There are a few basic things that we all need to know in order to be able to stirfry. Stirfrying is about having all of your ingredients ready to go, adding them to the wok and cooking over a very high heat for a couple of minutes, turning and tossing frequently.
Do I need a Wok?
Well, a wok certainly makes things easier, but a decent sized frying pan will do for smaller portions. If you are cooking for more than a couple of people then it is hard to get away from the need for a wok. If you haven't got an unused one hiding in the bottom of your cupboard you can pick up a good one for small money these days.
Non Stick vs. Traditional?
Much is said about the traditional wok but a modern non stick coating takes a lot of the hassle out of the seasoning of a traditional wok. For the purists a traditional wok has quite a thick shell to help keep the temperature up and is seasoned over a number of days by basically burning off oil at high temperature. This furnishes a laminate coating on the cooking surface of the wok that acts somewhat like a non stick surface.
Gas vs. Electric?
Gas is the heat source of choice for Thailand, but electric is fine as long as your wok is designed for it (has a flat base) or you have a stirrup (a base that carries a round bottomed wok).
How hot do I cook a stirfry?
As hot as you can get it is the simple answer to this. Stirfrying is much improved by being able to get a really high heat in the pan and cooking fast. Modern western gas cookers often have a bigger ring that can pump out the heat just for this purpose. The standard gas ring in Thailand pumps out about three times as much gas as these, so the Thais might be able to overheat a wok, but you probably won't!
Tossing and turning:
With the pan at a high heat, you don't have the time to be sitting and watching what's happening. Once the ingredients hit the pan it is usually toss, turn and toss again. The good part of this is that it doesn't take long.
How much oil?
The function of oil in stirfrying is solely to lubricate the interface between the pan and the food. Thus you add only enough oil to do this job. That will depend on how much you are going to be stirfrying and how much oil the ingredients soak up. In general however use a lot less than you might use in conventional frying. In conventional frying the oil also operates to transfer heat to the food whereas in stirfrying the heat of the pan is much higher and the stirring and tossing of the food allows a much higher level of heat transfer.
Isn't there a lot of preparation involved?
This comes down to cutlery. In Thailand (and most all of Asia) there are no knives to be found on the table, so food preparation prior to cooking includes preparing the food for spoon feeding! If you eat meat this makes for a very different cooking experience. Everthing must be chopped to the size of a mouthful prior to cooking. The great benefit of this is of course the speed of cooking bite sized chunks, and also the ease of eating with a fork in your left hand and a spoon in the right.
What happens when I add water to a hot wok?
Some recipes in Thai cooking ask for water or stock to be added in the middle of a stirfry. Adding water to a hot wok causes most of the water to steam quickly, which helps to cook the food in the pan. It also makes a wonderful sound. Always remember that it is extremely dangerous to add water to hot oil - in stirfrying the water is always added after there is food in the pan so splatter can be avoided.
So in summary, how do I stirfry?
Cut all of the ingredients into bite sized chunks and get your sauces and seasonings close to hand. Put your pan on a high heat, add some oil and wait till the oil is just starting to smoke, at this stage add the meat if you are using it. Seafood and tofu can be added later as they don't take as long to cook. Depending on the dish there will then be various combinations of vegetables, stock, sauces and seasoning. Regardless keep the heat up high and keep stirring and turning the contents.
Less than 1mm round rice noodles, commonly called glass noodles as they are clear when cooked for about a minute.