by FAST. So fast, in fact, that chefs generally control the strength of the burner with their knees.

The chef in this video puts it all together well. This isn’t a stir fry, it’s just some fried rice and by wok cooking standards it’s relatively sedate.

You can see most of the relevant elements here: the built-in draining top around the wok burner, the knee control, the multiple vessels for draining oil and water, the use of the wok ladle (self-explanatory) and wok chan (the flat tool for moving the ingredients which looks like a tiny shovel), and the bamboo brush used to continually clean the wok between additions and dishes.

Doesn’t look like any kitchen I’ll ever have. So how do we re-create this — or even anything like it — at home?


  1. DRY
  2. SMALL
  3. FAST

Let’s examine these point by point.

1. DRY — you can’t use wet ingredients, they’ll leak fluid and cool your wok. We need to choose/modify a recipe which has a marinade that is well absorbed or left behind entirely.

2. SMALL — cooked in small batches, things will go a lot less wrong. Your ingredients will cook at a much higher temperature (and you have the facility to make a mistake.)

3. FAST — don’t be thinking you’ll leave the stove during this! You’re going to cook on the highest heat you can get, as fast as we can get.

4. NO VEGETABLES — as much as I have a long term love affair with all earthly vegetables, remember they’re basically colourful bags of water, and they just won’t help proceedings here. Unless you buy a stand-alone wok burner or use one of the gas-powered use-me-outside-or-die alternatives, they won’t behave at all at lower temperatures. And the moment they start leak fluid, we are sunk.

So, let’s try something.


things for frying

one pound pork slices, in THIN 3 to 4mm slices (you can use tenderloin but it’s a waste of money, neck works, so do most non-fatty roast cuts —shoulder works, if you trim it — and make sure you cut straight across or slantwise across the grain of the meat)

a whole flippin’ head of garlic (generally about 10–15 cloves)

neutral cooking oil (I use rice bran, but canola or vegetable works)


a flat teaspoon each of ground white and coarse-ground black pepper (black pepper is not traditional, but it definitely adds a touch of firepower as there’s no chilli)

2 tbsp fish sauce

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tbsp kecap manis (this is Indonesian sweet soy sauce, made by reducing normal soy sauce with palm sugar… it’s much stickier than normal soy sauce, and surprisingly easy to find at Asian and even normal supermarkets)

Mince all the garlic (it’s good knife skill practice) or pound it in a mortar and pestle. It should be finely chopped.

Put it in a small dish. Mix in oil until the garlic is all suspended in oil… you won’t need that much (and remember, it’s OIL, you’re not supposed to eat a lot of it).

Mix the meat slices into the marinade, combine it well, leave it for 20 minutes. The saltiness of the marinade should mean it’s more or less all absorbed, leaving you with ‘sticky’ pork and no spare fluid.

Now, we’re going to cook THREE batches, MINIMUM. Even this is assuming you have a good burner and a nice hot wok. You don’t want more than 125g of anything at once, and on a less ‘ambitious’ stove no more than 80–100g.

Put a third of the garlic/oil mix in the pan, right in the middle. Don’t touch it too much — if you thin the mix out over the pan surface, the garlic will burn. In about 20 seconds, the garlic (which is now frying) should take on some colour. When it’s dark yellow, add a third of the pork, and flip it through a few times with a wok chan (a bamboo spatula will do if you don’t have one). This stops the garlic from burning as it clings to the outside of the pork and therefore is lifted off the pan surface. You might not need to flip it more than once more after that.

Pull it off when it’s done (it won’t be long!) and put it to one side. Finish the rest. Serve it with white rice and whatever NOT stir-fried vegetables you prefer.

Things to remember:

  1. IF YOU HAVE AN ELECTRIC OR INDUCTION STOVE TOP, FORGET ABOUT IT. Seriously, it’s just not going to work.
  2. IF YOU HAVE AN ELECTRIC WOK, DON’T USE IT. EVER AGAIN. Take it back to the shop, give it away, or allow yourself the luxury of destroying it with heavy industrial machinery. These are worse than useless and I hate them.

I write about science. We can probably be friends.

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