If yours is like most American kitchens, you have a skillet with short, sloped-out sides—aka, a frying pan—but not a big, tall-sided traditional Asian wok. That doesn’t mean that sizzling-fresh, authentic and delicious “wok-cooked” Asian recipes are beyond your reach—if you know how to use your skillet. And if you don’t have that other staple of Asian kitchens—the bamboo steamer—we’ve got a work-around for that, too.
There’s no question that the wok is a cornerstone of Asian cooking, used for centuries to stir-fry, braise, steam, deep-fry, pan-fry, smoke, boil and poach. In the US, there may be no more passionate advocate for the well-seasoned wok than Grace Young, the “stir-fry guru” and author of award-winning cookbooks. She braves the skeptical eye of Homeland Security to take her well-seasoned wok around the world on her speaking/cooking tours.
Young wants us to know that you can use a skillet for just about any wok recipe with just a few changes. First, don’t use a nonstick skillet—most can’t handle the high heat that wok recipes require. Cast iron is not ideal—it’s heavy, and you have to remove food as soon as it’s done because cast iron retains heat.
Best: A 14-inch stainless steel skillet with a tight-fitting lid and two- or three-inch-high sides. A 12-inch skillet can work, too, though you won’t be able to cook as much in it. And use a metal spatula—the thin edge is excellent for getting under meat, rice and noodles.
Stir-Frying in a Skillet
To achieve an authentic Asian result, you’ll need to make a few adjustments…
Start with about one or two teaspoons more oil than a recipe calls for. Why? A classic carbon-steel wok develops a natural nonstick surface and has a small cooking “well” so that very little oil is needed.
Don’t crowd the skillet with food. When you stir-fry, a hot skillet will give off a constant sizzle sound. Add too much food, and the pan cools so the sizzle disappears.
Guidelines: In a 12- or 14-inch skillet, try no more than one pound of chicken, pork, lamb, shrimp or scallops…or no more than 12 ounces of beef (more than that starts to foam and go gray). When you add vegetables to the skillet, try no more than about four or five cups in a 14-inch skillet or three cups in a 12-inch skillet. When stir-frying rice or leafy greens, the best rule of thumb is to halve the amount in a wok recipe. If you want more, repeat the recipe from the beginning.
Now that you know about the skillet adjustments, all you need to do is follow good stir-frying technique—cut ingredients into the same bite-size pieces so that everything cooks uniformly…prep all your ingredients ahead of time…line up ingredients within arm’s reach of the stove in the order in which they will be used.
When stir-frying chicken, beef, pork, lamb, shrimp, scallops or tofu, spread it evenly in one layer and allow it to sear for one minute before stir-frying. Vegetables should be dry—if you add wet vegetables to a hot skillet, you’ll get a soggy mess. When a stir-fry is properly cooked, vegetables are lightly seared and crisp-tender to accentuate flavor and texture.
Asian Steaming Without a Bamboo Steamer
If you do not have a traditional bamboo steamer, you can improvise the flat surface needed for Asian steaming in a skillet as well. Here’s how…
Add water to the skillet to a depth of one-half inch, place a metal cake rack that is one-half-inch high in the skillet, cover the skillet tightly with its lid and bring the water to a boil. Place the food to be steamed on a heatproof dish or shallow bowl that is smaller than the skillet so that there is room to grasp the dish with pot holders when it’s very hot. Helpful: A hot-dish plate lifter (available online for less than $10).
Remove the skillet lid, carefully put the plate containing the food to be steamed on the cake rack, then replace the lid. Monitor the water level in the skillet as you steam, and if necessary, replenish with boiling water from a tea kettle until your food is done.
Now, let’s get cooking. These two recipes have been adapted for skillet cooking. One demonstrates stir-frying…the other, steaming. Both are memorable and delicious…
Chinese Trinidadian Chicken with Mango Chutney
Chinese people all over the world have adapted their cooking techniques to local foods, flavors—and cooking vessels. I once met a Chinese-American woman in Mississippi who stir-fried with a frying pan on a woodstove. This is a recipe I learned from a Chinese Trinidadian, and it illustrates well how you can stir-fry without a wok. It serves two to three people as a main dish with rice or four as part of a multicourse meal.
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into ¼-inch-thick bite-size slices
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 Tablespoons mango chutney, large pieces chopped
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce (or regular soy sauce if dark is not available)
¼ to ½ teaspoon (depending on your taste for spicy heat) minced Scotch bonnet peppers, seeds removed (or substitute serrano chili peppers)
2 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 small onion, cut into ¼-inch-wide wedges
3 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
Combine the chicken, regular soy sauce, salt and pepper in a bowl, tossing the chicken to coat. In a separate small bowl, combine the chutney, dark soy sauce and peppers, stirring well.
Heat a 12- or 14-inch stainless steel skillet over high heat until a bead of water evaporates within one or two seconds of contact. Swirl in one tablespoon of the oil, then add the ginger, garlic and onion wedges.
Stir-fry for 30 seconds or until the onions have just wilted. Push the onion mixture to the sides of the skillet. Pour the remaining tablespoon of oil into the center of the skillet, and swirl to coat the bottom. Add the chicken pieces, and spread them in one layer in the skillet.
Cook for one minute, letting the chicken begin to sear. Then stir-fry for one minute more, incorporating the onion mixture. Add the mango chutney mixture, and stir-fry one to two minutes more, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from the heat, and stir in the cilantro. Serve immediately.
Recipe adapted with permission from Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young. Copyright (c) 2010 by Grace Young. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Danny Chan’s Steamed Salmon with Lemon
This is a great illustration of skillet steaming based on a traditional Chinese wok-steaming recipe. It serves two as a main course or four as part of a multicourse meal. Note: Before you get started, put the cake rack and heatproof shallow bowl or dish in the skillet, and cover the skillet to make sure everything fits.
1 (one-pound) salmon fillet
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 scallions, cut into four-inch pieces
4 quarter-size slices peeled fresh ginger
1 lemon, halved crosswise, with one of the halves cut crosswise into four thin slices so that you get rounds
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Rinse the salmon in cold water, and pat dry. Put it in a nine-inch heatproof, shallow bowl or dish. Drizzle the soy sauce over the salmon, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange the scallions, ginger and lemon slices evenly on the salmon. Squeeze the remaining lemon half over all.
In a 12- or 14-inch skillet with at least two-inch sides, add water to a depth of three-quarters of an inch. Put a metal cake rack that is about five or six inches in diameter and about one-half-inch high in the skillet. Cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid, and bring the water to a boil over high heat.
Remove the lid, and carefully place the bowl or dish holding the salmon on the cake rack. Replace the lid. Steam eight to 10 minutes, or until the salmon flakes when poked with a chopstick or fork. (If not done, steam one to two minutes more.) Check the water level occasionally, and replenish if necessary with boiling water from a tea kettle.
Turn off the skillet. Remove the bowl or dish from the skillet using pot holders or a hot-plate lifter. Drizzle the sesame oil over the salmon. Serve immediately.
Recipe adapted with permission from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young and Alan Richardson. Copyright (c) 2004 by Grace Young and Alan Richardson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.