Mastering the art of stir-fry

How to select the best ingredients for stir-frying. A step by step on the right way to stir-fry. And a rundown on the equipment you'll need to do it like a master.

Stir-frying, associated with asian cooking and successfully adapted by innovative Western chefs, shares many similarities with sautéing. 

Foods are customarily cut into small pieces—usually strips, dice, or shreds—and cooked rapidly in a little oil. They are added to the pan in sequence; those requiring the longest cooking times are added first, those that cook quickly only at the last moment. 

The sauce for a stir-fry, like that of a sauté, is made or finished in the pan to capture all of the dish’s flavor.

How to select ingredients

Since items to be stir-fried are cut into small pieces, which acts as a means of tenderizing the food, the food does not need to be as naturally tender as for sautés, where it is left in portion-sized pieces. 

The foods should be relatively tender, however, and all bits of fat, gristle, or silverskin must be removed for the best results.

A variety of foods may be combined in this technique (meat and vegetables, poultry and fish, and so on), but whatever the main ingredient is, it should be carefully trimmed and cut into regular pieces. Cut it  into an appropriate size and shape, generally thin strips.

Marinate the main ingredient briefly, if suggested by the recipe, and pat dry before adding it to the cooking oil. The smoking point of the oil—the temperature at which fats and oils begin to smoke, indicating that the fat has begun to break down—is particularly important. The oil used should be able to withstand rather high temperatures without breaking down or smoking excessively.

The higher a particular fat’s smoking point, the higher the temperature at which it is safe to cook with that oil. Peanut oil, because of its flavor and high smoking point, is traditionally used.

In stir-frying, a variety of liquids can be used. The ratio of liquid to main item is generally lower than it is for a sauce prepared for a sautéed item. Fortified wine, soy sauce, meat glaze and other liquids can be used.

It is advisable to very lightly thicken the sauce for a stir-fried dish. The thickener (arrowroot, cornstarch or rice flour) is diluted with a small amount of liquid and added at the last moment. The thickener should not affect the flavor of the dish.

The right way to stir-fry

  1. Heat the peanut oil or other cooking oil in a wok or large sauté pan.
  2. Add the main ingredient to the hot oil.
    The temperature of the oil must be very high and the main ingredient must be as dry as possible. This will help lessen splattering that can occur when water comes in contact with hot oil. It will also allow a crust to form on the main ingredient, which intensifies the food’s flavor and gives it good color.
  3. Keep the food in constant motion by stirring, lifting and tossing.
    Rather than turning the food once, you should keep stir-fried foods constantly in motion. Push them up to the sides of the wok out of the most intensely heated part of the pan. This makes room for items to be added to the bottom of the wok in their proper sequence.
  4. Cook for a short amount of time over high heat. Add additional ingredients, including aromatics (finely minced or chopped herbs, spices, citrus zest, etc.) and vegetable garnishes (thin juliennes, dices, etc.) in the proper sequence (longest-cooking items added first, shortest-cooking added last). Continue to stir-fry until all of the components are properly cooked and very hot.
  5. Add the liquid for the sauce and any necessary thickener.
    Cook until the liquid comes to a simmer so that the correct flavor is achieved and the sauce is properly thickened.

Is it done?

Stir-fried foods should not appear raw and should have an appropriate color, according to type of item. The texture should be moist and tender.

What equipment you’ll need

A wok is the traditional tool for stir-frying, constructed and shaped specially for this cooking technique. The wok concentrates heat in the bottom of the pan. The sides of the pan conduct varying degrees of heat, creating zones that allow a variety of foods to be prepared in a single pan, without overcooking or undercooking any single item.