Top Secret Stir Fry Tips

A quick and easy stir fry makes for a great weeknight family dinner and it has the versatility to accommodate meat, seafood, tofu and any kind of vegetables you like. However, as handy as stir fry is, it’s easy to end up with soggy and uninspiring results if you’re not careful. Here are a few simple tricks and techniques that I’ve picked up over many years of stir fry experimentation.

1. Stock Your Pantry: Since stir fry is often the dish I turn to when I need to cook something quick, haven’t had time to go to the store or just can’t think of what to make, the key is keeping a nice array of sauces in your pantry, a few pieces of meat or seafood in your freezer and using whatever vegetables you have on hand.

Handy Sauces: You’ll want these around for stir frying, but they are great for all kinds of other uses, too. A hint of soy sauce can add a bit of complex saltiness to even non-Asian dishes or try a spoon of ketchup when you want a bit  tangy-sweetness.

  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Oyster sauce
  • Fermented black bean paste: If you’re not familiar with this one, give it a try. It’s salty and on the pungent side, but in small doses it goes brilliantly with beef or chicken. You’ll find it in any Asian market and in well-stocked grocery stores, too.
  • Dry sherry (or Shao Hsing wine)
  • Hoisin sauce (plum sauce)
  • Ketchup
  • Yank Sing’s Chili Pepper Sauce is one of our all-purpose favorites, too. As the label says, it’s “delightfully hot” with a nice saltiness from the fermented black bean paste that’s mixed in. It’s great for cooking and as a condiment at the table.

Other Pantry Items:

  • Chicken or Vegetable Stock — when you have a bit of leftover stock, freeze it in ice cube trays so you have some small portions when you need them.
  • Cornstarch
  • Jasmine Rice
  • One of our favorites for stir fry are thin slices of flank steak sliced across the grain. I usually keep a few small pieces in the freezer as a back-up. The meat is much easier to slice thinly while still partially frozen, so I toss it in the refrigerator in the morning and it’s usually just about right for slicing come dinner time.

2. Marinate! 20-30 minutes is plenty. You can marinate your protein of choice while getting your rice started and cutting your vegetables.

  • Beef: soy sauce, a dash of sherry and a tsp or so of cornstarch. I toss in a clove or two of smashed garlic and a few thick slices of ginger that I can easily pull out before serving.
  • Chicken: oyster sauce, soy sauce, dash of sherry and sesame oil.
  • Fish/Seafood: scallions, cilantro, minced ginger, a pinch of sugar and salt and a little vegetable oil. A few chunky slices of lemongrass are nice if you have some on hand — just remove them before serving.

3. Cook Everything Separately

  • Saute each vegetable separately in a hot pan until tender crisp (I use peanut oil because it has a high smoke point) and set aside.
  • After cooking the vegetables, saute your meat/seafood/tofu until just cooked — set aside in a separate bowl while you work on the sauce.
  • If you’re using tofu, you’ll want the firmer variety. Either gently sear it in a hot, well-oiled pan, or alternatively warm the tofu through by lightly steaming it or microwaving it in lieu of stir frying.

4. Make Your Sauce After Cooking Everything Else: The beauty of cooking and removing all your ingredients before attacking the sauce is that you can spend time to really adjust the flavors and consistency before combining everything together.

  • As soon as your meat/seafood/tofu is done, immediately turn down the heat and deglaze the pan with a little stock (1/2 cup or so) taking care not to burn the bits on the bottom of your pan. After de-glazing, start adding your sauces. This is where you can get creative. One of our favorite combos (especially for chicken or beef) is a few spoons of fermented black bean paste and a little dash of ketchup and sesame oil to help everything come together.
  • The cornstarch from the marinade works to thicken the sauce. If you find your sauce is too thin for your liking, just combine a few spoons of sauce with a tsp of cornstarch, mix well and return to the sauce. Cook for a few minutes until it thickens.
  • Take time to taste play around with the sauce until you’re happy. I like to add the meat/seafood/tofu back to the sauce for a minute then layer vegetables in a shallow bowl or platter, and spoon over the meat/seafood/tofu and sauce over.
  • Garnish with some chopped scallions or chopped cilantro – a little something fresh makes all the difference.
  • My husband is more of a sauce person than me, so I make quite a bit of sauce bringing the extra to the table and we’re all happy.
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5 thoughts on “Top Secret Stir Fry Tips

  1. I love East-Asian flavors and turn to them when I don’t want to cook Indian food. I appreciate the tips and have a couple of questions if you can:

    Does one need a wok to do this right ?

    Do you have any good tips for Tofu (I don’t eat meat).

    My vegetables always end up soggy. Do you think thats from covering them?

    Also, I cooked string beans this week using a recipe from Guy Fiere (FN) and I liked the flavors but it was a bit too sour for my taste. I want to figure out which ingredient to use less of to make it less sour. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/guy-fieri/szechuan-green-beans-recipe/index.html

    Thanks

    • You’d be surprised how handy ketchup is….. or maybe it’s just me. I’m not much for ketchup as a stand-alone condiment, but I often use a little dab in sauces when I want some tangy sweetness….. My 3 year old, of course, would put ketchup on most everything if I’d let him. There’s an interesting essay by David Steingarten (“The Man Who Ate Everything”) on Ketchup and it’s origins which is worth a read if you get the chance.

  2. I love this — I will try it next time. I usually just build the dish and add things rather than cook separately (except for the meat). I’d love to see how it affects the texture of the vegetables. Thanks for the idea. :)

  3. Thanks. I have a round 1 middle school cookoff tomorrow, and a district cookoff with a team made from the top 3 or round 1. Round 1 recipe: Stir fry and rice. THANKS!! Needed some tips.

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