The Chinese stir fry cooking technique has always been associated with flavourful dishes despite being cooked fast.


People appreciate the complex smoky flavour and textural crunch of stir fry dishes, but many do not know what to call it. This intricate flavour is called ‘wok hei” and is considered to be an ultimate measure of a chef’s stir-frying skill,

Wok Hei means “wok thermal radiation” or, in essence, the “breath of the wok”. Specifically, it pertains to the complex smoky flavour during stir-frying that results from a combination of techniques. 


The science behind “wok hei”:


The science behind “wok hei” involves the following cooking reactions:

  • Maillard reaction – a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar when high heat is applied. This gives browned food its distinctive flavour, which, together with any pan juices that result from the process, enhances the dish.
  • Sugar caramelisation -the browning of the natural sugars in ingredients when exposed to heat, such as sulphur-rich vegetables like onions, vegetables that are naturally low in acid and high in sugars like carrots, and cabbage family members,
  • Oil reaction to flame – During the wok tossing, flames can lick up the back of the wok, even spreading down into the wok itself, contributing to a layer of char and smokiness to the food.


How to achieve “wok hei”:


To achieve “wok hei” in stir fry dishes, these are the details that chefs pay attention to. 


  • The wok

A wok is a definitive tool for stir-frying. Its distinct rounded shape allows for the tossing and stirring technique needed to distribute the heat. The rounded bottom helps the heat to concentrate on the bottom part, resulting in faster browning of food in that area. The typical material used for the modern wok is carbon steel, an excellent heat conductor. But the most intrinsic trait of a wok is the one that is most often overlooked – it should be seasoned. Like cast iron pans, woks benefit from being seasoned with oil or pork fat. The oil creates a layer of hardened oil that prevents food from sticking and helps to impart that “wok hei” flavour.


RELATED READ:  The Wonderful Versatile Wok


  • The high heat application


Stir-frying ideally requires a high level of constant heat which is only possible when using flame and not electric coils. 

The empty wok is heated gradually, and when the wok reaches a very high temperature, to the point of smoking, it is then that cold oil is added, followed by the rest of the ingredients. Oil can decompose chemically when exposed to high temperatures and impart a bitter unwanted flavour. The wok and the oil should not be heated together, or the food will stick and char. 

And because high temperature should be constant, it is essential that:

  • Food is constantly stirred or tossed to redistribute heat within the wok and prevent sogginess from the ingredients’ excess moisture. 
  • The wok is not overcrowded so that the ingredients can be freely moved about and not cool the wok down. Stir-frying a small amount allows for accurate temperature control and quick stirring.
  • Cooking liquids should be added around the perimeter of the wok instead of directly pouring it at the centre. This is standard advice among Chinese chefs and cookbook authors.
  • If constant high heat is unavailable, a torch can be an option. The flame is briefly aimed at the food to achieve slight browning. Because a torch uses fuel, proper and responsible use must be observed to avoid any kitchen accidents.


  • The use of oil


A seasoned wok is non-stick; therefore, stir-frying will not require too much oil. Too much oil can result in regular frying and greasy food. Oil plays an essential part in achieving “wok hei” in that when it mixes with the oxygen in the air and the flame during tossing, it ignites the flame allowing it to reach the food, thereby creating that toasty flavour. 


  • Tossing


Stir-frying involves a technique called tossing. Tossing allows for quick food distribution within the fan without using any utensils. When the wok is tossed above the flame, the high heat dries quickly and removes excess moisture within the wok allowing for maximum caramelisation. 


In Summary:


Creating wok hei is more complex than simply cooking food in a wok over high heat. It is a skill often used to measure a Chinese chef’s skill. However, professional chefs worldwide understand and desire to achieve “wok hei” in their stir fry dishes as it creates a delicious flavour that people come to love. 

And if you are looking for skilled chefs based in Perth and all over Western Australia for your chef staffing needs, give us a call at Anytime Chefs

We have a roster of professional chefs that are available as short-term hires for :

  • peak periods
  • events/private parties and celebrations/pizza chefs
  • fill in for an emergency or annual leaves
  • start-up team for opening venues  

Anytime Chefs can also assist you in looking for chef permanent hires by facilitating the recruitment process for you.

We also offer a Consulting service to assist you in opening or running the cafe or restaurant of your dreams. 

In our team, we also have polite, professional Kitchen Stewards to assist you in cleaning and organising your kitchens. 


That’s it for this week.
As always, Professional Chefs on Call at Anytime!

Ciao for now,


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