What Is Stir-Frying?
To stir-fry is to quickly cook small, uniform pieces of food in a little hot oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. It is often used in Asian cooking and for cooking vegetables, as it helps the veggies retain their color, crunch, and nutrients.
A Wok -- Or Not?
If you do a lot of stir-frying, you might want to invest in a wok, the traditional round-bottom pan used in Chinese cooking. Because most Americans cook over stoves (rather than fires), woks sold in this country usually have flat bottoms. If they have rounded bottoms, they come with a metal ring to allow you to set the wok over a gas burner.
If you don't have a wok, you can use a skillet. However, the wok has one major advantage: The gentle, sloping sides of the pan allow you to cook in stages. The sides serve as a resting place to get ingredients up and out of the hot spot (at the bottom of the pan) so nothing gets overcooked.
How to Choose Ingredients for Stir-Frying
Some ingredients are better suited to the stir-frying technique than others. Here's a rundown, including how much of each ingredient to use if you're making four main-dish servings.
- Oil: Although you can use just about any kind of cooking oil to stir-fry, peanut oil is ideal. It can reach a higher temperature than other oils before it starts smoking. High heat is the key to keeping the vegetables crisp and flavorful. You'll need 1 to 2 tablespoons.
- Garlic: This aromatic ingredient is common in stir-fries. Start with 2 cloves of garlic, minced, per four servings and adjust to your liking.
- Fresh Vegetables: Use about 4 cups chopped fresh vegetables. Good vegetables for stir-frying include sweet peppers, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, yellow or white onions, green onions, pea pods, cabbage, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, and leafy Asian greens in the "choy" family, such as bok choy and yu choy. In a hurry? You can use a 16-ounce bag of frozen stir-fry vegetables.
- Canned Asian Vegetables: Some cooks like to add bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and baby corn to stir-fries. If you're adding these, use them in place of some of the fresh vegetables suggested above. Drain them well before using.
- Meats: For stir-frying meats, choose tender, quick-cooking meats and seafood, such as chicken breasts, shrimp, scallops, lean boneless pork, sirloin steak, and lean boneless lamb. Use 12 ounces to 1 pound. You can also use a 10.5-ounce package of extra-firm tofu. If you're not using meat or tofu, add more vegetables.
- Sauce: Ready-to-use stir-fry sauces can be found in the supermarket. Use 2/3 cup for 4 servings. Or make this speedy Orange-Soy Sauce from ingredients you might have on hand: In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
- Nuts: Many stir-fries benefit from the extra flavor and texture of walnuts halves, whole peanuts or cashews, or slivered or sliced almonds. Use about 3/4 cup per 4 servings.
How to Prepare Ingredients for Stir-Frying
Before you start to cook, prepare all your ingredients and place them in bowls near your cooktop.
- Slice meat into bite-size pieces, or as directed in the recipe. Cutting pork, chicken, beef, and lamb is easier if you freeze them about 20 minutes before slicing.
- Mince garlic, if using.
- Chop the vegetables into uniform bite-size pieces (unless otherwise directed in a recipe). Cutting them the same size helps them cook to the same doneness.
- Stir together the sauce (if making from scratch) or measure the bottled stir-fry sauce.
- Measure any nuts or other garnishes you might be using.
- If serving rice, get it cooking and time it so that it will be done when you're ready to serve the main course.
How to Stir-Fry a Main Dish
Many stir-fry recipes for main dishes follow a general pattern, and once you key into this pattern, it's easy to turn whatever produce looks its freshest best at the market (or whatever produce you happen to have on hand) into a satisfying main dish, with or without meat.
- Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch skillet or wok over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers.
- Add the garlic, if using. Cook and stir for 15 seconds.
- Add the vegetables. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heatproof silicone spatula, for 2 to 4 minutes or until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Remove the vegetables from the pan.
- If needed, add more oil to the pan. Add the meat to the pan. Cook and stir until the meat is cooked through. (If necessary, cook the meat in batches to prevent overcrowding. If the pan is too full, the meat will water out and steam instead of fry.)
- Push the cooked meat from the center of the wok or skillet. Add the sauce to the center of the skillet. Cook and stir the sauce until bubbly.
- Return all vegetables to the skillet. Cook and stir everything about 1 minute more or until the meat and vegetables are coated with the sauce and heated through.
- Sprinkle individual servings with chopped nuts, if desired. Serve with hot cooked rice or Asian noodles.
How to Stir-Fry Vegetables
If you wish to stir-fry vegetables for a side dish, follow these tips.
- Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
- When the pan is hot, add the vegetables in small batches and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heatproof silicone spatula, until they are crisp-tender. Stir-frying too many vegetables at once causes them to steam and become mushy.
- Remove vegetables from the pan as soon as each batch is crisp-tender.
- If necessary, you can return all cooked vegetables to the pan and cook them just long enough to reheat.