Cooking Tips · Techniques

Want a quick meal? Try a stir fry!

We all have those days when we have very little time to get dinner on the table or just don’t want to cook. I have written a series of three Cooking Tips (Tip 1, Tip 2, Tip 3) about how to put a quick meal on the table without resorting to a recipe.

One technique I did not include in those Tips but is a great one is Stir Fries. As I was making a yummy chicken and corn stir fry for dinner last night, I decided to make sure you knew about this technique.

According to The New Food Lover’s Companion, the definition of stir fry is a cooking method where you quickly fry small pieces of food in a large pan over high heat while stirring the food. There are tons of stir fry recipes out there but it is also a technique that once you master it, you can put together your own delicious creations. Here are few tips for you.

Almost all stir fries have 4 main components.

  • Protein – use tender, quick-cooking meats such as chicken, shrimp, scallops, lean pork/lamb. Use 12-16 ozs for 4 servings. Can also use about 10-12 ozs extra-firm tofu.
  • Vegetables – use about 4 cups per 4 servings. Fresh veggies such as bell peppers, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, onions, pea pods, cabbage, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms and bok choy are common. Some like to also add canned Asian veggies (bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, baby corn). If you wish to use these, decrease some of the fresh veggies.
  • Aromatics – garlic, ginger, shallots, green onions.
  • Sauce – although you can buy premade stir fry sauces, I encourage you to make your own. They are very simple to mix together and you can make them into whatever flavor you want. Typical sauce ingredients include soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar and brown sugar. Many will add cornstarch, which helps to thicken the sauce. Other options are citrus juice, sesame oil or ingredients that will create a desired flavor profile. For a Thai flavor, use curry paste and fish sauce. For sweet/sour, use ketchup. Use your imagination. A good place to start is about ⅔ cup per 4 servings.

Although some chefs or recipes may have their own way of doing stir fries, the following is a standard technique.

  1. Do your mise en place. Have all your ingredients out and cut appropriately into similarly sized pieces before you start cooking. As you are cooking over high heat, you want everything ready to go so you do not have to stop and cut something before adding it to the pan. This includes mixing together your sauce.
  2. Have your rice or noodles cooked beforehand as the stir fry process is very quick.
  3. Put a wok or sauté pan over medium high heat and allow it get very hot. Swirl in a neutral oil with a high smoke point such as peanut, canola or safflower. The food should sizzle when added to the pan.
  4. Add meat. Since you want to get some browning, do not stir constantly. Allow some time to sear in between tossing the meat around the pan. When brown on all sides, remove from the pan and set aside.
  5. Add the densest veggies (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, bell peppers) and cook until tender-crisp. Don’t overcook the veggies as you want them to have a bit of bite to them.
  6. Add in quicker cooking veggies (snap peas, onions, celery, corn, snow peas, mushrooms, zucchini, bok choy) and cook briefly.
  7. Whether it is the protein or the veggies, do not overcrowd the pan. If need be, cook in batches. If you overcrowd, your food will steam rather than sauté.
  8. Add in aromatics and briefly cook until fragrant. Some chefs will start the entire process with the aromatics so they flavor the oil before adding the meat. However, it is very easy for the aromatics to burn and so, many will wait to add them at the end and only cook until fragrant.
  9. Return meat to pan and pour in sauce. Cook until bubbling.
  10. Garnish as desired with fresh herbs, citrus juice, green onions or nuts.
  11. Adjust seasonings to taste.

My chicken and corn stir fry followed this basic outline. My protein was chicken thighs. My veggies were red onion and corn. My aromatics were garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes. My sauce was composed of oyster sauce, rice wine vinegar and toasted sesame oil. One departure from the general technique is that the chicken was tossed in cornstarch rather than adding it to the sauce. It all came together in under 15 minutes and when served with hot rice, it was a very satisfying meal that took me almost no time.

I encourage you to give stir fries a try in your kitchen. If you have never done it before, you may want to start with some pre-done recipes. After you feel comfortable with the process, have fun with it!