The Pan: The reason people like woks is that their curved shape allows you to cook at different temperatures at the same time. The bottom, which is closest to the heat is hotter and the temperature gets increasing cooler as you get to the top. This means you can move cooked foods toward the top and add newer food to the bottom to begin cooking on the hottest part, and then you simply mix everything together in the end. The shape of a wok also allows you to cook in different ways. The food that hits the hot bottom sears which traps flavor into the veggies or protein. When the sauce is added, though, moisture rises in the concave center of the convex wok, allowing the foods near the middle to top of the pan to be braised, which softens the food without making it mushy. If you don’t have a wok, though, you can still make a good stir fry. The key is simply to use a skillet which is just slightly larger than your burner and which has at least 2 in sides, which most of the larger skillets have these days. The center closer to the burner will get hotter than the edges of the skillet which allows you to move food to cooler sections of the pan, and the higher sides will allow you to braise. If you don’t have a large skillet with 2 in sides, you can also simply cook in smaller batches, cooking the veggies and protein separately, then mixing the two, and thickening the sauce separately and adding it to the mixed vegetables and protein. Doing everything separately doesn’t add time, it only adds another dish, and if you use the dish you’ll ultimately be serving the food in, then it won’t even do that!
The Veggies: All good stir fry dishes have an assortment of vegetables. Varying what goes into the dish can make for a colorful presentation as well as provide a variety of nutrients, textures, and flavors. People tend to get hung up on what they see as a “traditional” stir fry with bamboo shoots and baby corn and water chestnuts, but virtually any vegetable can go into a stir fry, so whatever you may have on hand works: broccoli, green beans, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, sweet potato, zucchini, squash, bean sprouts,leeks, asparagus, beets, radishes, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, and of course, baby corn, water chestnuts and bamboos as well. What’s key is cooking your vegetables uniformly. This means chopping vegetables of similar texture into the same size. It may also mean that you start vegetables which may take longer to soften like carrots and sweet potato first and adding greens like spinach or kale at the end. What’s nice about stir fry is that your goal isn’t to cook the vegetables for a long time; it’s to cook them just long enough for their colors to become bright and deep. You want the veggies to be still have some of their crunch and crispy-ness, not for them to be mush. For folks who don’t want to do any chopping or prep at all, nowadays you can buy your vegetables pre-chopped in the vegetable section. You can also used frozen chopped veggies, which is what I tend to do because then I always have veggies on hand.
The Protein: A stir fry doesn’t need to have protein but if you’d like to add protein, just about any type can go into a stir fry. Beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops, tofu, beans. As with the vegetables you want the protein to be able to cook quickly and uniformly, so make sure all pieces are similar size. Cutting the protein into smaller pieces allows you to use less, increases it’s ability to blend in with the vegetables, and spreads its flavor. Most recipes will tell you to sear the meats like beef, chicken and pork first and then to move them to the cooler section of the wok or skillet while you cook the vegetables and then to mix the two together, adding the sauce. This allows the meats to begin cooking their cooking process with the searing but then finishes the cooking with the braising which keeps the meat from becoming tough and dry. When using protein like tofu or softened beans or seafood, though, it’s often better to cook those at the last minute, just before you add the sauce because they usually only need a couple of minutes to cook, and overcooking them will make them tough or fall apart. For folks worried about the prep and chopping for these, you can find pre-sliced tofu and meats at the grocery store. For seafood such as scallops, I use the frozen variety; I simply thaw them in cold water for about 15 minutes and throw them in. You can also simply used leftovers from previous meals which you throw in at the last minute just to rewarm.
The Sauce: A good stir fry will have some flavor added more than just your veggies and protein. What you do can vary, though. If you don’t want a sauce, you can simply use herbs and spices. Stores carry premixed blends for specifically adding to stir fry. You can also experiment with herbs and spices to see what you like. For me fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions are my preferred flavors. If using dried herbs and spices, you’ll want to add them to the veggies and to the protein as you begin cooking them so the flavor have time to meld. If using fresh, add them at the end. If you opt to make a sauce, the key thing to know is that you need a thickener for your sauce. For stir fry usually cornstarch is the thickener of choice but you can also use tapioca starch or arrowroot or any type of flour. You want to whisk the thickener in with your liquid before adding the sauce to the pan to thicken. A good rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of cornstarch, tapioca starch, arrowroot, or flour is needed for every cup of liquid. When cooking the sauce, you’ll want to continually stir the sauce whether you’re cooking the sauce separately or whether you’ve added it to the pan with the vegetables and protein. If you add it the pan with food in the pan, simply move the veggies and protein to the edges of the skillet or up the sides of the wok, so you can thicken the sauce in the middle of the pan. Once thickened, combine the sauce with the veggies and protein. As for ingredients in a stir fry sauce, that all depends on your tastes. For the liquid part you can use soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, broth such as chicken, beef, or vegetable, red or white wine, sherry, etc…, whatever your tastes prefer. To add another dimension of flavor to whatever liquid you choose, you can add different flavored vinegars like apple cider, rice, or red wine, juices like lemon or lime or pineapple, oils like sesame or peanut, etc…. You can also add herbs and spices like garlic, scallions, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, etc…. To make the sauce, simply mix all your chosen ingredients in the ratio that tastes the best to you and which makes one cup’s worth, add your thickener, mix well, and cook over heat, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens to a consistency where it will cling to the veggies and protein in your stir fry. If you find that for some reason you need more thickener, simply mix more of your thickener with the equivalent amount of water and add it to the sauce (so, one teaspoon of cornstarch with one teaspoon of water).
The Sides: Stir fry can be eaten alone or atop something else. Good options if you want to eat them with something else are rice (brown, white, wild, jasmine, etc…), quinoa, barley, noodles such as udon, soba, lo mein or rice noodles, strips of spaghetti squash or zucchini ribbons or chopped cabbage, fresh greens like spinach, kale, arugula or swiss chard, etc…. Use your imagination and be creative.