SENSATIONAL STIR-FRY. A serving of shrimp stir-fry is seen
in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #20 (October 21, 2019), page 13.
Put down that takeout menu: Stir-fry basics for home cooks
By Katie Workman
The Associated Press
For every home cook happily tossing together a stir-fry at home, there
are a dozen would-be stir-fryers wanting to make
chicken-broccoli-sugar-snap-pea stir-fry and then sheepishly reaching for
the takeout menu.
Stir-fry technique has many people intimidated. But if you can slice and
stir, you can stir-fry.
So, letís break it down, review the basics, and get everyone on their way
to stir-fry success.
- Read the recipe all the way through. The ingredients, the steps,
everything. Getting a sense of the order of events so you know whatís
coming will make you more confident as you cook.
- Prep ALL the ingredients before you start cooking. Stir-frying goes
quickly, so make sure your ingredients are all cut and ready to roll.
You donít want to realize suddenly that you still need to mince the
garlic thatís supposed to be sautťing along with the broccoli.
- Make sure your ingredients are of similar size. Most stir-fries
involve fairly small-cut ingredients added in stages, sometimes in
batches, so everything ends up properly cooked at the same time. When
chopping broccoli, for instance, or cubing chicken, try and make all the
pieces roughly the same size.
- Feel free to swap or substitute ingredients. If you want broccoli
instead of sugar snap peas, great! Again, just make sure the vegetables
you sub in are cut comparably and have a similar density, therefore a
similar cooking time. Or adjust the time as needed: Sliced carrots will
need more cooking time than spinach, for instance, so add a few minutes
to the cooking time, or add them earlier in the recipe. Cubed pork can
be used in place of chicken, tofu can be swapped in for shrimp ó most
stir-fries are flexible.
- A skillet may be better than a small wok. The bowl-shaped pans sold
as woks are not always the best answer for a home cook. Because there is
a lot of sloped side area to a wok, there isnít much flat bottom sitting
directly on the heat. I like using a very large skillet, so the food in
the pan is less crowded and gets a better distribution of heat. If you
do want a wok, get a big one!
- Make sure the pan is hot. You need high heat to get the best flavor
from the ingredients in a stir-fry. And you need the pan to be hot
before the ingredients hit it, so they have a chance to sear a bit,
locking in color and flavor.
- Cook in layers and batches. The secret to great stir-fries (and lots
of other cooking methods, like frying and sautťing) is to not crowd the
pan, and to leave the food alone between stirs. Giving individual pieces
of food a chance to come in direct contact with the hot pan on a
continuous basis is the difference between nicely browned pieces and a
pile of steamed food. Thatís why many stir-fry recipes call for cooking
ingredients separately or in batches. And because stir-fry food is cut
small, cooking goes quickly. So doing it in stages and batches and then
combining it all at the end adds only a handful of extra minutes.
- Add the sauce at the end. Only once your ingredients are cooked do
you want to add any liquid. Otherwise, you wouldnít really be
stir-frying, but braising or poaching. A bit of cornstarch mixed into
the sauce will allow it to thicken as it simmers.
- Make some rice. Itís nice to have something to soak up that sauce.
Choose any kind of rice you like: white, brown, jasmine, basmati,
whichever. Noodles, especially Asian noodles, are another nice base for
Below are a handful of condiments called for in many Asian recipes. Once
you get to know them, you can play with them like mad.
- Soy Sauce. Indispensable in Asian cooking (and interesting in
non-Asian recipes as well). It packs a rich, salty taste, and is brewed
from soybeans and wheat. You can choose regular or less-sodium soy
sauce, and if there are gluten intolerances in your family, go for
tamari, which is similar but without wheat.
- Sesame Oil. Made from toasted sesame seeds, this oil has a nutlike
and aromatic flavor. Itís often added at the end of cooking to preserve
its wonderful flavor. Itís strong, so use in small amounts. Chili sesame
oil is a nice way to add that sesame flavor and some heat at the same
time. Keep it in the fridge to keep it from getting rancid.
- Hoisin Sauce. A thick, somewhat intense sauce made from ground
soybeans and some kind of starch, seasoned with red chilies and garlic.
Vinegar, Chinese five-spice, and sugar are also commonly added.
- Chili Garlic Sauce. Versatile, spicy, and garlicky, as the name
suggests. Itís got a slightly rough texture, and a dose of tanginess
- Oyster Sauce. Made from oyster extracts combined with sugar, soy
sauce, salt, and thickeners. This thick, dark brown sauce is a staple in
Chinese family-style cooking. Another way to add saltiness and umami (savoriness)
- Fish Sauce, or nam pla in Thai. A basic ingredient in
Southeast Asian cuisines, particularly Thai and Vietnamese. It has a
pungent odor, but when used in cooking, the flavor is much milder. The
aroma comes from the liquid given off by anchovies that have been salted
or fermented. This is the kind of thing you might want to keep to
yourself until your kids have eaten and enjoyed fish sauce in a recipe.
Two items to keep in the fridge:
- Ginger. Fresh ginger is one of the greatest ingredients in
stir-fries. Spicy, bracing, uplifting. Itís an easy way to add
- Garlic. Usually finely minced, sometimes thinly sliced.
The base of garlic and ginger heated together in oil is a
sign of a terrific stir-fry in the making.
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