In China, cooks have a name for the smoky richness food develops from the special high-powered burners that deliver quick, intense heat to woks. They call it the breath of the wok, or wok-hai.
Trouble is, it’s nearly impossible to replicate in American kitchens, where stir-fries typically are cooked in skillets. Even with a wok, the average home stove can’t deliver nearly the heat of a wok burner.
But as we searched for ways to achieve something similar to wok-hai within those limitations, we considered a different style of stir-fry, called gan bian, or dry-frying.
In traditional stir-fries, cooks generally start by adding ample oil to a wok over high heat. The aromatics go in first, infusing the oil with their flavors. Meat or a vegetable follows, and finally any liquid seasonings that build the sauce.
With dry-frying, the process is flipped, beginning with just a little oil over moderate heat. The main ingredient—often strips of beef or green beans—goes in first and cooks lower and slower until fragrant and charred in spots, but still tender inside. Seasonings, aromatics and a small amount of oil finish the dish.
The result isn’t the classic loosely saucy stir-fry we are most familiar with. Instead, with dry-frying, the meat or vegetables become coated with seasonings that deliver bold, concentrated flavors and aromas.
“When you dry-fry, it steams it a bit and the textures change,” says Fuchsia Dunlop, whose latest cookbook, “The Food of Sichuan,” includes recipes for dry-fried beef, eggplant, green beans and bitter melon. “It loses some of the water, but it’s not desiccated or dried out, just fragrant.”
We found the technique was ideal for skillet cooking on lower-powered American burners, as it involves less heat and longer cook time than a typical stir-fry. We tried various vegetables and found it worked particularly well with cauliflower.
In our recipe, dry-frying allowed the cauliflower to brown without tasting heavy. For seasonings, we stuck with tradition—garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce and scallions; dry sherry and a teaspoon of white sugar mirrored the flavor of a Chinese rice wine called shaoxing, another common flavoring.
By cutting the cauliflower head in half, then slicing the halves thinly, we created pieces of varying sizes. This was an easy way to add different textures to the dish—smaller florets crisped, but larger pieces charred outside while staying tender inside.