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, let's break it down, review the basics and get everyone on their way to stir-fry success.
1. Read the recipe all the way through. The ingredients, the steps, everything. Getting a sense of the order of events so you know what's coming will make you more confident as you cook.
2. 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 don't want to realize suddenly that you still need to mince the garlic that's supposed to be sauteeing along with the broccoli.
3. 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 to make all the pieces roughly the same size.
4. 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 - most stir fries are flexible.
5. 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 isn't 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!
6. 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.
7. Cook in layers and batches. The secret to great stir-fries (and lots of other cooking methods, like frying and saut ing) 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. That's 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.
8. Add the sauce at the end. Only once your ingredients are cooked do you want to add any liquid. Otherwise, you wouldn't really be stir frying, but braising or poaching. A bit of cornstarch mixed into the sauce will allow it to thicken as it simmers.
9. Make some rice. It's 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 stir fries.
Here 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. It's often added at the end of cooking to preserve its wonderful flavor. It's 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. It's got a slightly rough texture and a dose of tanginess from vinegar.
- 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) to stir fries.
- 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. It's an easy way to add bang-for-your-buck flavor.
- 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.
Some stir-fry recipes to get you started:
Chicken, Broccoli and Sugar Snap Pea Stir Fry
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs
Kosher and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 cups small broccoli florets
6 ounces sugar snap peas, de-stringed
1 red, orange or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and slivered
3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup chicken broth, preferably less-sodium
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Hot cooked rice to serve (any kind: brown, white, jasmine, basmati)
Very thinly slice the chicken, then cut the slices into 1/2-inch pieces. Place the chicken in a shallow bowl, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with the cornstarch. Toss, and set aside.
Heat a very large skillet or a wok over medium high heat. Add half of the oil, then add the broccoli and sugar snap peas, and saut for two minutes. Add the peppers, and stir fry for another 2 minutes. Turn the vegetable mixture into the serving platter or bowl you will be serving the stir fry in.
Return the pan to medium high heat, and add the remaining half of the oil. Stir in the ginger and garlic, and then the chicken and stir fry for about 2 minutes until the chicken is mostly white, and almost cooked through. Return the vegetables to the pan along with the broth and bring to a simmer. Stir in the oyster and soy sauces along with the sugar, and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, the vegetables are crisp-tender, and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes more.
Serve the stir fry over the hot rice.
Stir Fried Chicken
2 tablespoons less sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 bunches scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces, white and green parts (about 20 scallions)
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Toasted sesame seeds to garnish
In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sherry, sugar and cornstarch.
In a large skillet or a wok, heat two tablespoons of the oil over high heat, add half the ginger, stir for 1 minute until you can smell the ginger, then add half the scallions and the chicken and saut for about 3 minutes until the chicken is mostly white on the outside but still slightly raw inside and the scallions have started to soften. Remove the chicken and scallions from the skillet to a serving bowl and set aside.
Repeat with the remaining oil, ginger, scallions and chicken and when the chicken is mostly cooked on the outside, return the cooked chicken and scallions to the pan, along with any juices that have accumulated, and add the soy sauce mixture. Stir to coat the chicken with the mixture. Add the chicken broth and sesame oil, bring to a simmer, and allow the sauce to thicken while the chicken finishes cooking, about 3 minutes more.
Serve hot, sprinkled with the sesame seeds if desired.
Spicy Stir Fried Beef
1 1/3 cup hoisin sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sriracha sauce, or to taste
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
2 pounds beef stir-fry strips
Coarse or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large onions, halved and very thinly sliced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and very thinly sliced
6 cups chopped broccoli
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
2 teaspoons freshly minced garlic
1 (10-ounce package) hot cooked udon noodles, prepared according to package directions
In a container with a lid, combine the hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, sriracha sauce and 1/2 cup water. Cover and shake to combine well.
Heat a large skillet or a wok over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and when hot, add half of the beef strips. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and stir-fry until no longer pink. Turn them into a serving dish. Repeat with another tablespoon of the oil and the rest of the beef strips, then add them to the first batch of cooked beef.
Wipe out the pan, and heat the remaining tablespoon oil, and heat over high heat. Add the onions and peppers, and stir-fry for 4 minutes until the vegetables are just tender. Add the broccoli, ginger and garlic, and stir-fry for 3 minutes, then add 1/4 cup water, and cover the pan. Allow to steam for another 2 minutes until the broccoli is crisp tender. Re-shake the sauce, and add it to the pan along with the cooked beef and stir-fry until everything is well coated with the sauce.
Wipe out the serving dish, place the noodles in the bottom, then top with the stir fry and serve hot.
Pork and Bok Choy Stir Fry
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided
1 1/2 pounds pork loin or chops, cut into 1-inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound baby bok choy, bottom trimmed and cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup less-sodium soy sauce, plus more if desired
1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce
6 scallions, sliced
Hot cooked rice (white or brown) to serve
Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium high heat. Season the pork with salt and pepper, and saut the pork in two batches, for 3 minutes each, until browned and almost cooked through. Transfer the pork to a plate as each batch is finished.
Return the pan to the heat, and add the remaining tablespoon oil. Add the bok choy and saut for 2 minutes until it begins to wilt. Add the soy sauce, chili garlic sauce, scallions and 1/2 cup water to the pan, and continue to cook for 1 more minute, stirring frequently, until the sauce has blended nicely and coats the bok choy. Return the pork to the pan and cook until the pork is cooked through, about 1 more minute, and everything is well combined.
Serve hot with the rice of your choice.
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