A step-by-step guide to teach you the simple process of making a stir-fry. Learn the basic formula to create a wide variety of Chinese recipes that involve cooking with a wok.
Mastering the art of stir-frying isn’t as hard as it seems. It’s a quick and efficient way to rapidly develop new flavors and textures of proteins and vegetables all in one blazing hot wok. The key is preparing and organizing all of the components before cooking so that the stir-frying process is harmonious and fast. One perk is that this method does not require very much cooking oil, just enough to prevent the food from sticking, keeping meals healthier.
Once you learn this basic cooking technique, it opens endless possibilities for dinner options. It inspires you to be adventurous with ingredient combinations, and meals aren’t just limited to Chinese cuisine. Follow these essential components for how to make a stir-fry, and you will have tasty, versatile meals that are exciting to cook.
Choose your Ingredients
The possibilities are endless for the combinations of ingredients to include in a stir-fry, but there are some key components to select. Here are some examples of each category:
- Proteins: Chicken, shrimp, tofu (firm or extra firm), pork, fish (firm in texture), seitan, tempeh.
- Vegetables: Broccoli, bell peppers, green beans, eggplant, carrots, mushrooms, mung bean sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, onions.
- Aromatics: Garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, chili peppers, red chili flakes, lemongrass.
- Carbohydrates: Noodles! Mostly egg based like chow mein, lo mein, ramen, yakisoba, or even thin spaghetti.
How much of each should you include? Here is a general guideline, adjust as needed:
- 1 pound of protein
- 4 to 5 cups of vegetables
- 1 to 3 teaspoons aromatics
- About 6 ounces noodles (if using, reduce amount of protein and vegetables)
Prep the Ingredients
Stir-frying in a wok uses high heat to cook each component very rapidly. This means that before the cooking process starts, you’ll want to wash, cut and measure everything out so that you can swiftly grab and add. It takes only a few minutes or less to cook each ingredient, so things can burn or overcook if you aren’t attentive and ready for the next step.
A few helpful tips:
- Size: Cut the protein into similar sizes, about 1-inch cubes for vegetarian proteins, and for meat proteins 1 1/2 to 2 inch long pieces, no more than 1/2-inch thick. Make sure to always cut meat against the grain, so the short muscle fibers are tender and easy to chew.
- Marinate: If desired you can marinate the proteins with some flavoring ingredients like soy sauce, tamari, coconut aminos, sesame oil, salt, and pepper to infuse more flavor on the surface even before it cooks. Typically marinating at least 15 to 20 minutes allows just enough extra flavor.
- Shapes: Cut vegetables into consistent size pieces, so they cook evenly. Thin strips or cubes work nicely. Cut broccoli into smaller florets, so they cook quickly. Cut beans in 2-inch pieces. Keep snow peas, and sugar snap peas whole.
- Organize: Stay organized by separating each ingredient into small prep bowls or plates, so it’s easy to see and add to the pan.
Make a Stir-Fry Sauce
It’s easy to make a delicious homemade stir-fry sauce that can lightly coat the ingredients to deliver more flavor to each bite.
- Flavoring: A combination of savory, tangy and sweet ingredients can be used like soy sauce, tamari, oyster sauce, hoisin, broth or stock, cooking wine, rice wine vinegar, fermented black bean paste, chili pastes.
- Thickening: Cornstarch or arrowroot powder is almost always used to add body and glossiness.
It’s all about balancing the flavors but letting the proteins shine! Have the sauce whisked together and ready to go before you start cooking.
Heating a Wok and Oil Selection
Pre-heat your wok over medium-high heat, which will allow you to cook your ingredients while quickly searing them. This will allow for a fast and even stir-fry. How to know when your pan is heated? Flick some water onto the surface–if it immediately evaporates, you know it’s ready.
Cook the Protein
Brown the meat first in the smoking hot oil. Add a single layer, so it develops a good sear, then toss to finish cooking. Do not overcook as you will add it back to the pan at the end to complete. The protein is then transferred to a plate to make room to cook the vegetables.
Cook Dense Vegetables
Stir-fry denser vegetable like carrots, bell pepper, and broccoli that take longer to cook until crisp-tender or bring green, about 1 to 2 minutes. You can transfer vegetables to the plate with the proteins if you want more browning of the quick cooking vegetables, or push them to side if there is enough room in the wok.
Add Quick Cooking Vegetables
Fast cooking vegetables like mushrooms, onions, bok choy, and sugar snap peas cook next, for about 1 minute.
Add the Aromatics
Often ginger and garlic are added first to the hot oil before the proteins or veggies. I started adding them at the end of cooking so that they could still add incredible aromas to the stir-fry, but reduce the chance of burning of the delicate finely chopped ingredients. Burnt garlic can especially give a bitter flavor to the dish. Push the vegetables to the side and add aromatics to the center of the pan, stir-fry until fragrant but not browned, about 20 to 30 seconds.
Pour in the Sauce
Add all of the cooked ingredients back to the pan to reheat, and then make a “well” in the center. Add the stir-fry sauce, about 1/2 to 1 cup, and allow to heat and thicken, while continually stirring, about 1 minute. You want to use just enough sauce to coat and cling to the ingredients, not make them soggy or swimming in a pool of liquid.
If the cornstarch is not already added to the sauce, you can make a slurry of cornstarch and water (1 part: 2 parts). I typically use 1 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch plus 3 teaspoon water per 1 cup of sauce. Add to the bubbling hot sauce, stir, and allow to thicken.
Finishing & Garnish
Make sure to give the stir-fry a taste and adjust seasoning like salt and pepper. Right before serving you can garnish with roasted nuts like peanuts or cashews, sliced green onions, cilantro or sesame seeds.
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