Just because a dish is cooked in a wok doesn’t automatically make it a stir fry. Stir frying is a cooking method by which similarly sized ingredients are cooked for a short time over intensely high heat.
Perfect stir fries with succulent meat and tender crispy vegetables don’t happen by magic. You have to pay attention to the preparation of the ingredients and have all of them ready before you turn on the stove. These are my cooking basics for perfect stir fries.
Prep ALL the ingredients before you start stir frying
You may have heard or read about it before. In fact, you may have heard or read about it so many times already that you’re so tired of this little piece of information. I’m still going to say it here.
With stir fried dishes, the preparation takes twice as long — sometimes, even longer — as the actual cooking. Because the cooking time is extremely short, it is essential that all the ingredients have been prepped before the stir frying begins. If you throw one ingredient into the wok then leave it to prep the next ingredient, the first ingredient will be overcooked by the time you are done with the second. So, prep ALL the ingredients first.
Drying and cutting the meat
Not all stir fries include meat. Some have seafood in lieu of meat; others have neither meat nor seafood. In those instances when meat is among the ingredients of the stir fry, you need to prep the meat ahead of all the other ingredients.
In this example, we’re using chicken. But these steps are just as applicable to pork, beef, shrimps and fish.
Start by patting the chicken dry with paper towels. You want to remove as much moisture as possible.
Then, cut into strips about half an inch wide.
Note that different stir fry recipes call for different cuts of meat. Some call for thin slices while others require strips or even small cubes. Whatever the manner of cutting, there is one rule you have to know: After cutting, each piece of meat or seafood should be small enough cook in a few minutes. It should also be small enough to pop into the mouth with no need of using a fork and knife to cut it into halves of thirds. So, go small.
After the chicken has been cut, place in a bowl and season. Mix well. What the seasoning should be depends on the recipe. Cover the bowl to allow the chicken to soak up the flavors in the seasonings while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
Trim and cut the vegetables
Peel and trim the vegetables before cutting. In this example, we’re using carrot, bell pepper, celery and cabbage — and onion and garlic, of course, which you don’t see in the photo. Like the chicken, the vegetables are cut into small pieces.
Because I included quail eggs in my stir fry, I boiled the eggs and shelled them.
Mix the sauce
Not all stir fried dishes require a sauce, but… who doesn’t like a thickish glossy sauce coating every piece of meat and vegetables? So, mix your sauce at this point. The most basic is water, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame seed oil, sugar, pepper and starch.
I prefer using broth over plain water. My default sauce for 250 grams of meat or seafood and twice as much vegetables:
- 3/4 cup broth
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- a dash of sesame seed oil
- 1 tablespoon tapioca (or corn) starch
Mix all of that in a bowl and set aside.
Now, we come to the actual stir frying.
Stir fry the vegetables first
Most cooks start with stir frying the meat or seafood first, add the vegetables, pour in the sauce and cook until the sauce is thick and clear.
My problem with that order is that there is always the chance that one or more ingredient will be overcooked by the time the sauce thickens. I prefer to stir fry the vegetables first.
As a general rule, the vegetable that takes longest to cook should go into the wok first. But since the vegetables I’m using for this example require just about the same length of cooking, I threw them into the wok at the same time.
Heat the wok before you pour in the oil. Then, make sure that the oil is hot (it should start to smoke a bit) before you start stir frying. Keep the heat high at all times.
I stir fried the vegetables with a bit of salt and pepper for about 20 seconds, added the sliced onion and chopped garlic and stir fried for another 20 seconds.
Why not start with stir frying the onion and garlic first? Well, you can do that. BUT I find that onion softens faster than other vegetables, and garlic burns fast. So, I added them when the other vegetables were already half done.
When the vegetables are done — meaning, they are cooked but still lightly crisp — scoop them out and move to a plate.
Stir fry the meat
Since the vegetables will have used up the oil in the wok, you’ll need to heat more oil in which to stir fry the meat. Pour about two tablespoons of oil into the wok and wait for it to start smoking a bit before throwing in the meat — chicken, in this example.
Stir fry the chicken for about three minutes until the edges are just starting to brown. The chicken strips will finish cooking in the sauce.
Add the sauce before the vegetables
Take your sauce, stir it thoroughly (the starch will have settled to the bottom) and pour into the wok. Continue stir frying until the sauce is thick and has lost its cloudy appearance.
Why not add the vegetables first? Because you have been so careful not to overcook them that you bothered to cook them separately, so why risk overcooking them while waiting for the sauce to thicken, right?
Add the vegetables and heat through
Now, take all your cooked ingredients — vegetables and quail eggs in this example — and add them to the chicken and sauce. Toss for about ten seconds which should be just long enough to heat everything through and make sure every piece of vegetable is coated with sauce.
Transfer your stir fry to a serving plate at once. The wok is a metal and it will retain heat even after you have turned off the stove. You don’t want your stir fry to continue cooking in the residual heat. So, transfer the stir fry to a plate and serve at once.
Keeping all those tips in mind, try stir frying. See the archive for stir fried dishes for inspiration.
Updated on July 1, 2018