Why don't my stir-fries taste good?
August 19, 2020 12:21 AM   Subscribe

New to cooking and to healthy food! Help me fix this meal.

I started cooking dinners for myself since the pandemic, and I realized that basic variations of pasta or pizza, while easy to make, delicious, and satiating, aren't the healthiest every night!

I don't eat meat, so everyone suggested trying a stir fry with veggies (have used squash, snap peas, green beans, and broccoli) and tofu. But it tastes bad to me - well, bland. For seasoning, I use sesame oil, soy or teriyaki sauce, fresh ginger, fresh garlic, and a little bit of Siracha. Top with sesame seeds or peanuts.

What is this recipe missing? The only way I sort of enjoy it is with rice and adding sugar to the sauce, but that defeats the purpose of avoiding heavy carbs every night.

(Note that I dislike green onions/scallions and cilantro, so I don't cook with them).
posted by CancerSucks to Food & Drink (49 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
How much of the seasoning are you using, and are you using (enough) salt? If you add more salt than you think you need, does it taste better?
Are you marinating the tofu at all?
Some acid, like lemon or lime juice, might also help.
posted by trig at 12:30 AM on August 19, 2020 [18 favorites]

In addition to salt, the other trick with stir fry is a high temperature (there should be a certain char element for the right flavor) and enough oil. If your food just seems steamed try turning up the heat and reducing the amount you put in the pan at once.

It's usually salt though. A small amount of sugar can also be powerful.

Food isn't just about what you don't eat, it's about what you DO eat, too. A plate full of veggies with a sweet glaze is not the same as a plate of pasta; a teaspoon or two of sugar is not the same as a cup of it.
posted by Lady Li at 12:37 AM on August 19, 2020 [21 favorites]

Try adding a dash of rice vinegar and some white pepper. Also try frying the tofu by itself until it's golden brown, remove it from the pan, stir-fry your veggies, and then add the tofu back in. I think that you're almost there.
posted by mezzanayne at 12:40 AM on August 19, 2020 [13 favorites]

How are you adding the seasoning? I came to cooking late, and there's a lot of things nobody tells you, and you never find out unless you watch someone else do it.

The following may seem basic, but I know I had no idea about the procedures of cooking at one point, and being able to see what other people do in a step-by-step fashion is useful.

This is my procedure for fried rice, but it could work for stir-fry as well. People who're better at cooking may blanch at some of the things I do, but oh well.

1) Dice some fresh garlic and ginger. Maybe some onion too. I dice everything sort of like how you dice an onion.
Gordon Ramsey dices an onion: Video

2) Heat the oil up first, to medium-low heat. This varies by stove! Real Chinese cooking uses pretty high heat,

3) Fry up the garlic, ginger and onion for a few minutes. The edges of the garlic should brown a bit in a minute or two at the right heat. It's important to do this step first! The oil takes up the flavors of the garlic, ginger and onion, and gives everything a flavor.

4) Toss in the veggies to cook for awhile. Give them at least a few minutes. You add these relatively early because veggies take longer to cook.

5) Add proteins. For you, tofu.

6) At this point, I add the rice. Notice, no soy sauce or any seasonings yet! You have to coat the rice with oil first, or the rice soaks up straight soy sauce, and gets weird. Stir it, and let the rice heat up.

7) Toss in an egg and scramble it. This happens fast, so it's almost your last step.

8) Now you toss in some soy sauce. Fish sauce too maybe. You get hit in the face with a blast of hot fish sauce smell, but it makes the final product better.

9) Lastly, I add some fresh ground pepper. The soy sauce generally has enough salt. The pepper really unlocks a lot of flavors for me.


Again, this isn't really Chinese fried rice. I don't have a wok, but it's edible, and seems to work. The process of heat up oil, add aromatics, add veggies, add proteins, then add sauces is kind of a template for a lot of things, and once you get the pattern down, you start seeing it everywhere.
posted by fnerg at 12:57 AM on August 19, 2020 [18 favorites]

Def make sure you are using a wok on very high heat with veg oil, to get the sear like lady li suggests.

Marinate firm tofu for a few hours in your sauce. It def needs more time than the stir fry time to taste of much.

Try different stir fry sauces. I quite like using a peanut based satay sometimes for a nice change. Black bean paste with a ton of garlic is good too. Or a spicy Szechuan mmmm.

Get some cans of bamboo shoots to add additional texture. I love how bamboo shoots soak up sauces. And oyster mushrooms.

Use freshly chopped chilli for a different kind of heat that is infused throughout the dish.
posted by like_neon at 12:59 AM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you're pescatarian, you could try adding a little fish sauce for extra depth of flavour. Otherwise, I'd try swapping out the sriracha for gochujang: I've heard good things about this gochujang tofu recipe, for instance (just leave out the scallions).
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:06 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

The spices you list should get you quite a bit of flavour so two questions. Are you adding enough of these spices? And are you marinading your tofu? Tofu is bland and needs a lot of help. And lastly, adding a pinch of sugar to your sauce that goes with lots of veg and tofu is not the same as drowning your plate in sweet and sour sauce or anything like that. A little sugar may well round out the flavours so don’t be afraid to try it.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:54 AM on August 19, 2020

My stir fries tasted bland also until I learned that tastiness comes from:
1. the right amount of salt for EACH ingredient
2. a pleasing variety of textures,
3. Cooking each ingredient in its own best way, separately

1. take the tofu, and pan fry it until it has that golden skin. This takes quite a while. Remove tofu.
2. whisk the eggs and make an omelette. Near the end, cut into pieces with spatula. Remove eggs.
3. Do the aromatics (onion/garlic) first, then add veggies in appropriate sequence. Remove veggie mix.
4. Make the sauce: usually soy, some vinegar, some sweetener, the ginger, and a spice paste like sriracha or gochujang. Mix it up, and taste it. If you don't have homemade, a jar from the store is fine.
5. Now, put rice in, stir fry it a bit to unclump, then add back the veggies and tofu, then finally add sauce just for a bit to cook it and caramelize its sugar.
6. top with something crunchy for texture: chopped nuts, fried shallots
7. top with herbs for that top note, maybe even parsley or arugula
8. Enjoy!

(It's possible that all you're missing is the tang of the vinegar (or tamarind) along with a bit of sweetness, along with saltiness, and some umami, which is the basis of most stir-fry sauces. By the way, this is sugar used as a spice, so it's ok!)
posted by dum spiro spero at 2:21 AM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

When I learned to not crowd the pan, my veg game improved dramatically.

Too much in the pan can cause a steaming effect & you won't get any nice browning. Leave lots of room & pat your ingredients dry before cooking.

I often fry things separately then combine at the very end to blend flavours. This way I have more control over the moisture/crunchiness/doneness of each element & can adjust the oil as needed .
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 3:13 AM on August 19, 2020 [8 favorites]

I like oyster sauce in my stir fries. I don't think anyone has mentioned that.

Also MSG. Another staple of commercial Asian cooking, nothing to be afraid of.

And I like my them sweeter in general (so, onions). But everything is a matter of personal taste!
posted by xdvesper at 3:56 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Agree with the advice above - nthing that it's important to have a very hot pan/wok, and not to overcrowd the ingredients or else they steam, rather than getting nice and crunchy. I had a Chinese friend once tell me that anything stir-fried should have a max of three vegetables plus one protein. So the stir fry veg packets you can buy here in the UK have too many ingredients - cabbage and carrots and peppers and onions and mushrooms etc.

For tofu, also hard agree that you should cook it separately. I drain and press firm tofu, then cube and dust in cornflour, salt and pepper or chilli, before frying with just a bit of oil in a non-stick pan. turn regularly for nice golden crunch. Have also had success coating in miso paste and cooking in the oven.

My go to stir-fry sauce is from 'Chinese Cooking for Dummies' by Martin Yan. I find that one batch makes enough for at least two rounds of stir-fry each serving 2/3, but then I don't like my stir-fry to be over-sauced. I often add chilli flakes or chilli garlic or chillis and i don't stress if the proportions are not exact. for the chicken broth i use half a stock cube and hot water and it tastes fine! i sometimes leave out the chinese wine if i'm making it for someone who doesn't drink.

2/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth (half stock cube and half cup hot water)
1/3 cup rice wine
3.5 tbsp sugar (i usually leave this out)
1 tbs sesame oil
1/4 tsp white pepper (I use black pepper if I don't have white)
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp minced garlic (often I use more)
1tbsp minced ginger (often I use more, or chunk of frozen chopped ginger)
2tbs cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water

combine everything together in a bowl except the cornstarch and water mix, cooking oil and ginger. in your very hot wok, add the cooking oil, swirl, then add the ginger and garlic and cook briefly until you get a nice smell (30 seconds?). add the combination of everything else (except cornstarch) and bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for 1 minute. then add the cornstarch and water mixture to thicken, and cook for another minute or two. you should end up with a nice brown, shiny, thick, savoury sauce. sometimes it has a few lumps, but you don't notice them when you eat.

I then decant this sauce, and cook my vegetables in the wok, often one at a time as advised above. for brocoli, i will often steam in the microwave for a couple of minutes so that it's cooked a bit. then add some of the sauce and, finally, top with cooked crunchy tofu, sesame seeds and coriander/chilli. my favourite combo is mushrooms, brocolli and pepper with tofu. don't add the tofu and then mix extensively with the veg - makes the tofu crumble even if you've carefully cooked it separately.

the rest of the sauce keeps in the fridge for at least a week.

hope that is helpful!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 4:10 AM on August 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

Seconding oyster sauce; that was the thing that amped things up from "meh" to "hey, this tastes like from a restaurant" for me.

But you've got a lot of flavor ingredients going on, so I am inclined to think that you may not be using enough of them. How much are you using?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:13 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you're missing salt and pepper. And are you cooking the veggies in hot oil? I prefer peanut oil for stir fry but canola/vegetable oil is fine. I would as also add onion and a chili pepper of some sort. Heat oil, cook onion first (~5 min), then add garlic, ginger, chili (~2 min) , then other veggies, then tofu, then soy/teriyaki sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper, and siracha. Taste, and if too bland, add more seasoning.
posted by emd3737 at 5:01 AM on August 19, 2020

Came to mention making a cornstarch slurry to help coat the food with the sauce. If you are watching carbs, I believe xanthan gum will accomplish the same thing without adding more carbs.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:44 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Stir frying should be done over high heat; the chef who taught me to stir fry basically had me heat up oil until it was screamingly hot so when I tossed in my bowl of pre-chopped ingredients in sauce, you'd get a giant fireball. Fireballs make food taste better, it's a proven fact. This is possibly only do-able on a gas stove. What kind of tofu are you using? If you think things are bland, I would suggest using dry spiced tofu; I feel like it holds up way better as the centerpiece of a stir fry than the kind of softer tofus you find at like Whole Foods. (You may have to go to an Asian grocery to find it; the soft white kind is fine for things like ma pao tofu).

If your sauce (soy, terikyaki) gets kind of watery and left behind, try adding a bit of corn starch to thicken things.

Oyster sauce is a great and wonderful thing, and I think there's a vegetarian version if you don't want the traditional oyster based sauce.

You can also stir fry in hoisin sauce; there is some sugar but not a huge quantity.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:47 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone who suspects you might be under-seasoning; in my experience the difference between home-cooked food and restaurant/takeout food is "more salt, butter and seasoning than you could ever bring yourself to add", and I say that as someone who is less pearl-clutchy about salt and butter consumption than the average mefite.

Another thing that can improve the overall flavour profile is toppings - adding a squeeze of lime juice, a sprinkling of crushed peanuts or crispy onions or a drizzle of hoi sin sauce over the finished product can also help.
posted by terretu at 5:57 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sorry if someone has already said it, but you need fish sauce.
posted by terrapin at 6:02 AM on August 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

Add more sauce than you think you'll need and thicken it with a slurry of corn or potato starch in a couple tablespoons of the same sauce. Definitely add acid of some kind, rice vinegar is the most neutral one. And give the whole dish a little time on the pan to come together after you add the sauce - no idea how "authentic" it is, but I turn the heat down to low while I make the starch.

Starch-wise, try mung-bean noodles for a low-carb option. Plus there's such a variety of asian noodles to try! I like Thai style rice-flour ribbons, they take on the sauce very nicely.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 6:04 AM on August 19, 2020

I’m on my phone, but Omnivores Cookbook is a Chinese cooking blog/website with uniformly good recipes, including some veg and vegan options. She also has some good posts on techniques. I generally sub tofu in as a protein in stir fries and it works well.

Also: add roasted salted peanuts at the end of cooking. Crunchy, delicious, nice way to add something to a stir fry that didn’t come out right. Sriracha is also a standard choice to make bland stir fry more exciting.
posted by momus_window at 6:27 AM on August 19, 2020

Lots of great info here. Just wanted to add that I’ve found using a regular sauté pan or skillet works better than a wok if you’re using a regular stove. It heats more evenly.
posted by liet at 6:46 AM on August 19, 2020

Also, are you using fresh vegetables or frozen? A bag of frozen mixed vegetables tends to taste like mushy nothingness compared to fresh veggies.
posted by greta simone at 6:50 AM on August 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Wait, wait, wait a second -- you say you're able to fix your stir fry with the ADDITION of rice? And also sugar? This is an important clue that would contra-indicate increasing your salt or other seasonings.

1. If your stir fry tastes less bland after adding rice, i.e. diluting the seasonings you already have in there, then increasing the mount of salt or spices or sauces is not the way to go. Clearly, you have more than enough salt and spices in there, so that rice which soaks up those seasonings is improving your dish. What this tells me is that when you say your stir fry is "bland" you mean it's lacking a certain substance, a mouth-feel, a satisfying meal-ness after you eat it. IMO you can fix this by

- including stir fry ingredients which add body e.g. mushrooms, baby corn, and *sigh* more oil.

- marinating your tofu before preparation so that the tofu registers more substantially on your taste buds instead of tasting like just roughage to chew through

- balancing textural elements in your stir fry, e.g. add hard crunch by tossing in some peanuts and sliced water chestnuts, use silken tofu and mushrooms for the sensation of soft & full-mouth substance, baby corn for a creamy crunch, whole grape tomatoes for bright squishy pop, spinach and onions for creamy texture when cooked, and so on. The more elements you get, the more satisfyingly meal-like this stir fry will feel.

- specifically add ingredients that mimic rice, if you really love rice with your stir fry. The obvious answer here is riced cauliflower tossed in at the very last minute, but also you can try cooked whole mung beans -- it's high in protein, fiber, and carbs are complex; for almost two years I've been using mung beans in place of rice in my meals and I can highly recommend it.

2. Secondly, the addition of sugar improving your dish is ... very interesting. Do you tend to like sweet stir fries? Like, are you a fan of orange chicken (or orange tofu, as the case may be) as opposed to the spicier or saltier chinese takeout like "Black Bean Sauce" preparations? This is a more difficult taste preference to "fix" by tweaking your recipes. The taste of sugar is just difficult to replicate without sugar, and someone who just intrinsically prefers sweet sauces over savory ones is never going to feel quite as satisfied with savory recipes as you do with sweet.

So consider:

- is the amount of sugar you need to add to your stir fry ... okay? Like, you already cut out the rice, you're eating something rather healthy, and perhaps what amounts to one teaspoon of extra sugar per serving of stir fry isn't that big a deal? Is it worth sweating over?

- your preference for sweet sauces isn't genetically coded into your genes, it's actually the result of your gut microbiome. This is freaky and 100% true. It isn't you craving that sugar, it's the sneaky little buggers who live in your belly. And the thing is, you can kill 'em all off and replace your entire gut microbiome with a very different microbiome with different cravings in under one month - some say within 14 days! What you do is you give up all added sugar, all sweeteners (even Equal or Sweet n Low and Stevia), all naturally sweet fruits/veggies/grains for that month. No sugar in your coffee, no desserts, and no muffins for breakfast, of course, but also no grapes or raisins, no beets, no sweet corn, no dates, no figs, no apricots, no craisins, no mangoes, possibly no sweet peas even. You have to be super careful about store-bought items - most types of bread have HFCS, you won't be able to eat ketchup or many types of soy sauce, you have to make sure there's no sugar hiding under weird-ass names in the ingredient lists -- no high fructose corn syrup, not any kind of "syrup" at all really, nothing that's been "sweetened with fruit juice", etc. And then, at the end of the month, you will find that you no longer enjoy sweet things nor crave it. You can then get back to eating small amounts of sugar and sweets, and you'll naturally want to eat waaaaaay less sweet things than before. The sneaky buggers are dead. Long live your new gut microbiome!
posted by MiraK at 7:17 AM on August 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

Flavor is salt, acid, fat, heat. You are probably not using enough salt/acid (soy sauce/rice vinegar). Also, get the oil in your pan hot hot hotter than you think - literally to the smoke point.
posted by gnutron at 7:28 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

I make a lot of stirfries. You don't mention onions - I saw that you dislike green onions but if regular ones are ok, they're a key part of the flavour profile in any stirfry I make (pretty much anything I make, actually). Another big flavour addition is mushrooms, if you like them.

It's probably obvious but try adding more sauces/seasoning than you think you need - if you really go overboard you can fix it by mixing with rice anyway. I fry cubed tofu separately so it's crispy, then add a bunch of sauce to them so they're little flavour bombs in the stirfry.

It's also not really a big deal to use a small amount of sugar or sweet sauce (I use a sweet soy sauce in my stirfries) - it's still a lot healthier than pizza or pasta.
posted by randomnity at 7:39 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Taking a step back - first, most typical stir fry sauces are meant to be eaten with rice or some sort of carb. Sauces and techniques to impart flavor just to quick-sautéd vegetables/tofu without rice to sop up the flavor could be quite different. Your solution might be to use something like cauliflower rice. Or, if your goal is simply to make something easy that is heavy on veggies and low on carbs, instead of going the stir-fry route you might find a lot more enjoyment in “sheet pan” dishes, where vegetables and proteins are put on a baking pan with various spices and seasonings and baked - usually meant to be enjoyed on its own or with rice as more of a side dish.

Second, the folks here are giving you good advice about how things like salt and small amounts of sugar and acid can affect flavor, but of you want to try perfecting the stir fry technique the best thing you can do to develop your own cooking intuition is to start with some recipes and follow them fairly closely. Fish sauce and cornstarch slurry and oyster sauce and vinegar and the rest are all tasty ingredients that have their places in many stir fry recipes, but it’s unlikely that you’re going to dramatically improve your flavors simply by dumping in more random ingredients if you don’t know what you’re trying to balance. You can definitely improvise these types of meals, but it’s going to work a lot better if you start from a baseline structure, with proportions of sweet/spicy/salty/etc that basically work for you.
posted by exutima at 7:39 AM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions on ingredients upthread (n-thing MSG, a tiny sprinkle can save a lackluster dish).

What kind of pan are you using? Are you using a wok on a western burner? Unless you have a wok burner, I would avoid actually using a wok; they don't work great on western burners, even gas burners. Nonstick can also be a problem, because good stir fry usually has some carmelization to it. I would look at carbon steel, or even cast iron for doing stir fry in if you're using a western burner. You'll get much better browning than on a nonstick skillet.

Technique wise, (in this brain at least) I always pictured stir fry as a quick, fast, constantly moving thing, but that's all done with a wok burner; Again, super high powered appliance that most western homes don't have. On a western stove you need to let things sit a little bit and don't touch them as much. Crowding the pan can be rough on a stir fry as well and result in a lackluster finished dish. Stir frying each individual item separately (or in small 2 ingredient batches) can help, setting everything aside once its cooked,

Lastly, my favorite all time technique for stir fry? Coat your ingredients in a small (1/4 tsp? less? Depends on how much you're making; to much and you can taste it) amount of baking soda. This raises the ph of the dish, and allows for the maillard reactions to take place at lower temperatures. Basically, it browns faster, creating flavor faster.

I would cruise the serious eats vegetarian stir fry roundup and just look at the techniques they use and the overall process. Stir fry is like Casserole; it's an architecture, technique and dish. There's common structure to them, and you can learn a lot by doing a deep dive into all the different ways they build flavor.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:40 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

A good stir fry sauce has a nice balance of sugar, salt, spice, and acidity. You would be shocked about how much sugar and salt goes into sauces that actually taste amazing vs sauces taste good enough because we know they're healthy so we eat them. If honey is ok but sugar is not, you gain add honey to the sauce. I like fresh squeezed lime juice instead of vinegar in the sauce for acidity, or squeezed over the final dish, I feel like limes have a really nice fresh flavor.

Add some crushed peanuts on top for texture. Try a peanut sauce instead of a teriyaki/soy sauce type of sauce.

Try a gochujang sauce instead of sriracha, I feel like it has a richer flavor.. it does have some sugar though.

Do you not like sauteed/cooked scallions either? I don't like raw onion flavor but I LOVE charred sauteed scallions when mixed with other ingredients. But either way, I agree with others' suggestion of sauteing the aromatics in oil before adding the rest of the veggies.

And at the end of the day, vegetarian stir fry with tofu will not taste as good as a hearty pasta. It just won't.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 7:51 AM on August 19, 2020

….I just had a thought.

Are you marinating the tofu before you add it at all? Or are you just taking it out of the package and cutting it up and adding it?

If you haven't been marinating the tofu first, try that. Here's a recipe for a basic marinated tofu; I'm linking it not necessarily for the recipe itself, but so you have an idea about the approximate quantities of stuff should go in the marinade and the process you should use. They use a good third of a cup of marinating substance for your average block of tofu and letting it sit for a good half hour before stir-frying; you could play with mixing up a marinade in similar quantity using the ingredients you have.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Folks have mentioned that tofu gets its appeal from marinating and a good crisp fry-up. But also, the vegetables you are using don't have a lot of flavor or texture either, to be honest. Get some carrots or peppers for crunch and mushrooms for some umami. Seconding the suggestion of adding white or yellow onion, if you can stand it, and squeezing lime over the end product.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:09 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

We fry the tofu first so it’s nice and crunchy and then go back to the garlic onions oil + veggies routine. (Take the tofu out before staring the rest then add back in)

Don’t burn the garlic, 30s at most.

High heat. Way higher than you think. keeps the crunch of veggies while sealing in the flavor.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:18 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another vote for a cornstarch slurry. It keeps all the sauce from draining off the veg, and extra important since you won’t have rice to soak up the sauce. ***Always add cornstarch to cold liquid*** (Cornstarch plus hot liquid equals yucky clumps.)
posted by gryphonlover at 8:18 AM on August 19, 2020

All good suggestions especially salt and umami ingredients (fish sauce, MSG, oyster sauce).

Definitely the sugar though! Only need a pinch of sugar. And they never tell you this in the recipe books!

You would not think stir-fry or fried rice needs sugar, but it helps round out the flavour.
posted by moiraine at 8:23 AM on August 19, 2020

Buy some hoisin sauce and mix a little in at the very end of cooking.

Sauces are what you want :)
posted by amtho at 8:37 AM on August 19, 2020

2nding making sure the garlic isn't burning. That will make stir fries taste less than ideal. Either cook it by itself in oil at the very beginning and set it aside until serving or put it in at the last minute.

Some more umami might help - maybe something mushroom based. Or miso. Also, try experimenting with acids like lime juice.

If you're comparing yours to a restaurant stirfry, it's going to pale in comparison because restaurants typically use a ton of sugar and salt.
posted by Candleman at 8:52 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

One suggestion I didn't see already - instead of Sriracha, try chili garlic sauce or sambal oelek. These two are basic cooking sauces with a stronger flavor, and I see them available in Kroger's/Wal-Mart etc. in my area so hopefully they're available where you are. If you have access to an actual Asian grocery store you can consider other basics like oyster sauce (thicker than soy sauce, savory), hoisin sauce (thicker than soy sauce, sweeter), black bean sauce (salty savory), chili broadbean sauce / doubanjiang (spicier & more pungent than sriracha/chili garlic/sambal oelek).

Maybe also Chinese rice wine. Shao xing/shao hsing (it's romanized different ways) is usually recommended, not sure if the different types are really that important. Tbh you could probably just use dry sherry or whatever.

As a Chinese-American I've never marinated tofu in my life so I won't knock it til I try it, but it shouldn't be necessary.

Maybe a place to start, with some substitutions: Sugar Snap Peas and Shrimp Stir Fry. The Chinese mushrooms are not important & possibly hard to get, I personally love them but you can just leave them out. Fresh would be fine.
posted by automatic cabinet at 8:53 AM on August 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

When I started cooking, someone pointed out some vegetables have different cooking times. For example, I'll do a simple stir fried broccoli with garlic.

Boil water in a wok.
Flash boil broccoli in boiling water for a couple of minutes. Strain the broccoli in a colendar.
Throw out the water and dry the wok.
Heat oil in the wok over medium heat (not high heat so the garlic doesn't burn). Throw in garlic with salt. Throw in broccoli and stir fry a few more minutes. You should able to taste the salt and garlic flavor when you give it a taste test.
posted by cowlick at 8:59 AM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

For inspiration: Xiaoying Cuisine. This is a youtube channel with (after a format change earlier this year, where Xiaoying used to put 2-3-4 recipes together in a 10m video) 3-5 minute cooking videos, focused on simple home-cooked Chinese dishes. You'll need to turn captions on. (Usually someone in the comments will transcribe the actual recipe in English, within a day or two, but you can jot them down on paper from her instructions.)

You'll see in almost every video that has a sauce, it's very nearly the same thing every time: a soy sauce, shouxing wine or vinegar, hoisin or bean paste, oyster sauce, teaspoon salt, teaspoon or tablespoon sugar, and then usually "starch batter" (corn starch and water) at the end to thicken, OR the ingredients were tossed in flour or rice/corn starch before cooking. I already had most of that, but did just order the cooking wine and some dark soy since I'm limiting my shopping expeditions right now and my usual grocery doesn't have them.

She uses a lot of fresh hot peppers rather than dried, but always comments that you can use mild/sweet if you don't like spicy or are feeding children. Instead of a bell-type sweet pepper, if you can get banana, cubanelle, or Anaheim that will give you a true-r fresh pepper flavor, and then for hot-ish you can use serranos, which freeze perfectly and slice easily from frozen (see more here).

Since the video is entirely focused on her hands or the cooking vessel, I have really improved in technique and flavor from watching them. She also uses tofu as a real ingredient, where I think a lot of Westerners never stray past cubes or slabs, fried or dried.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:21 AM on August 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

1. Press the tofu before you put it in the marinade, definitely press it before frying it.
2. Stir fries are usually eaten with rice, so of course they taste better that way.
3. MSG. A little Accent goes a long way.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:47 AM on August 19, 2020

Even though this is not a stir fry specific suggestion, I recommend taking a wider view of "cooking best practices generally" and wattching from time to time reruns of either Julia child (, any decade) or Lydia's Italian kitchen - both of these women really teach you how to fish for any fish, instead of telling just about one particular fish / giving you the fish.

A concept for example that would probably come out of it is sautéing aromatics first, for example - I mean, perhaps not specific to wok cooking but if you are using a skillet and cooking vegetables, these shows would go into things like Sautee garlic and onions first, salt the oil perhaps, set aside while leaving flavored oil behind, use that to cook your veggies.

I think using enough oil / cooking fats, salting liberally, and garlic and onions cooked in said oil first will get you eighty percent of the way to cooking tasty food of any stripe.. Hard to dx the problem and maybe you're already doing that, but I've Def observed some non cook friends not grasping the importance of these basics and imagining the solution to be wayyyy more complicated than it is.

Another good pbs one is Yan can cook and its spin off. Don't watch for recipes, watch for general concepts... Hope this come somewhere near the mark..? Err on side of more.. More fats more garlic more salt.
posted by elgee at 10:33 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

I know you said you don't really like onions, but it's all in the preparation of them. Cook them low and slow to caramelize them, and you'll be amazed at how sweet they become. I would stick with a sweeter variety of onion to enhance the effect. You may also try pearl onions. The onions really are the base for good flavoring.

Substituting with onion powder may be another option for you. It's present, but not pungent.

Something else you can try is to make your own demi-glace. While not a traditional ingredient in stir-fry, just a little cube will go a long way. (You make it ahead of time and keep it frozen in an ice cube tray so you can just pop one out whenever you need one). I suggest Anthony Bourdain's recipe from the Les Halles cookbook to make your demi-glace. Time-consuming, sort of, but simple.

You may consider de-glazing your pan or wok with sake, mirin or just a nice wine that you enjoy. That will kick a ton of great flavor into your dishes.

Jamie Oliver has some fantastic recipes for stir-fry. I'd look those up and select from his work to see what you like. I think he even has some recipes in his "5 ingredients or less" series.

If you like a citrusy edge to your stir-fry, then zest some orange or lemon onto your dish at the end. It's insanely good.

There are so many other suggestions here that are really great. I hope you find something that you love!
posted by chatelaine at 10:36 AM on August 19, 2020

Try a little apricot jam in your sauces for sweetness if you like the flavor of takeout duck sauce.
posted by kapers at 4:46 PM on August 19, 2020

Response by poster: Wow I am overwhelmed at these responses!

There are some things I'll def be trying: adding more salt (in addition to the soy sauce?), an acid (sounds like either vinegar OR citrus, but not both?), a different spice ingredient like chili oil, and experimenting with oyster or fish sauce. And very high heat - this may be a big part of it.

I dislike onions as I said, as well as many of the veggies mentioned (carrots & peppers - I have lots of food aversions) but I do like mushrooms and bamboo.

I'm worried marinating or putting corn starch on tofu will take too much time/extra prep? What appeals to me about the food I eat like pasta/pizza is how fast I can throw it together.
posted by CancerSucks at 4:55 PM on August 19, 2020

I'm worried marinating or putting corn starch on tofu will take too much time/extra prep? What appeals to me about the food I eat like pasta/pizza is how fast I can throw it together.

Ah - but you can make it in advance and have it on hand. A block of marinated tofu can keep in the fridge for 4 days. So you can marinade like two or three blocks and just leave them there in the fridge so they're ready to go.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 PM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm worried marinating or putting corn starch on tofu will take too much time/extra prep?

I have never cooked with tofu so maybe there is a cornstarch marinade method I am not aware of, but what I do with the cornstarch is just add a bit to water and stir until it looks like a watery paste and then stir that into the pan or wok towards the end of the frying process. It's just a way to get the sauce to stick to the veggies better. It takes all of 30 seconds.
posted by crunchy potato at 6:47 PM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

an acid (sounds like either vinegar OR citrus, but not both?)

There's no reason it can't be both, it's just a matter of how much acid you add and what the flavor profile of each is.
posted by Candleman at 7:00 PM on August 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Look up recipes on a reliable website (e.g., epicurious - sub tofu for meat) and follow directions. You will be better able to improvise after you have practiced with tried and true examples.
posted by she's not there at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2020

One thing I think is very important and often missed — make sure to do a good job of pressing the water out of the tofu.

Cut it in slices first (don't cut it into bites yet), wrap with a couple layers of clean kitchen towel around the outside and between each slice, and press down with your hands or leave for a while with some weight on top like a cutting board.
posted by spbmp at 6:50 PM on August 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you really want a firm tofu texture, cut it into cubes or slabs and freeze it. Take it out of the freezer in the morning to cook it in the evening, or it can sit a few days in the fridge. It's just having been frozen at some point that tightens the cell structure.

If I'm frying tofu, I dump it in a bowl and shake corn starch or rice flour over it, toss until everything's more or less coated, and then fry it. It takes maybe 90 seconds, and I keep a jam jar of starch in my spice cabinet for quick reach.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:03 AM on August 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also, tofu is a sponge, but it arrives fully saturated. If you're using extra firm, wrap the block in a towel and put some weights on top of it to squeeze out the water. Then cut it up and marinate it.
posted by plinth at 12:11 PM on August 24, 2020

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