If I was put on automatic pilot in the kitchen, I would most likely grab my wok and start stir frying.
Stir-frying is a method of cooking that is super popular in Asian cuisines. It is one of my favorite methods of cooking because it retains the natural texture and flavor of ingredients very well. Stir fry looks simple on paper, is fairly easy to execute, but taking a stir fry from good to great is a bit of an art. I’ve made pretty bad stir fry in my life. Anyone relate? But over the years, I’ve learned that with a few tips and tricks, and some practice, you can make a pretty legit stir fry right in your own home.
So here we go. I am sharing 8 tips to a great stir fry. These are tips and tricks I’ve gathered over the last three decades of observing and consuming lots and lots AND LOTS of stir fry 🙂 Happy reading, happy stir frying!
1. Prep ingredients before you start cooking
Years ago, I made Pad Thai from scratch for the first time. There is a lot of prep work for pad thai, and most stir fry in general. I soaked the noodles, chopped up all the vegetables and meat, and created a mixture of pad thai sauce. I thought I got all the prep work done (note: I thought), so I heated up the wok and was ready to rock and roll. I added noodles into the wok, and then realized the next ingredient is beans sprouts and it is still in the fridge. So I panicked, ran to the fridge, grab the bean sprouts, and then realized they needed to be washed. All this time, my poor pad thai noodles sat in the high heat wok getting overcooked and is starting to stick together. Pad Thai noodles has a small window of cooking time – too much time on the wok and it is a GOOEY MESS. I panicked more when I saw that. I can spare you the rest of the story. Lesson from my Pad-Thai-disaster is to prep, prep, prep. Take everything out, chop everything up, have everything ready sitting next to the stove, before you turn on that stove and start cooking. Why? Because the stir frying process goes fast. More on that later.
2. Cook in ridiculously high heat
When I say ridiculous, I mean ridiculous. Translation? Heat up the wok until you feel your kitchen, or at least your stove area, warming up. Yes, literally. But stop right before the smoke detector goes off. 🙂 In all seriousness, turn your stove on high heat, put oil in the wok, and just wait patiently till it heats up before you put in your first ingredient. Which leads us to the next point.
3. Your wok (or pan) needs to achieve high heat and maintain it well
Some woks and pans retain heat better than others. Use the one that retains heat the best. Stir fry is a cooking technique that cooks the ingredients on a very high heat, very quickly. Due to that, it retains flavor and texture extremely well. It prevents vegetables from turning soggy, meat from getting tough, Pad-Thai noodles from turning into gooey mash (unless you are ME during my Pad-Thai-disaster phenomenon).
This leads to another common question. Do I need a wok to make stir fry? The honest answer is, it depends on the stir fry. In my personal opinion when making more authentic Chinese cuisine, a wok is more necessary than Americanized/westernized Chinese cuisine. If you own an electric stove, a flat bottom wok would work better. If you own a gas stove, you can also use a flat bottom or round bottom wok. If you don’t own a wok, use a pan, especially one that heats up and maintains heat well. It will still do the job. Also, I use non-stick woks and pans. This will save you a lot of trouble when cleaning up. In general, woks maintain heat better, but some dishes may not need the heat maintenance as much as other dishes.
I know, it’s never straightforward.
4. Do not throw freezer cold items into hot wok
This will very quickly lower the temperature of the wok and thus defeat the purpose of using a nice, fancy wok or pan that retains heat well. Make sure meat and vegetables are defrosted. If possible, sit them out in room temperature for 30 minutes or so before cooking them.
5. Add ingredients into wok as dry as possible
Stir fry always starts with hot oil in the wok/pan, and then ingredients are added to that hot wok/pan. Pat dry your meat, vegetables, tofu (there is a LOT of water in tofu) or other ingredients prior to adding them into the pan. If ingredients are added wet, it will create a pool of water in the pan, and you will end up boiling or steaming the ingredients, instead of searing. When stir fry is done right, it should create a slight char on the outside of your ingredients. If ingredients are soaked in marinate before adding to the pan, just try your very best to get it in as dry as possible. Understanding there is no perfect situation :). Typically, you add the sauce for the stir fry after the ingredients are more than halfway cooked. If you add a lot of sauce/marinate at the beginning, you will be “boiling” your ingredients in the sauce, instead of searing them in hot oil.
6. Do not overcrowd wok or pan
When cooking stir fry, make sure there is room to move your items around. In fact, if you are making a huge portion, make it in two (or three batches) to avoid over crowding. Stir frying requires you to constantly moving the items around the wok or pan throughout the process. If the wok or pan is crowded, it is harder to stir the items around, and items will be cooked unevenly. Also, in addition to heat retention, this is another reason why a wok works well for stir fry. Typically, due to its shape, there is more room to move items around in a wok.
7. Stir, stir, stir
You saw it in the previous point, but it is worth mentioning again. It is called stir fry for a reason. Keep STIRRING that pan! Do not walk away during a stir fry. At the beginning after just adding ingredients into the wok and pan, especially the meats, I like to wait 30 seconds, stir, and wait another 30 seconds, and then stir. This will nicely brown the outside of the meat. Once the outside of the ingredients is mostly cooked, I keep stirring that pan like there is nothing else I am supposed to do. STIR AWAY.
8. Different ingredients cook for different lengths of time
If you are stir frying more than two ingredients, sometimes you will add one item into the wok, remove it just before it is fully cooked, set aside, and repeat for one or more items, before combining them at the end to finish cooking. At times, you can cook most vegetables together in one go, but let’s say you are cooking corn and broccoli. They cook for different lengths of time. If they are thrown in at the same time, by the time your broccoli is fully cooked, your corn is most likely rubbery and overcooked. Give some thought to the cook time for each item, and cook them in the most efficient way possible. For example: If you are stir frying chicken with green beans, carrots and corn – throw in green beans (longest to cook of the veggies), then carrots, then corn, remove and set aside veggies, add meat, cook meat (to get a nice sear on the meat), throw veggies back in, add stir fry sauce sauce. You get the picture 🙂
Having the right appliances goes a long way in most cooking/baking. There are many great kitchen appliances out there for stir fry, but I want to share with you the items I typically use in our household when I make a stir fry:
Turners – When using non-stick appliances, it is SO important to use a turner/spatula that does not scratch the non stick surface. It also needs to withstand high heat – this one can take up to 600 degrees F (Wowza!). I love the flexibility of the tip of this turner as well. It’s my gem!
Knives – Last but not least. Invest in good knives to chop up all these vegetables and meat. Even if you are not stir frying – this is such a great investment for the kitchen. There are many great knives brands out there, but this is just what I use and have had them for more than 10 years (and counting).
Stir frying is an art. Have FUN with it! And then sit back and enjoy the FRUITS of your labor! Honestly, that is my favorite part about cooking – the eating at the end. I know lots of you love and good stir fry and stir fry a ton – chime in and let me know what other tips and tricks you know of! I wanna LEARN!
Also, some of my favorite stir fry? RIGHT HERE. So delicious, and making my me so HUNGRY. Check these tried and true stir fry recipes out!
This post contains affiliate links. I will get a small commission if you purchase the item(s) via some of the links attached at no additional cost to you. Thanks for supporting Joyous Apron!