Quick, highly-customizable and (almost) zero effort, stir-fry is the answer to the ultimate question of “what to make for dinner” on a random, let’s say, Tuesday night. All the more reason to know the formula to nail a flavorful concoction, every night, every time, no matter what you have in the refrigerator.
Before you set to heat anything, get your rice going (even if this means warming up leftover rice or grains from the fridge). Give this component some consideration before you light the fire on the stove. Rice isn’t your only option, mind you; stir-fry is delicious over quinoa, millet, even pasta can be improved with flavorful flash-fried veggies. Trust us — a fluffy, nutty, substantial grain is necessary for soaking up all those delicious stir-fry juices.
While it seems like a small measure, cutting your meat or protein and making sure the slices are thin and uniform is a big deal when it comes to great stir-fry. The thinner the slices of meat or tofu, the faster and more consistent it cooks. (And, as we all know, most of the point of stir-fry is speed.)
Sirloin steak, pork loin, chicken thigh — meats that have a bit of fat — should be sliced against the grain and as thinly as you can. Shrimp, scallops or other seafoods are strong players here, too, and can be left whole (no chopping, necessary).
Once you have your thin slices of protein, you want to toss them in a trio of flavor-locking ingredients: soy sauce, corn starch and a neutral oil. The soy seasons the meat, a bit of corn starch encourages the meat to brown more quickly and helps your sauce thicken later and the oil keeps everything in the pan saucy and lubricated. Toss your meat or tofu so it’s evenly coated, then set the protein aside.
Really, what is stir-fry without the veg? Keep in mind that cooking speed is crucial, so you’ll want to pick veggies that don’t require a lot of cooking time and a selection that all require about the same amount of cooking time. The quicker the cook times, the sooner you’ll be eating stir-fry! Veggies such as asparagus, snap peas, string beans, snow peas and bok choy are all great contenders. Steer clear of dense, meaty veggies such as cauliflower, carrots or potatoes. Slice your selected veggies into similar-sized pieces (again, for similar cook times).
You’re also going to need some flavor agents to amp up those quick-cooking veggies. Aromatics such as fresh ginger, lemongrass, big pieces of scallion or smashed garlic are great here. Toss them in when you add the veggies to boost the flavor of your vegetable situation, stat.
Sauteed veggies are going to taste like … sauteed veggies unless you add some super-sauce to them. A great stir-fry sauce should have some acid, salty, sweet and punchy umami flavors; oyster sauce, soy sauce, mirin rice wine and rice vinegar are a great place to start, but you could use whatever is in your pantry so long as you hit on all the bases. This flavor cornucopia will keep your palate on cloud nine, without making your stir-fry too much of any one good flavor. Mix up your sauce and set aside.
Now that you’ve prepped your meat, veg, aromatics and sauce you’re ready to start cooking — literally. Things are going to start happening now and fast, (which is why it’s important to have all of your ingredients ready to go).
In a stainless steel skillet, warm a bit of neutral oil over medium-high heat for 1–2 minutes. Throw the vegetables and aromatics into the skillet and cook for about 3 minutes, shaking the pan and stirring often to ensure even cooking. You want to cook the vegetables until they’re “almost” done before removing them from the pan and setting aside.
Once your veg is almost cooked and removed from the pan, it’s time for the meat/protein to take the heat. In the same pan, add a bit more neutral oil then lay your slices of protein evenly over the bottom of the pan. Allow them to cook — undisturbed — for about 3 minutes. This allows the meat to brown without overcooking. Once the fat begins to render and the juices start to collect at the bottom of the pan, give the meat or protein a quick stir and return the vegetables immediately to the pan. (Hint: If you want to add quick-to-wilt greens to your stir-fry, now is the time; it takes just a few moments!)
That sauce we mixed up before? Now is the time for sauce to shine. Add it to the pan and stir everything until it comes together and all of the meat and veg is evenly coated with sauce — about 2–3 minutes.
Allow the stir-fry to cool slightly. Chop some scallions or other herbs and spoon your beautiful fluffy rice or grains onto your plate, then top with a hefty portion of stir-fry. Scoop up some of that sauce from the bottom of the pan and spoon it over your stir-fry, then top with sesame seeds, scallions or anything else you like.
One last thing — there aren’t any rules that say you can’t top your stir-fry with a healthy sprinkling of something fresh. Think: herbs, tender veggies that won’t fry well or even sliced fruits. In the summer, plums, tomatoes and tender herbs work well, while in the winter, greens, sprouts or even chopped crispy apples are tasty.