wok, don't run
February 11, 2011 9:21 AM   Subscribe

How (un)healthy is stir fry, as a cooking method?

I love stir fry and want to make it at home, but I'm trying to eat healthier these days. Assume that I'm using generally healthy ingredients (lean meats, veggies, vegetable oil).
posted by Afroblanco to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Given a set of ingredients, stir fry is among the healthier ways to heat them up.

Just go easy on the noodles/rice, and don't skimp on the veggies.
posted by caek at 9:26 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's pretty healthy given that all you're eating is healthy ingredients and a fairly small amount of veg oil.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:27 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Very healthy.
posted by proj at 9:34 AM on February 11, 2011

As long as you're not smothering everything with stir-fry sauces, you should be good.
posted by cooker girl at 9:35 AM on February 11, 2011

Its the rice and/or noodles that will get you if you're not careful. Also be wary the sauces you use. I can easily turn a super healthy stirfry into a junk-food equivalent with a ton of cheap fried noodles and a extra large dose of my favorite teriyaki glaze (with is essentially salt and sugar). It's unfortunate it all tastes so good...
posted by cgg at 9:36 AM on February 11, 2011

I feel that the stir frys my husband makes are fairly healthy, though he always starts out with what looks like a lot of oil to me. It's not har fto calculate, just measure how much oil you're putting in the pan and divide by number of servings, and that's the total fat for the meal (maybe subtract a tiny bit for what stays in the pan).

Two things to watch out for are (1) the rice (I grew up frugal, and putting small amounts of deliciousness on large amounts of rice, but after considering how much useless carbohydrate I eat, I'm trying to put my big scoop of veggies over a smaller amount of rice.) and (2) the sauce. Sauce ingredients range from fine (spices, garlic, ginger) to high-sodium (soy sauce, fish sauce, etc) to high-sugar (teriyaki, duck sauce, sweet-and-sour, sweet-chili) to high-fat (coconut/peanut)

(on preview, that's what cgg said.)
posted by aimedwander at 9:39 AM on February 11, 2011

We always use olive oil for our stir fry, making it a bit more healthy (?).
posted by Sassyfras at 9:48 AM on February 11, 2011

Stir fry as a cooking method is very healthy. Just watch your soy sauce/sweet & sour/whatever sauce toppers - keep the application light on those to keep sodium and sugar in check. If you serve with noodles or rice you can bump up the nutritional punch by using brown rice or whole grain/soba noodles in place of plain white or egg.
posted by superfluousm at 9:52 AM on February 11, 2011

Stir frying means cooking bite-sized pieces of food over very high heat while constantly stirring it. It's just a cooking method, like broiling, grilling, or sauteeing, and it's not particularly healthy or unhealthy in itself; that depends more on the ingredients used and their quantity. Some vegetable oils are high in omega 6 fatty acids, which can be unhealthy if you're not getting enough omega 3s.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 9:52 AM on February 11, 2011

1) Go easy on the oil. A tablespoon will do you, honest.

2) Pass on bottled/pre-made sauce and make your own from soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, a little sugar (or other sweetener like agave). I usually use equal parts soy sauce and vinegar (1/2 c each for a wok of veggies) and a tablespoon or two of sweetener (obviously will vary on type, sweeten to your taste). I'm not concerned about sodium intake at all, but there are low sodium soy sauces out there if you are. Or use a little less.

3) Get flavor from fresh garlic and ginger and/or other spices like hot peppers (or even better, sambal oelek), curry powder, mustard seeds, etc

4) Like others said, be cautious about the carbs. Short or medium grained brown rice is good. I like rice noodles a lot, but try to keep the amount down.
posted by radioaction at 9:58 AM on February 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you're using a wok or other hi-temp method, olive oil is not going to be your friend here. Go for something that can handle the heat. I recently bought a wok, seasoned it, and have been using it every. single. day. (I even make breakfast with it.)

I've found that stir-frying foods that the wok handles well* - veggies, proteins - incidentally keeps it healthy (both me and the wok). And if you chop things into smaller bits, use less oil and high heat, you can be shovelling piping hot food in your mouth within 5 minutes of kicking on the hob.

(Sidenote: I've been feeling/eating healthier since I bought my wok, but YMMV.)

*well, meaning that the food doesn't want to stick to it (starchy things that aren't so great for you, especially when fried in oil).
posted by iamkimiam at 9:59 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Use grapeseed oil, go easy on the oil, use lots of veggies (bok choy is great!), learn to portion your rice properly, use brown rice. Enjoy!
posted by mazola at 10:01 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stir frying is very healthy, but it's easy to go overboard with the oil. I toss my meat and veggies in oil before hitting the insanely hot (cheap, carbon steel) wok, so I'll typically use less than 2 teaspoons of oil total. And since my wok is very well seasoned and has a beautiful patina (2 years soap free!) I often dry fry cabbage, carrots and celery without any oil at all; you have to move very fast!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

And ditto the 'don't use bottled/pre-made sauces.
posted by mazola at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2011

The trick is becoming friends with spices. Ground ginger, tumeric, garlic and cumin make things tasty! Also, vindaloo, harissa and cayenne. Experiment with cinnamon. That way, you can skip the pre-made sugary sauces and whip something up that's really good for you. Once you're confident with the ground stuff, move on to grating your own ginger and garlic.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:07 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch it on the oil, I've seen people dump huge amounts in. There's no need to actually "fry" like you would fried chicken, think more cooking in a pan while stirring. If things stick add some water, and stir more.
posted by yohko at 10:17 AM on February 11, 2011

The key is to get the oil shimmering-hot before you throw things in (this is also why olive oil is a poor choice, since it starts to degrade at a relatively low temperature), and to chop things fairly small. Both of these will minimize the amount of time spent cooking, and the amount of oil absorbed (you should really only need a thin layer of oil)
posted by kagredon at 10:22 AM on February 11, 2011

Sassyfras: "We always use olive oil for our stir fry, making it a bit more healthy (?)"

Sorry to say, you're doing it wrong. You want to stir fry with as much heat as you can- ideally more than your typical home gas range can even output. Olive oil, which has a low smoke point, will burn and scorch at those temperatures. Try canola or grapeseed.

Also, separate and apart from heat, it's a good practice to cook your components separately- brown your garlic in the oil with some spice, then remove it. Brown meat, remove. Add the veggies. Cook those, then add the meat and garlic bits back in.
posted by mkultra at 10:23 AM on February 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Seconding Anatoly: it's what you put in the wok that matters.

I also recommend staying away from ready-made sauces. Once you have the ingredients it's really not hard to make your own and many of them are quite simple: soy sauce, sherry, cornstarch, a little sesame oil.

I think these bottled sauces are worse than nothing. A classic but unpretentious stir-fry starts by marinating the meat in one sauce, then partially cooking the meat and removing it from the wok. Then the vegetables and flavorings (garlic, ginger, scallions) are fried and shortly before the vegetables are done, the meat is added back to finish cooking. When everything is finished the final sauce is added and cooked only until it thickens.

That's basically 3 separate phases of marinating/cooking, with different flavors developing at each stage. A bottled sauce tries to compress everything into one step (fry meat and veg till done, dump in sauce at end) with no chance to modulate heat and timing for the different ingredients. You might as well be making a stew.

The fundamental skill required for stir-frying is a sense of timing. Decent knife skills help too, but I'm no artist there and I turn out a darn good stir-fry anyway. Find a good Chinese cookbook or blog that explains what cues to look for (and listen, and smell - no time to taste!) and learn some classic recipes and you'll never want sauce from a bottle again.

For bonus points, here are my favorite "teaching" cookbooks for Chinese food:

The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp
The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo holy crap, used copies are going for $58?
To a lesser extent, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young is helpful.

The kind of stir-frying that these books teach is light, fresh, delicious, and a far cry from oily take-out with gloopy brown sauce.
posted by Quietgal at 10:28 AM on February 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

Marinating will give you a much more flavorful result without having to use as much sauce, if you're trying to cut back on that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 AM on February 11, 2011

Stir frying has made our diet much better, but it's not so much about the cooking method as about the fact that stir-fried vegetables with garlic, ginger, chili (or szechuan peppercorn oil), and soy sauce are so delicious that the two of us are eating a pound or more of vegetables with every meal. Another good flavor combo that gives you that nice 'beef with broccoli' flavor is garlic, (ginger optional), chili (optional), shaoxing wine (or a dry sherry), and soy sauce. I'm not deeply concerned about sodium (no blood pressure issues in our families, and we have regular checkups), and soy sauce is my partner's absolute favorite flavor in the world, but when he's not around I've made stir fries with just veggies, oil, maybe a few tbsp of water for steaming, and salt and that's incredible too.

If you do stir fries with meat, I recommend doing it the Chinese way - 1/2 lb of meat and 1 lb of vegetables. It comes out delicious, and the meat acts as a seasoning rather than as the main item so you still get nice healthy veggies. Do cook the meat and veggies separately though to get the best result - add garlic, add meat, season, cook, take out, add veggies, cook, add meat back in briefly to re-heat/mix.
posted by Lady Li at 10:58 AM on February 11, 2011

Quick follow up Lady Li: the 1/2#protein-to-1#veg is serving two people, plus a starch, right?
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 11:26 AM on February 11, 2011

Whose definition of "healthy" are we using?

My personal definition is "a variety of foods, mostly non-processed, that give you the required nutrients without too much of things that can have ill effects when eaten in excess." Stir fry is a really easy way to get that.

By my definition, a peanut sauce is perfectly healthy, despite the high fat content, because there's nothing unhealthy about fat in moderate amounts. Soy sauce isn't unhealthy either, because I don't eat many salty, processed foods, and rarely go over my recommended daily sodium. The same logic works for a teriyaki glaze. A sweet sauce isn't unhealthy unless you're using sweet sauces all the time.

Of course, someone who is struggling to cut down on fat, sugar, and salt in their diet might define these things as "unhealthy" because they're afraid they're eating them in excessive amounts... but then it's not really the particular dish that's unhealthy, but the entire diet.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:57 AM on February 11, 2011

Seconding Anatoly - vegetable oils are not healthy. Use coconut oil, butter, or animal fat.

Then your stir-fries will be extremely healthy.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 12:16 PM on February 11, 2011

As long as it isn't chicken fat.

Or balance out the omega 6 with another meal of high omega 3.
posted by gjc at 12:42 PM on February 11, 2011

You can also stir-fry in stock or even plain water if you don't want to use oil at all. It's the heat/tossing that cooks the stuff. And for a different, high heat nutritious oil try macadamia nut oil. Yum.
posted by Kerasia at 1:22 PM on February 11, 2011

Peanut oil is sometimes contaminated with aflatoxin (because of an underground fungus that affects peanuts), which is a shame because it's the most delicious oil to fry in by far. Peanut sauces and just ordinary peanuts have it too, probably more so because the process of making oil removes some or most of the toxin.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:11 PM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Re OneMonkeysUncle - sounds about right. We usually prefer to have two dishes at dinner, so our starch is typically pasta or a flavored rice dish rather than white rice, and I've usually got leftovers doing it that way. So if you only had starch as a supplement to the stir-fry rather than as a dish in its own right, you'd probably have about the right amount for two with no leftovers.

Also it is NOT the same to 'stir fry' with water or stock instead of oil. You can't get the pan as hot that way, and in general you're steaming/boiling your vegetables. If you have reason to be intensely cutting back on oils and fats in your diet, then it's certainly possible and you might be able to make it taste good, but I expect you'd achieve a fairly similar result with steaming.
posted by Lady Li at 9:11 PM on February 11, 2011

If you fry in a hot enough wok, you will actually see very little oil in the food itself. A proper stir fry should take 2 minutes, tops. As everyone else says above, just avoid adding any "stir fry sauce" or the like, and you're actually eating a very healthful meal.
posted by Gilbert at 11:25 PM on February 11, 2011

Wok cooking produces healthy food, but wok cooking may be unhealthy, even carcinogenic, for the cook:
The lung cancer incidence in Chinese women is among the highest in the world, but tobacco smoking accounts for only a minority of the cancers. Epidemiologic investigations of lung cancer among Chinese women have implicated exposure to indoor air pollution from wok cooking, where the volatile emissions from unrefined cooking oils are mutagenic.
posted by NortonDC at 5:27 PM on February 12, 2011

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