Stir Fry Advice
October 4, 2006 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Help me make a decent stir fry.

I think I'm a fairly decent cook, but I'm a complete failure at Chinese food, and it seems like it should be dead simple. I've finally mastered cooking tofu (press, marinate, cook at very high heat until brown), but vegetables and sauce defeat me. Vegetables are always either soggy and limp or underdone and any sauce I make ends up being extremely thin and bland. I can make it edible if I coat it in soy sauce afterwards, but I'd prefer to do it right -- any advice?

I've found plenty of recipes for stir-fry online, but not a lot of articles about technique-- are there any really good, detailed articles about stir-frying out there?
posted by empath to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'll give up some personal advice:

-Get a nice wok.
-Use a small amount of oil.
-Let the wok heat up until it is as hot as allowed by your stove.
-Don't try to stir-fry too many veggies at once. This leads to soggyness.
-Don't move the contents around the wok too much. Let them sit for a while in the same spot, then flip.

I don't have any advice for sauces. I use the store-bought business.
posted by c:\awesome at 7:20 AM on October 4, 2006

Try this article. It's very to-the-point.

I don't usually use sauces -- I just cook with ginger and garlic and lightly coat the stirfry with tamari before serving.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 7:22 AM on October 4, 2006

My stir-fries are not awesome, but they're not soggy either. I find high heat works best with fairly constant stirring. But not too much.

Also, if you have a lot of sauce, it will hold a lot of heat. DOn't cook the veggies too much as the residual heat from sauce will continue to cook them for a few minutes. Especially for sugary sauces.

As for sauce, both cornstarch and sugar are your friends. Those are the two thickens used in most recipes that I've found.
posted by GuyZero at 7:24 AM on October 4, 2006

On oil: I usually start with a small amount of oil, but if i'm cooking tofu for example, it soaks all of it up.
posted by empath at 7:25 AM on October 4, 2006

I think you're probably putting too much in the pan at once. Use a very high heat, and do your veggies in batches -- not all at once. It's a very quick in and out of the pan system. What happens when you put too much in is the veggies begin to steam instead of fry because the temperature in the pan goes down dramatically. Try doing it in batches over high heat with a quick cooking time and I bet you'll be fine.
posted by theantikitty at 7:26 AM on October 4, 2006

Yeah, I was putting in all my veggies at once.
posted by empath at 7:28 AM on October 4, 2006

Oh yeah...I second the "use sugary sauces with cornstarch." I find that sweet chili sauce, in the asian grocery, is great for making slightly sweet, slightly spicy, thick sauces. Add it to some soy sauce with garlic, lemon, ginger, and a dash of fish sauce. This is really much more "Thai" style than chinese, but it's really delicious. When you use the cornstarch, be sure to make a slurry. Mix it with some liquid outside of the pan and then pour the combination in at the end.
posted by theantikitty at 7:29 AM on October 4, 2006

Heh. Here's how I do it.

I have a large non-stick pan - not a wok, although a wok will certainly work. If time permits, I try to marinate the meat in teriyaki sauce for at least an hour or two. Use a rice cooker to get good, fluffy rice. Chop the vegetables, in fairly large pieces.

Turn heat on high. Add a bit of oil. Set out my sauce assortment, a bottle of each: teriyaki sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a sweet/spicy thai sauce.

Add the vegetables. Add them in the order that they cook - bell peppers take a while, white onions take less, green onions should be added right at the end, and so on. When the vegetables are almost done, add the meat, and just cook it - do not overcook it, especially flank steak, which gets tough if overcooked. During the minute or three that the meat takes to cook, add your sauces.

Depending on what you add, you get significantly different dishes. Teriyaki sauce is a fine, middle-of-the-road flavor. Oyster sauce adds a smoky flavor, very tasty. Soy sauce makes it more salty (be very careful, I usually don't add soy sauce because it's plenty salty already). Thai sauce, extra sugar (just dump in a tablespoon or so), and extra dried chilis can make a very nice sweet and spicy dish. Ginger is a nice addition, too. Combine the above to make whatever you feel like that evening. Dollop of sauce, stir, taste, repeat until satisfactory. Don't over-sauce.

Don't overcook the meat! Never cover the pan, either - you don't want to retain any of the water that vaporizes.
posted by jellicle at 7:37 AM on October 4, 2006

Very high heat, small batches of veggies, constant movement, carbon-steel wok, ideally with a round bottom and a ring for support. The wok doesn't have to be expensive: look for the Chinese grocery stores that supply the area's restaurants.
posted by holgate at 7:37 AM on October 4, 2006

jellicle's method is pretty similar to mine, except I cook the meat first, remove it, then cook the vegetables in order of longest cook time (I usually use broccoli in my stir-fry, so broccoli always goes in first).

Add the cooked meat just to incorporate, then pour a small amount of sauce (I generally use 3 Tbs soy sauce, 3 tbs rice wine, 1 tbs hoisin and 2 tsp sriracha or garlic-pepper sauce).
posted by briank at 7:49 AM on October 4, 2006

Be sure to use peanut oil. Although it has a notable peanut taste when uncooked, it seems that it loses any strong peanut flavor when used for stir-fry, but still gives a distinctive flavor I associate with good stir-fry.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:49 AM on October 4, 2006

The problem with home-cooked stir fry is the lack of real heat. A typical burner in a stove at home will run between 6000 and 20000 BTUs. A professional stir fry burner, on the other hand, ranges from 80,000 to 135,000 BTUs. A typical stir fry can be cooked in two minutes on a professional burner. That's not to say that you can't produce a reasonable fascimile at home, though. As c:\awesome says, get your wok as hot as you can, and cook only 1 or 2 portions at a time.

On preview: what they said.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:51 AM on October 4, 2006

I've found that hammered woks work better than nonstick ones, because I can pull things up out of the (minimal) oil and leave them to sorta-drain, sorta-cook high on the side of the wok while I manipulate another ingredient down in the oil, then slide 'em all back in for a quick toss in sauce before serving. For me, it's been protein first, then pull it up out of the oil, give veggies a quick zing, then saucify, push protein back in, toss, and serve.

As always, FWIW-and-other-disclaimers.
posted by aramaic at 7:54 AM on October 4, 2006

To thicken the sauce, wait until nearly everything else is done, then add about 1 teaspoon of cornstarch to 1/4 cup of cold water in a teacup. Stir vigorously, then add the slop to the pan. Stir that for about a minute, and you'll get that good, thick, sticky sauce you're looking for. It's all sort of magic--you won't think it makes any sense, really, but then everything congeals at once.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:56 AM on October 4, 2006

Oh, also, I put the meat in the hot oil, stirring just to evenly distribute, then don't touch it for a good minute and a half. Turn the meat over, then do the same. It takes a great deal of self control for me to do that--I use a timer. It gives the meat the nice char and chewy texture you're looking for.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:58 AM on October 4, 2006

Oh, if you haven't used cornstarch before, as theantikitty says, make a slurry. Cornstarch must always be dissolved in a small amount of cold water. It will make glue-like lumps if you attempt to put it directly into hot liquid.

Oddly, I have known this my entire life because of watching numerous episodes of "Wok with Yan" as a child. Magic Wonder Powder!

Also, arrowroot powder works well also. I found this page looking for info on it... starch thickeners.
posted by GuyZero at 8:00 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Also I would add that you really want to keep it as simple as possible. Generally for a good flavor you want some high heat oil (vegetable or peanut ) and garlic and ginger (another tip that most Americans do not realize is that you do not need to skin the ginger, just wash it and smash it and it is good to go). Then put your meat or doufu in, then ad some veggies (remember to keep it simple and dont go overboard on either variety or ammount), get it coated with the oil add some sauces (I think the premade sauces you see in most supermarkets are total crap but that is up to you) I would suggest a good chinese vineagar (it should say Zhejiang or Shaanxi on it somewhere), some fish sauce or oyster sauce and maybe some chilli oil. Then if it is watery (if you cook the veggies too long they will start to leach liquid) you add some cornstarch slurry, let it come to a boil and make sure everything is coated and then turn off the heat, add some soy sauce now (if you do it earlier it will burn and get nasty) and serve asap.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:22 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

An excellent book on the subject is Breath of the Wok it maybe a bit more hardcore than you need. If you are a fanatic about the BTUs you have the option of getting a stove like the Blue Star or do the Alton Brown thing and have an outdoor cooking system using a propane tank to get the BTUs you need.

For home cooking, like everyone says, go very hot.

Techniques that will simplify your wok life are:

1. small cuts of meat and vegetables
2. par-cooking the vegetables that take longer to cook like brocolli or carrots especially if you are doing the haystack cut
3. high temperature tolerant or smoke point oil such as peanut
4. prep everything before hand so the essence of time is not lost
5. Avoid sauces with too much sugar -- it is a fine line with heat that high between carmelization and bitter charcoal
6. sequence carefully the cooking of your ingredients
posted by jadepearl at 8:42 AM on October 4, 2006

(Adding a few points):
-Get a bottle of sesame oil from the Asian section and sprinkle on a few drops before removing the stir-fry from the wok. Adds an authentic flavor.

-If you're stir-frying eggplant, puncture holes in the eggplant and bake for an hour or two, to release the air and make for a creamier consistency. Eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge if unbaked.
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:48 AM on October 4, 2006

follow up question:

How do you know when the wok is hot enough? I have a gas stove-- I should leave it on high heat for how long?
posted by empath at 9:11 AM on October 4, 2006

There's no such thing as too hot. :) Just leave it on high. Thus the importance of getting things ready before you start, and of adding the sauce at the end of cooking so it won't burn.
posted by jellicle at 9:21 AM on October 4, 2006

the oil will smoke, and then ignite. that is too hot. can someone explain why this doesn't seem to happen in professional kitchens using those mega BTU burners?
posted by paradroid at 9:34 AM on October 4, 2006

You need to use a higher smoke point oil, like peanut oil. Olive oil will burn at relatively low heat.
posted by ChasFile at 9:35 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you leave an empty iron wok on the burner too long it will burn off the essential seasoning, and you will have to re-season it.

The first wisp of smoke in the empty pan is a good signal. Timing is key: Have everything ready, sliced, tops off bottles, etc.

Once you get used to it you can tell it's hot enough by the way the oil shimmers in a hot pan. If the initial ginger/garlic doesn't SIZZLE, it's not hot enough.

One more thing: Many Chinese cooks blanch heavy vegetables (like broccoli) before stir-frying, because cooking them from raw in a mixture takes too long and throws off the other cooking times.
posted by sacre_bleu at 9:41 AM on October 4, 2006

can someone explain why this doesn't seem to happen in professional kitchens using those mega BTU burners?

They move fast and they're working under hoods, so they don't care how much smoke they make. In fact, a little smoke ("breath of the wok") is an essential component in authentic stirfry dishes.
posted by sacre_bleu at 9:43 AM on October 4, 2006

Sesame oil also has a low smoke point, no? So would a mix of peanut oil and sesame oil be ideal? I've been using straight sesame oil, but that's expenseive.
posted by empath at 10:21 AM on October 4, 2006

Use sesame oil as a flavoring, added to the other components of your sauce. It's not to be used as a cooking oil.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:50 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

ChasFile's suggestion needs to be repeated: do not use olive oil. Even cheapo vegetable oil is better for stir frying.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2006

A cookbook I have recommends that you wait till you see that the wok is slightly smoking (well, not really smoking, it looks more like steam really), before adding the oil. And you wait till the oil is slightly smoking too before you add in anything else. Umm... on preview, what everybody else said.

This really only works on a traditional carbon steel wok though, and definitely not on non-stick (you can't heat non-stick to such temperatures). And once its that hot, you have to be really quick; if you're adding chopped garlic in first for example, you only have a few seconds before it turns brown.

If the temperature of the wok gets too low when you add in vegetables or meat, one way to get around that is to buy a wok made of a material which can hold heat very well. Carbon steel for example is pretty good at retaining heat, and so the pre-heating phase helps keep a lot of heat within the wok to be transferred to the food, without getting too cold.

Also, I guess most of the recipes described here are for American-Chinese cuisine... there are a lot more ways to prepare vegetables than just stir-frying with a thick sweet/salty sauce. Here's a really simple one that I like:

Put the vegetables into a big pot of boiling water and cook for less than a minute (the vegetables should still be really crisp).

Drain and put onto serving plate, and add some oyster sauce.

Sautee copious amounts of chopped garlic and sliced shallots with oil. Try to use more oil than you normally would for the amount of garlic/shallots you're frying. Fry till the shallots turn brown and crisp, you should probably add them into the pan before the garlic to avoid the garlic getting burnt.

Pour the garlic, shallots and hot oil directly onto the vegetables. You should get a lovely sizzling noise when the oil hits the vegetables, the water and the oyster sauce. Mix it up a bit, and enjoy.

This really works best with Chinese vegetables that you can only really get at a Chinese grocery store (kai lan, you choy, baby bok choy, etc.) but it works somewhat well with standard brocolli too. For extra points add a few pieces of sliced chilli padi.
posted by destrius at 12:42 PM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Here are some directions, including advice on recognizing whether the pan is hot enough.
posted by parilous at 12:50 PM on October 4, 2006

Buy the following:
Oyster Sauce
Sesame Oil
Five Spice
Hoisin Sauce
Chili Oil
Sri Racha
Rice Vinegar

optional: Minced Garlic and Ginger, White Wine

Assuming you already have Soy Sauce and Peanut Butter, you can make a yummy stir fry every day of the week.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:04 PM on October 4, 2006

thin bland sauce?

the starch is good advice — it will make it thicker. it won't make it tastier.

for flavour the sesame oil *at the end* is also a good tip. fish sauce (as disgusting as it sounds) is also your friend. sugar as someone mentioned is also key.

and rice vinegar - not regular vinegar - gives you more sauce volume and flavour without making things too salty.

but — i would love to hear some tips on how to make some sauces from scratch e.g. kung po chicken.
posted by kamelhoecker at 1:25 PM on October 4, 2006

Confusion about garlic:

If it burns so quickly, why am i putting it in first? Shouldn't it go in last? How do you keep the garlic, ginger and shallots from burning to a crisp?
posted by empath at 1:39 PM on October 4, 2006

I *always* use mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine) for stir fry.
If you are marinating meat or seafood, use chinese rice wine.

Some other seasonings I havent seen listed.

Hondashi (japanese fish stock)
Chinese black vinegar (smells like worcestershire)
Black bean paste

BTW if you want a new twist on tofu, stick it on the freezer. Excellent texture, soaks up sauces nicely.
posted by mphuie at 1:47 PM on October 4, 2006

I'm not too sure for the reason why you put garlic in first, but my guess is that it lets the vapours released by the garlic be captured by the oil. So you're really making a garlic-flavoured oil with which you use to cook everything else, along with some crunchy bits of garlic that add to texture. If you want the more pungent raw garlic flavour, then you'd add it in last. There's a Good Eats episode about garlic (starring a vampire) that is pretty instructive.

If you throw in the other stuff you're cooking once the garlic, ginger and shallots start to brown, they won't burn much after that, because (I guess) most of the heat is going to the new addition. The trick is to stir vigourously.

As for making sauces from scratch... I have a cookbook on that topic, actually. Basically you do it by combining some basic sauces, such as light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, shaoxing wine, sesame oil, etc. Its really quite simple, a lot easier than most French sauces.

Another thing you could do is to just use chicken stock, some sesame oil and perhaps thicken that up with cornstarch. If you want to go for a more "authentic" flavour, try avoiding sauces that are too thick and sweet; quite often garlic and soy sauce are all you need for flavouring.
posted by destrius at 3:48 PM on October 4, 2006

this is the best tutorial i have found:

ten steps to better stir-fry
posted by kerning at 4:21 PM on October 4, 2006 [3 favorites]

Never use cornflour to thicken. Makes me gag just thinking about that horrible flour-y taste.

I normally go onion, garlic, chilli, meat, vegetables, sauce, eat, much happiness.

If you having problems cooking vegetables, make sure you are cutting them small enough, or even microwave them for a little while (20-40 seconds), before tossing them in the wok.

As with all cooking the only way to get better is to practice, and keep trying new thing; sooner or later you will not only perfect your technique, but stumble upon a perfect combination.

While this thread has made me hungry (I'm on the cube of cheese diet), I know what to get for lunch now!
posted by oxford blue at 4:44 PM on October 4, 2006

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