Editor’s Note: Ever since Jim Lin joined Ketchum everyone smiles a bit more. We know we have a true Jedi Master in our midst. He is an award-winning daddy blogger, brilliant communications strategist, terrific father and soul mate to his love, and all-around great guy. I’m sure you’ll see what I mean as you read his story. His San Francisco colleagues have been begging him to make his famous Fried Rice for us for years and now he generously shares his technique. Enjoy!
“There is no recipe,” my dad proclaimed over the rhythmic clanging of a spatula against blackened carbon steel, “only technique.” This was his response when I asked him how to make fried rice several decades ago. So I dedicated much of my childhood to watching intently whenever he fired up my favorite meal, committing every movement to memory, from the first splash of oil into the smoking wok, to the final cascade of brilliant white rice, speckled with expertly seared meat, eggs and vegetables onto an awaiting plate. After that, it was always a blur. That’s when you know you’ve had good fried rice. You come to, belly full and smiling. And 30 minutes later, you actually are hungry again – because it’s simply that good.
My dad was far from an accomplished cook. He put ketchup on his spaghetti (the prosecution rests). But when it came to fried rice, he was a straight up Jedi Master. Sadly, my father has since joined Yoda, Anakin, and Obi Wan, but his spirit and “the technique” lives on every time I reach for that container of day-old rice.
And that’s where we shall begin. Day-old rice.
There are a million variations of fried rice, but there is one thread that runs through them all: step one is old rice. From there, it could literally go anywhere. However, the difference between “screw this, we’re going for cheeseburgers” and “this is all I’m eating for the rest of my days on earth” lies in not the what, but the how and when. It is between these two simple words that the technique flows, and fried rice greatness is achieved. And this is what I’d like to share with you. Get rid of the index cards. Notes won’t be necessary. This is all you need to know about fried rice:
Without a hot wok, it’s not even worth it:
A wok is essential for the proper movement of the rice as it cooks. It also allows you to create heat zones, which come to play later. Make sure it is hot, as in literally smoking, before you add oil.
Never stop moving:
Adding enough oil for it to form a nice pool at the bottom of the wok is what begins the process. After that, you cannot pause. Always be moving the ingredients, rigorously, if not violently. Pausing to wipe sweat, sip water or Instagram your creation results in one of two scenarios: burnt ingredients, or trapped moisture, which prevents searing and creates an uninspired tepid waste of good carbs. So make sure your ingredients are prepared and lined up in the order they will used, and tell everyone in your family to trust the process and leave you alone while you are momentarily “in the zone.”
Start with egg:
Egg is so essential that I consider this part of the technique, rather than an ingredient. Don’t even argue this. How many eggs do you need? One more than you think. Trust me, even if you don’t cook, your instincts will guide you. Then add one more. Add the beaten eggs into the pool of hot oil. It should float a little. Move it around gently so it begins to form spots of brown on the oil side. Then break it up and move it a bit faster. When it’s about 80% done, pour it back into the bowl and set aside.
Add the meats:
The beauty of fried rice is you can use pretty much any meat you have lying around. One of my favorite fried rice variations is my post-Thanksgiving special, where I use chopped turkey and ham. As long as you cut it into small bits (more surface area equals more searing, equals exponentially more awesomeness), almost any meat will do. Because you chop it into small bits, a little meat goes a long way. Only have one leftover pork chop? Hello pork fried rice for four! My preferred meat for fried rice is any cured pork, which usually means ham or precooked bacon (or Chinese sausage, if you can get it. This stuff is magical). Whatever you choose, add it to the wok and sear it good. As you do this, fattier cuts will render, which will add more amazing flavor to the rice later. If you have leaner meats, like turkey or ham, feel free to add more oil. The goal is for each tiny piece to sizzle and brown.
Moisture is the enemy:
At any point in the process, you want to minimize moisture. This is why I use day-old rice, which has had time to release much of its moisture. While shrimp is one of my favorite meats for fried rice, it can add catastrophic amounts of water into the wok, so make sure it is dry. I literally wipe each piece with a paper towel before I throw it into the wok. If something you throw into the wok releases moisture, move all the pieces up the sides of the wok so the moisture pools at the bottom (those heat zones I mentioned in the beginning). Cook that all off before you scrape the pieces back to the bottom. Simmering is for soup. Steam cooking is for spas. Neither belongs in your wok.
Add the green onions:
Like eggs, this is also so essential that I call it technique. Add finely chopped green onions (one to two handfuls) into the meat and let that sear, but not wilt. This is a crucial step. If you don’t cook it enough, it is too pungent. If you overcook it, it wilts and disappears. Once the heat releases its aroma, and it gets shiny from the oil, proceed to the next step. If you sequester yourself in the mountains to train yourself on one fried rice element, let this be the one. This will make or break you as a fried rice master.
Because we hate moisture, very few vegetables work in fried rice. Only solid low-moisture vegetables work. Peas and carrots are two popular choices (make sure you pre-cook and drain thoroughly before you add them). The one exception found in real Chinese fried rice is iceberg lettuce shreds, which get thrown in and sautéed. This sounds gross to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it, so just take this as a fun cultural fact and move on. Stick with peas and carrots. You aren’t cooking these as much as searing a bit and getting the flavor of the rest of the ingredients on them. Also, you don’t want to cook the scallions from the previous step much longer, so this process is literally a minute, tops.
Now you add the old rice. Old rice should crumble apart when you add it to the mix. If it squishes, you’re in trouble. You ideally want the individual grains to be dry (keeping steamed rice in the refrigerator is the best way to do this). A good test is eating a few. If they are the consistency of cold McDonald’s fries (you know what I’m talking about!), then you’re in luck. The heat will moisten and soften the inside but not so much that they stick to each other. To do this step right, you need to get sweaty. This is where everything comes together, so you need to move fast and let entropy do its thing. Start by making sure all clumps are removed. Pressing against the large rice chunks with the back of a spatula works best. Then use the blade edge of the spatula to “chop” the rice to break the small chunks into individual grains. Now comes another critical step. This is the scrape-scrape-lift. Scrape the fried rice in a swift downward motion from any two high points on the wok. Then go under the whole thing and lift it all up so it goes airborne for a second, releasing residual moisture and getting air into the mix. You will lose rice. It helps to have a dog by your side. Do this several dozen times and build up a rhythm. Scrape-scrape-LIFT! Scrape-scrape-LIFT! This is a great shoulder exercise, and I’ll put this up against a speed-bag workout any day. You know you’re doing it right if no camera can capture you doing this. See below.
Finish with egg:
Once the fried rice is perfect, add the cooked egg you had set aside. You can reduce the heat now because you’re done cooking. This step is merely physical. In the same way used the side of the spatula to chop the small clumps of rice, do this with the egg. Chop it into small pieces. In doing so, you’ll in effect “fold” the egg pieces into the rice. Continue this until you cannot resist how your fried rice looks. Salt to taste. You are done.
Things you may be wondering:
As you read this, some common questions may have popped into your head. Here are the answers. Yes: you can add soy sauce to finish it, but only a little. Remember, liquid is the enemy (even our beloved soy sauce), so add enough to enhance the flavor but not enough to turn the whole thing brown. You’re not eating at a Chinese restaurant circa 1979. True fried rice is brilliant white. No: onions, garlic, ginger, and other Chinese staples actually do not belong in proper fried rice. The exceptions are garlic, if you are making the Filipino variation, in which case the only ingredients are oil, rice and garlic; onions, if you are making Japanese style, which contains only microscopic bits of carrots, onions and egg; Ginger, if you are a freak (the great thing about blogs is you can have a strong POV). No: I know you’ve read recipes where you add in raw egg so it coats each grain of rice as it cooks. Just no. Unless you enjoy soggy fried rice and not being able to taste the egg.
As I hope you’ve learned, fried rice is ruthlessly efficient and dangerously flexible. It accomodates a variety of leftovers, maximizes small amounts of food, cooks in one vessel, takes only minutes to make, and is everyone’s favorite thing on the table. I’ve enjoyed it at a Chinese government banquet, as much as I have out of a takeout carton on the steps of my college dorm at 3am (state of sobriety withheld for professional reasons). However, like a good blues jam or light saber battle, the improvisation only works if you master the underlying rules first. Now that you know them, go forth and spill some rice. It’s proper technique.