I fell in love with Asian food the first time that I ate it. And by first time, I am not referring to the canned chow mein that moms like mine served in the 1970s. No, I fell in love with real Asian cooking at the homey Asian restaurants I could not afford to visit very often during my years as a poverty-stricken university student. So, I decided that I would make my own. How hard could it be? I added chicken, a ton of different vegetables at once, and doused the pan with stroke-inducing amounts of soy sauce before eating the whole mushy mess over Minute Rice. Let’s just say, it was a bit disappointing.
Once I finally learned how to properly make a stir-fry, I realized that it is not so hard once you understand some very basic steps. Once you master those basic steps, the options for a successful dinner are endless. We have a stir-fry at least once a week and every one is at least a little different than the last. Additionally, stir-fry is a fairly healthy cooking method of cooking. It can be accomplished with minimal fat and you can include a large portion of vegetables in your final dish. This post is not a recipe for stir-fry, but rather a general description of the method, so that you can pull together a stir-fry from ingredients that you have on hand. Here are some ingredients to keep on hand:
A stir-fry also does not require any special equipment. I recall a college classmate who was from Asia laughing at the idea of using a wok. She said that she just used a large skillet. You will be cooking over high heat, however, so non-stick is not advisable since they usually should not be used over medium heat. Something like triple-ply stainless steel or cast iron would work well. I don’t think cast iron is difficult to care for, but if you have concerns, consider the more expensive enameled cast iron. If you would like to use something more like a wok, I recently bought this cast-iron Balti dish and I love it, even though I did well with a regular pan for decades. You will also need a knife, cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, and a wooden spoon.
If you are going to make rice or noodles with your stir-fry, start preparing that first because you want it to be done before your stir fry. As long as you drain the noodles or keep the rice covered and off-heat, they will not be ruined while you finish your stir-fry. Your stir-fry, however, will be ruined if you are waiting for your starch to cook before you eat it. One final note, I beg you to use a delicious rice like jasmine, but basmati, brown or long-grain rice will all do. I deeply regret all the years that I wasted eating tasteless Minute rice. I stock up on a large bag of jasmine rice at the Asian market about an hour from where we live, but I have also seen jasmine rice for a good price at our small Wal-mart. Cook’s Illustrated recommends Dynasty jasmine rice
Step 1. Prepare all of your ingredients BEFORE you start cooking. Once you start cooking, things move quickly and you will not have time to quickly chop some more vegetables without ruining what you already have in the pan. You can choose from a lot of different proteins, but our favorites are chicken breast, shrimp, steak, pork chops, and tofu. All of these will brown best if you dry them out with some paper towels before cooking. You will also want to chop up your vegetables into bite-sized pieces. This is probably the most tedious part of preparing a stir-fry, but there are lots of options to avoid this. For instance, you can buy pre-cut vegetables in the produce, salad bar, or frozen section of your supermarket. There are even some canned options to keep on hand like water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and baby corn. One of my favorite strategies is to buy vegetables that are already bite-sized, like sugar snap peas. It is usually best to use only 2-3 types of vegetables.
My number one suggestion for making stir-fry prep easy is to keep Asian Aromatic Flavor Cubes in your freezer. This allows you to prepare your garlic, ginger, scallions, and red pepper only once for a total of 18 stir-fry nights. If you have some flavor cubes, get one out now to thaw.
Be sure to go ahead and mix your sauce in a liquid measuring cup at this time, as well. Please see the end of this post if you need a sauce recipe.
Step 2. Heat 1 TB canola oil over medium high heat. Watch this very carefully and add your protein IMMEDIATELY when you see a tiny bit of smoke coming off the pan. You need to add right away when this happens because letting your oil smoke for too long could lead to a fire. It’s important to have a really hot pan, however, if you are going to get a nice sear on your protein. Once you add the protein, wait at least a couple of minutes before stirring; it is ready to stir when it isn’t sticking to the pan too much. Then, stir every 1-2 minutes until the protein is just cooked. You will then need to remove the protein from the pan to keep it from being overcooked and to give the vegetables a chance to cook evenly. I skipped this step for years because I didn’t want to dirty another plate, but that was a big mistake. Now, I just use one of the plates that we will be using for dinner.
Step 3. Heat another 1 TB canola oil until you see it shimmer in the pan and then add your vegetables. This part can get a little tricky because you don’t want to add all of your types of vegetables at once. If you do, then some will be overcooked and some will be undercooked. There are also individual differences in how crisp people like their vegetables, but hopefully this chart will be a good starting point.
Step 4. Use your wooden spoon to create a well in the middle of the vegetables. Add your Asian Aromatic Flavor Cube OR add 1 tsp. canola oil or sesame oil and then immediately add your aromatics. Aromatics include garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes, and the white part of scallions. If you aren’t sure how much to use of each aromatic, I recommend about 1 TB minced garlic, 1 tsp minced ginger, 2-3 scallion whites, and/or a pinch of red pepper flakes. Mash this mixture around in the well for about 30-seconds-1 minute until the ingredients become aromatic (see what I did there?). Then, mix all of the vegetables in with the aromatics.
Step 5. Give your sauce a quick stir, making sure the cornstarch is incorporated. Then, add the sauce and protein into the pan. Stir for about 1-2 minutes, just until the sauce slightly thickens.
If desired, you can add a garnish such as chopped scallion greens, bean sprouts, herbs, nuts, or seeds to your final dish.
Do you need a sauce recipe? There are so many interesting and complex sauces out there, that I almost hate to share this one because it is quite basic. However, it is a good sauce to start with because it is versatile, and has just a few easy-to-find ingredients.
- 1 cup chicken broth (Better than Bouillon soup starter is an acceptable substitute)
- 1 heaping TB cornstarch
- 1/4 cup soy
- 2 TB brown sugar
- 1 TB rice vinegar
Kicking it up a notch:
- Use peanut oil, instead of canola since it tolerates a higher temperature.
- Use sauce recipes with more interesting ingredients like rice cooking wine (e.g., sake, mirin), oyster sauce, fish sauce, curry powder or paste, coconut milk, hoisin, or chili sauce.
- Learn how to “velvet” your protein with cornstarch and egg white.