James Whelan Butchers: Stir It Up

Any kitchen hero usually masters the basics of stirring and frying early in their careers.  The frying will initially yield a few crispy edged eggs or a blackened sausage but it will be mastered quickly.  Stirring is perhaps even more fool proof but marry the two and we have trouble.  There is the general assumption that the Chinese have cornered the market on the stir fry.   We lament that we’ll never be able to make Chinese food at home that tastes like the local restaurant.  Mind you we’ll never really make fish and chips at home that taste like the local takeaway; you’ll never make pizza at home that tastes exactly like a pizzeria; you may never make a pasta dish the same way as your favourite Italian restaurant ……….and so on.

The aim of creating a stir fry is not to go into competition with the local Chinese takeaway or get a job there.  Learning to stir fry just gives you more meal options that are quick, healthy and tasty.   I have had my stir fry disasters but each was a learning curve.  On my journey to being competent with a wok, I have wound up down a few dead ends.  In my travels I have learned that you can’t just throw a load of vegetables and meat into a wok and expect it all to taste great.  You need to add spices and a little sauce sometimes to give it real taste and flavour.  I have also been foolish enough in the past to think that I could chop as I go. All preparation should be done before hand and be at hand; as it happens quickly.   HEAT THE WOK!  It’s fundamental, but many people don’t.  Pouring cold oil into a cold wok is a guaranteed way to a sticky, congealed mess at the bottom.  A good way of knowing if the wok is hot is to hold the palm of your hand about 3 inches above the wok’s surface.  If you can feel the heat then it’s ready.    Don’t cook all the ingredients together.  Some things take longer.  If you are following a recipe it may call for you to partially cook the meat or seafood and remove it from the pan before adding the vegetables.  Some vegetables will cook quicker than others.  Thicker vegetables need a little longer.  Don’t overfill the wok.  And finally when it comes to the ‘stirring’ part, use your head.  You need to keep things moving, but they also need to cook, particularly meat, so balance is key. Beef stir fry with noodles

The easiest way is to buy a ready made stir fry mix from your butcher. However there is something satisfying about starting a stir fry from scratch. It’s good to know the basics. In Chinese cooking there are two techniques for stir frying; Chao and Bao.   Mainly it is the Chao technique that is employed for most domestic situations.  The wok is heated to a high temperature, the cooking oil is added, then, traditionally, garlic, ginger (and sometimes chilli). After that it is the meat and then the vegetables followed by any liquid (usually a combination of broth and soy sauce or other seasonings and flavourings).  As the liquid heats a certain amount of steam is created and this finishes off any cooking. Again, depending on the recipe you may have removed the seared meat, only to add it back in at the end. Overall this should yield a very tasty meal.   Bao, on the other hand, requires a little more skill. With the Bao technique you heat the wok to a very, very high temperature. The metal should be so hot it glows a dull red!  With the pan practically on fire you then add oil or cooking fat with a high smoke point and then the seasonings, meat and other ingredients in quick succession. From this point it is all about speed. The food must be moved continually.  When the dish is ready, it must be poured out of the wok quickly and then the wok must be rinsed immediately to stop anything sticking and burning to the bottom.

When it comes to the liquid, there are a myriad of things you can do and remember that corn flour is your friend.  A little lemon or orange juice lightly thickened make lovely citrus sauces.  Fish stock (or chicken stock) with some spices and again thickened, will lift a dish dramatically.

Finally there is the issue of the wok. I’ve ruined a few and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I’ve overheated them and burned a hole right through before I ever put so much as bean sprout in!  Without realising it I was doing the Bao technique and not rinsing the wok quickly enough and in the end the charred food at the bottom was impossible to remove.  I’ve spent pennies on a wok and it was rubbish but equally I splashed out for a famous chef’s expensive offering and that ended up in the bin also. Use your head, you will get what you pay for, but don’t be taken in by the celebrity marketing; shop around. Also if you live near one of the newer Asian shops that have sprung up,pop in and see what they have to offer; there’s fantastic value to be had in these stores. Stir frying is quick, healthy and something we can all do.

This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment