The humble stir fry is a good dish for a resourceful cook. There are a few basic components, it’s quick to make, and it’s robust enough to handle whatever is lying around in your refrigerator that needs to be used up. In this article, we’ll discuss some overarching principles of stir fry so you can make the best use of this inexpensive class of dishes.
First, as I mentioned in the previous article discussing miscellaneous meat tips, the correct pan is essential. I explained previously that the wok is not the ideal pan to use on a Western stove, because the wok’s sloped sides are meant for being put into a fire, where the heat can move up the sides of the pan. Western stoves are flat, and transmit heat through the bottom of the pan. The wok has a very small surface area on the bottom of the pan, so you’ll end up steaming the food rather than stir-frying it. It may not look as good in a social media picture of video, and probably doesn’t feel as “authentic”, but use a 12″ skillet if you have a Western stove if you want the appropriate textures and results.
The second tip seems almost condescending to write, but it really is essential. Do all your prep work before you ever turn the stove on. Stir fries are very active, but quick. There’s not a lot of downtime where you won’t be needing to interact directly with the pan, so there’s no time for prepping vegetables as you go. Have all vegetables chopped, meat prepared, and pot ready for rice or noodles before you get started. Most of the time to make a stir fry is the prep work. I personally like to have all my veggies in bowls ready for easy dumping into the pan. Sort them by when they need to go in. For instance, you’ll usually throw your onions and celery in the pan at the same time, so chop them and put them in the same bowl to wait their turn. Chop the garnishes as well and have them ready (such as scallions, Thai basil, or cilantro).
For the meat, make sure you’re slicing the meat very thinly, and against the grain. this is particularly true if you’re using country style pork ribs or cheaper cuts of beef. For this, I actually recommend slicing the meat while it’s still partially frozen, maybe halfway frozen. In addition to getting thinner slices, the meat is less slippery, so you’re less likely to cut yourself.
You’ll often see cornstarch called for in the marinades for the meat. Don’t omit this. The cornstarch is responsible for that unique crust that forms on the beef or chicken in stir fries. It also thickens the sauce for the stir fry. When using the cornstarch with the meat of the stir fry, you’ll likely be instructed to make a slurry of cornstarch, soy sauce, oil and other liquids or spices. Make sure that you use a whisk to thoroughly mix the ingredients. You don’t want any clumps of cornstarch. Never add cornstarch to hot liquids–it will clump up, and no one wants clumps of cornstarch among the snow peas.
For vegetables, stick with the hearty or crunchy ones, such as carrots, celery, onion, bok choy, Brussels sprouts (chopped fine), Swiss chard (stems; add the leaves last if using), etc. Other fun vegetables are mung bean sprouts, water chestnuts (you’ll usually have to buy these canned), and the white parts of scallions. I usually slice these depending on whether I’m making rice or noodles to go with the stir fry. If noodles, thin matchsticks will fit with the long noodles, and look nice. If rice, I like to slice veggies on a horizontal bias; it just looks fancy, and it’s easier to pick up with chopsticks if you use those.
Aromatics that are commonly used are peppers, ginger, and garlic. All of these things bloom well in oil. A neat trick I picked up from America’s Test Kitchen is to put your chopped aromatics in a tiny bowl, and then add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil to cover. You’ll end up adding your aromatics almost last, because you want to cook them just enough to release the compounds, but not to burn them. The oil helps bring out those flavors and aromas, as well as helps the aromatics mix in to the whole dish. Always use fresh garlic and ginger. (By the way, grating ginger is much easier if it’s spent about 10 minutes in the freezer first. Use a handheld zester.)
I usually do the actual stir-frying in either bacon grease or ghee. If you want the flavor of toasted sesame oil, use that as a garnish. Never use olive oil as the stir-fry oil, only use it to soak your aromatics. The heat of stir-fries usually exceeds its smoke point, so you’ll either end up with just an “off” flavor, or you’ll also get a ton of splattering, smoking, and maybe even an embarrassing kitchen fire.
Stir fries are one of the most adaptable classes of dishes. If you don’t have bok choi, throw in Swiss chard. Don’t have either? Throw in onions. Have some hot peppers to use up? Throw it in for some extra heat. Stray celery in the vegetable drawer? Slice it up and add it. Prefer beef instead of chicken? Same directions: slice thinly and toss in the cornstarch-liquid slurry.
Here’s an example recipe below to put all this together.
Ginger Stir-Fried Chicken with Bok Choy (Serves 4)
(For the sauce)
- 1/4 c. chicken broth
- 2 tbsp dry sherry. (Don’t use cooking sherry. It’s full of salt and icky. Just go to the liquor section.)
- 1 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce (You really do need this. Don’t omit it.)
- 2 tsp. grated fresh gingerroot
- 1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 tsp. cornstarch
(For the stir fry)
- frying oil
- 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- 1 minced garlic clove (Add more if you want. I do.)
- 1 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. dry sherry
- 2 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
- 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced very thin. (I’ve gone up to 2 lbs here. It will just make the sauce go a bit less far, but it’s still quite good.)
- 1 lb. bok choy, stalks sliced thin and greens cut into 1/2″ strips
- 1 small red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips.
- 12 in. skillet
- lots of little bowls to hold ingredients
- For the sauce, whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.
- Combine 1 tsp. oil, garlic, and ginger in a small bowl and set aside.
- Whisk the soy sauce, sherry, sesame oil, and cornstarch in a large bowl. Add the chicken and toss to coat.
- Heat 2 tsp. frying oil in a 12″ skillet over medium high heat until just before the smoke point. Add half the chicken, increase the heat to high, and cook. Toss constantly but slowly (or stir with a spatula, flipping the chicken), until the chicken is no longer pink (2-6 minutes.) Transfer the chicken to a large, clean bowl and repeat with the other half of the chicken. This step in total should take 4-12 minutes. Don’t forget to add more oil if needed.
- Heat 1 tbsp. frying oil in the now-empty pan, then add bok choy stalks and bell pepper. Toss constantly and lightly to cook. You’re looking for a light browning here, which should take 2-2 minutes.
- Push the vegetables to the side of the pan and reduce the heat to low. Add the ginger mixture to the pan and mash until fragrant. Add the bok choy greens and mix the vegetables in.
- Add the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan. Whisk the sauce to recombine, then add to the pan. Increase the heat to high and cook to thicken the sauce. This will be quick–about 30-45 seconds.
- Serve with rice or noodles (I personally like lo mein with this one.)