Stir-frying is a great way to cook a quick and healthy meal. But if you’re new to the art of stir-fry, you might be wondering what temperature to use. Should you always have it really hot, or are there times when medium heat works best?
Stir-fries are generally best cooked on high heat. This is because the quick cooking time ensures that the food retains its crisp texture and bright color. If you’re using a thinner pan or cooking delicate food, you may need to lower the heat to prevent burning.
The important thing is to remember that you need to move the food around all the time to allow it to cook evenly, no matter at what temperature you are cooking your stir-fry.
As it’s not always easy to know how hot to make your pan, skillet, or wok, I’ve researched a few common questions around the best temperature for your stir-fry and put together a quick guide to answer them here. Read on to find out more.
Why Is Stir-Fry Cooked At High Heat?
Stir-frying is a quick cooking method that originates in China. In stir-frying, small pieces of food are cooked in a hot wok or pan over high heat. The food is constantly moving, or “stir-fried”, to ensure that it cooks evenly.
Thanks to the high heat, one of the benefits of stir-frying are that it is a very fast way to cook. High heat helps to seal in the natural juices of the food and build a charred-brown exterior. As a result, stir-fried dishes are often packed with flavor.
In addition, stir-frying helps to preserve the bright colors and crisp texture of vegetables. By cooking hot and quickly, the vegetables don’t overcook and become limp. Cooking fast also means less moisture is lost so ingredients don’t dry out.
If you’re looking for a quick and flavorful way to cook your next meal, stir-frying at a hot temperature is one of the best ways to go.
Can I Stir-Fry On Medium Heat?
Some people insist that stir-frying has to be on high heat, while others prefer to stir-fry on medium heat. So, what’s the right answer?
Stir-frying on medium heat is possible and may be better suited to some ingredients. If you’re stir-frying delicate ingredients you may want to use a lower heat so that they don’t overcook or burn.
On the other hand, if you’re stir-frying protein or heartier vegetables you can use a higher heat since they can stand up to a little more cooking. You’ll always get the best caramelized-but-crisp dishes cooking with high heat.
Alternatively, you can cook everything on a higher heat and use timings to cook ingredients perfectly – see my post on what order you should add ingredients to a stir fry. Ingredients that need most cooking should be added first and the ones that need least added last. This way the initial ingredients cook through and the delicate ingredients don’t burn.
If you want to know more about not overcooking your stir fry, check out my post on knowing when your stir fry is done.
As a general rule of thumb, I find most stir-fries are best cooked somewhere in the middle, on medium-high heat. This gives you enough time to properly cook the ingredients without burning them.
Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. If you’re ever in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and use a medium heat rather than a really hot one. That way, you can always cook your food for a little longer if it’s not quite done.
What Is The Preferred Heat Source For Stir-Frying?
There are three main types of heat sources that can be used for stir-frying: gas, electric, and induction.
Gas is the most popular choice for stir-frying, as it heats up quickly, is easy to control, and maintains a fairly consistent temperature. Although it can be tricky to find the best temperature setting when starting out.
Electric stoves can take longer to heat up and cool down, but they offer more precise temperature control.
Induction burners are a newer type of technology and not as popular as gas burners, but they work just as quickly. They are also much better when it comes to setting the exact temperature that you want to cook at and keeping it there.
Induction stovetops do require a special type of cookware though, which is something to bear in mind.
In general, I prefer using a gas stovetop for stir-frying as it offers a good balance of speed, temperature control, and efficiency. However, induction stovetops are definitely worth a try for stir-frying as these also work great.
Electric stoves are not as good as the other two for stir-frying, mainly because they take a long time to heat up in the first place and just as long to cool down if you need to reduce the temperature. If it’s all you’ve got then it still works fine though – just keep it high.
Do You Need To Use A Wok To Stir Fry?
You do not necessarily need a wok to stir fry. A large skillet or frying pan will work almost as good as long as it can hold the ingredients and you can stir them regularly.
Many stir-fry recipes call specifically for a wok rather than any other type of pan. But if you don’t have a wok, a large skillet or frying pan will work just fine.
The main difference between stir-frying in a wok versus a skillet is the shape of the pan. A wok is deep and round, while a skillet is flatter and has sloped sides. This means that a wok can hold more food, which is ideal if you’re cooking for several people.
The food doesn’t spill over the side as easily too. I always make a huge mess of my kitchen when stir-frying in a standard pan!
Additionally, the shape of a wok means that heat is distributed more evenly, so you’re less likely to end up with burnt or raw spots. You can also push food that’s already cooked up the sides to keep it warm while you continue cooking other ingredients in the bottom.
However, if you’re stir-frying for a small meal, a skillet will do the job just as well and you may find you prefer it. It also usually works well on a flat induction or electric stove top.
Read more about woks vs standard pans and the best ones to buy in my post on whether woks are really necessary.
How Do You Know When A Wok Is Hot Enough?
If you’re new to stir-frying, you might be wondering how to tell when your wok is hot enough. The good news is that it’s actually quite easy to tell.
To tell if a wok is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water into the pan. If the water sizzles and evaporates immediately, then the wok is ready to use.
Another method is to hold your hand about 6 inches above the surface of the wok. If you can feel intense heat radiating from the pan, then it is hot enough to use.
If you’re planning on cooking at a really high temperature, the key is to get the wok smoking hot before you add any oil. You’ll know it’s ready when you see a thin haze of smoke rising from the surface of the wok. Once it’s reached this point, quickly add your oil and then your ingredients.
You don’t need to preheat the oil first – just the wok. Oil will start to break down at higher temperatures so heating it on its own for too long is counterproductive. The oil is mainly used to transfer heat to the food.
Having oil that is not blistering hot allows you to add delicate ingredients like onion or garlic to the pan without them burning within seconds. They will cook a little more gently as the oil gets to maximum temperature.
I hope this article has helped to clear up any confusion you may have had about what temperature to use when stir-frying.
As a general rule, I recommend cooking on medium-high heat for most ingredients. However, it’s always best to use your own judgment and let the sights and sounds of your ingredients cooking guide you too.
Once you become really proficient at stir-fry cooking and using a wok, you’ll be able to better gauge the heat and know when to adjust it up or down depending on the ingredients.
In the meantime, play around with different temperatures and see what works best for you. Stir-frying is a great way to experiment with new flavors and ingredients, so go ahead and get creative in the kitchen!