Looking for take-out taste
January 12, 2010 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I need to take my vegetarian stir-fry to the next level. Any tips?

I have tried making my own sauces, using store-bought "stirfry" sauce, Thai recipes, Szechuan recipes. I use stainless and gas, fresh vegetables, garlic, onions, drain and soak tofu or use seitan. It always tastes the same or very similar.
posted by plexi to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
You specifiy that you're "looking for take-out taste," and for me that didn't happen until I started using oyster sauce as an ingredient. That seemed to be all the difference.

But you also say that "it always tastes the same," so I'm not sure whether that would defeat the purpose.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fish sauce? I dunno if that conforms to your vegetarianism, though. Sriracha? Spicy sesame oil?
posted by jckll at 12:17 PM on January 12, 2010

Came in here to say sesame oil as well.
posted by Cuppatea at 12:18 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fish sauce is not vegetarian unless the OP means vegetarian to mean pescetarian.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:20 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

(In other words, it's not like steak sauce, which isn't made of steak. Fish sauce is fish.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:21 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

A bit of fresh grated ginger will jazz up anything, especially with a soy sauce base. The flavors are really compatible.
Have you tried frying tofu? All it takes is a well drained firm tofu and a bit of safflower oil.
Peanut sauce?
Sauteed cashews or peanuts add a lot of flavor.
Toasted sesame oil is VERY good, also.
posted by caveat at 12:22 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Note that oyster sauce is sometimes, but not always, made with oysters. I don't know if you count oysters as vegetarian, since "vegetarian" means many different things to many different people. It's generally best to specific your meaning in a question like this.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:23 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

*to specify

(edit function please!)
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:24 PM on January 12, 2010

Vegetarian "fish sauce" is available in Asian food markets.

Here's a vegetarian oyster sauce.
posted by Morrigan at 12:27 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, mushrooms! Different ones give different flavors to a dish. Oyster, baby bella, shiitake (buy dried, then soak), etc.

Mushroom guide!
posted by caveat at 12:28 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, lightly fry an ungodly amount of garlic in your cooking oil of choice. Then crank the heat and toss in whatever you're stir-frying. Once that's cooked, drench in an ungodly amount of soy suace with a dash of sriracha. Serve on rice. Simple, quick, cheap, and so delicous.
posted by eggplantplacebo at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hot peppers, hot peppers, hot peppers!
posted by scratch at 12:32 PM on January 12, 2010

freeze and thaw your tofu beforehand to give it an interesting texture
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:40 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Which vegetables are you using? Using asian vegetables (I'm thinking eggplant, bok choy to start) is a good start...
posted by cestmoi15 at 12:42 PM on January 12, 2010

garlic + oyster sauce + little bit of sugar is the most basic vegetable stir-fry I think...

More ingredient suggestions:
Rice wine
Chinese cooking wine (e.g. Shao Tsing wine) - it is good to balance this with sugar
Spring onions / scallions
Shitake mushrooms, fermented beancurd
Rice vinegar, black vinegar
different types of soy sauce (e.g. sweet soy sauce, dark/black soy sauce... different recipes call for different types of soy sauce)
Chilli sauce / chilli oil
And don't underestimate sugar, salt and white pepper... a lot of times good vegetable stir-fry is about balancing simple flavors in different ways.

Also, cornstarch. Take-out seems to have tons of cornstarch as a gravy thickener... (I personally think it's really gross though - but then again I don't like Chinese take-out flavors in general... sort of icky compared to the authentic stuff.)

Different vegetables also have different tastes - so it's also good to combine the right vegetables with the right sauces.
posted by aielen at 12:47 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yep. It's the oyster sauce. That's the secret. See if you can track down a vegetarian oyster sauce (like the one Morrigan linked to) and try it out. I can't guarantee that the veg option will taste just the same as the non-veg option, though.
posted by cooker girl at 12:54 PM on January 12, 2010

My stir-fry sauce is usually a combination of rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin, and ginger. Which is pretty similar in principle to this Mark Bittman Korean style sauce.

And yes, I like condiments. Thankyouverymuch.
posted by grapesaresour at 12:54 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll also give props to mushrooms and sesame oil.

1) mushrooms - particularly portabellas - these infuse the rest of the veggies with some deep dark flavor, and help change the texture of the dish.

2) sesame oil - I used to use this a lot, but then hadn't for awhile, but just on Sunday night at a potluck had the best green beans ever, and it was due to the sesame oil - I promptly walked to the Asian grocery during lunch yesterday and bought some to take home again :>)
posted by franklen at 1:00 PM on January 12, 2010

Well, no one has mentioned MSG.

Try a small bit of marmite or vegemite in your sauce to approximate the umami take-out gets from MSG.

Or just buy some MSG. The 5# sacks come cheap at the Asian grocery.
posted by Seamus at 1:15 PM on January 12, 2010

Check out this pork stir fry recipe. Omit the pork, but the flavor is GREAT. Yum, maybe I'll make that for dinner soon.
posted by teragram at 1:34 PM on January 12, 2010

Oyster sauce is great, and Hoisin and Plum sauces are equally necessary items in your stir-fry arsenal. (each are used in addition to soy sauce, not in place of it). Also adding a splash of rice cooking wine (different from rice wine vinegar) will do good things.

Additionally, consider your aromatic base beforehand. Ginger, peppers, onions, and garlic are the standard, but sometimes you can leave out one or two, or change their proportions. Also, as mentioned above, try shallots in place of onions or garlic. Look into galangal instead of ginger in Thai dishes. In fact, look into curry pastes. That'll kick up some flare.

Putting a dusting of chopped basil leaves or cilantro can also change the color of dish. Lime juice likewise.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:37 PM on January 12, 2010

Even Mark Bittman's stir-frys are all the same :)
posted by AwkwardPause at 1:39 PM on January 12, 2010

Throw in some fruit. I love to add raisins, apples, oranges, pears and especially pineapple to stir-frys. I think the sweetness adds a neccessary balance to the saltiness of the sauces. Add them late in the cooking or they get soggy and lose their shape. Also try coconut.
posted by FairlyFarley at 1:44 PM on January 12, 2010

Oh! and chili pastes! There's a zillion types of chili pastes on your asian grocer's shelf, some in oil, some in sugar, garlic, or vinegar (like sri racha and its relatives), some with bean paste, some with little chunks of tofu or fish, tiny shrimp, etc.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:45 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You may already be doing this, but try cooking each ingredient separately. For years when I stir-fried I put everything together to maximize convenience, but then the distinct flavors of the vegetables all run together and it soon gets boring and blah. Cooking each ingredient separately (or maybe two like ingredients together) really helped.
posted by kprincehouse at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Miso paste
posted by gnutron at 2:33 PM on January 12, 2010

aielen really has it. Use all those ingredients - not at once.

Often I find with stir fries, people tend to do two things:

1. Use the same type and ratio of sauces each time.

2. Too many ingredients, wok too small and/or non-stick wok.

First thing leads to same-y stir fries, second thing leads to vegetables that are actually slightly braised and lack the flavour - the 'tang' - from the wok (also is your wok black and properly seasoned? I hope so) and also makes a watery sauce because the vegetables have given up too much moisture. Remember, stir-frying is just "searing" the vegetables.

For most woks that people have in most houses, I would be very reluctant to cook for more than two. Also, you can try stir frying in batches; carrots, onion, other hard stuff in one batch, and then pak choy & soft stuff separately, mixed on completion.

Here are some good combos:

Plum sauce (lee kee kum if they have it where you are) + ginger and/or shao tsing wine
oyster-sauce + garlic
light soy + honey and/or cashews
dark soy + malt vinegar
Red chilli + lemongrass + salt + garlic + fish sauce
Soy + brown sugar + ginger

Good luck!
posted by smoke at 2:34 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

As well as all of the above, try black bean sauce too.
Also, secret stir fry ingredient – sherry.
posted by tellurian at 2:57 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you are not opposed to fish or MSG, try adding a little hon dashi (powdered bonito stock).
posted by grieserm at 5:46 PM on January 12, 2010

Fish and fish products are not vegetarian, you are not a vegetarian if you consume them in my opinion you are a pescetarian which is no better or worse.

That being said mushroom based vegetarian oyster sauce is perfectly tasty and to me it is a nice substitute for the real thing. I have never tried vegetarian fish sauce, and I am sure there is some good stuff out there, but there is something about rotting fish juice that I doubt can be fully replicated.

One thing I am surprised nobody has mentioned is whether or not you are using a decent quality wok, and whether or not it has been properly seasoned. If you are not, I strongly suggest that you look into purchasing a decent sized cast iron or carbon steel wok and learn how to take care of it. A properly seasoned wok will add a lot of flavor on its own, and is pretty darn cool to boot.

Also you are getting a lot of ingredient suggestions in this thread, but in my opinion a lot of the magic of stir fry comes from the technique. Here are a couple of rules that I try to follow

1. Keep it dry. This means that you do not want to crowd up your pan with a bunch of stuff that will all release liquid, you do not want to be pouring sauces on willy nilly, and you do not want to end up braising a mass of limp vegetables and soggy tofu, less is more! If you want a lot of food cook several dishes.

2. Keep it simple, a lot of the best stir fry's are two or three ingredients, one of my best was garlic greens, leeks, a dash of fish sauce and a little salt and pepper, that was it and it was amazing

3. Know how long your ingredients need to cook. For example you would add your garlic and ginger right as the oil is getting hot then a few seconds later add your bean paste then once it gets fragrant add some onions and a bit later add your mushrooms and tofu, then add your oyster sauce and a bit of honey, then at the end add some peppers shortly before removing from the heat

4. Have everything ready before you turn on the heat, you do not want to be chopping up carrots (which are a favorite vegetable of mine, but in my opinion never turn out well in a stir fry) while you stir fry is going full blast, mis en plais my friend.

5. Keep trying, I learned these rules through several years of making terrible stir fries (vegetarian ones to boot), now I have a much better understanding of how the process works and i think my cooking has benefited from it

Ingredient suggestions:

broad bean paste
hot bean paste
dried tofu
pre fried tofu
chinese pickled vegetables (add these in moderation at the very end as you are about to serve, they will add a nice contrast in texture and flavor)
green beans
eggs (add these first and wait for them to solidify before adding other ingredients otherwise i promise you will regret it)
msg (a little goes a very long way)
sesame oil (this is something you drizzle over at the end, it is not a cooking oil)

good luck, feel free to PM me I have made a lot of mistakes you can learn from
posted by BobbyDigital at 7:49 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sesame Oil
Coconut milk
Lots of Garlic and Ginger

Try using some marinades like a Bulgogi style marinade.
posted by schyler523 at 11:08 AM on January 13, 2010

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