Stir-frying is a good, quick meal for a busy lifestyle. Although cutting the ingredients into small pieces takes a bit of time, the cooking is quick and easy and the flavors are fresh and delightful if it is done well. It is an ideal way to use the end-of-season bounty of fresh vegetables like zucchini, bell peppers of all colors and corn. The cutting can be done ahead so that it is simply a matter of tossing the food into a wok and cooking for a few minutes. Then dinner is served.
There are several schools of thought on just what constitutes “proper” stir-fry cookery. Some stir-fry cooks are purists who insist that the meat should be cooked first and separately without too much stirring so that it will make good contact with the heat surface and brown evenly. The vegetables are to be cooked separately and very quickly and stirred constantly so that they stay bright and crisp and then combined with the meat.
Others claim that all should go into the pan together and stirred with a flair until the mix is finished. Either way, the point is to finish with tender-crisp, bright vegetables and flavorful, tender, well-seared meat.
Both methods have their merits and perhaps each is useful in various situations since meat and vegetables don’t cook in the same amount of time. In fact, there might be merit in starting to fry slower-cooking vegetables first and adding those that cook more quickly just before serving.
The key is to serve the food immediately after it is cooked since the food will continue to cook using residual heat and may become less appealing.
Stir-fry cooking was first developed in China as a way to cook efficiently on small stoves while conserving fuel. The stovetops in question usually consisted of a hole over a fire chamber. A round-bottomed wok fit neatly over the hole and picked up the heat quickly. A small, hot fire would heat the wok quickly. Oil and chopped food were stirred and tossed in the pan. The cooking was done in minutes.
The principle remains the same although few Americans have a traditional Chinese heat source. Stir-frying is best done over high heat. The food is quickly seared and natural juices are preserved.
The key to successful stir-fry is to cut most vegetables into thin, bite-sized pieces. Cut the ingredients in a stir-fry to even sizes and shapes where possible so that they will cook evenly.
Pay special attention to vegetables with high moisture content like summer squash and bell peppers. Denser vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower or carrots work well. They might be placed in the wok first with the moister vegetables added after, or allow them to steam briefly with a little liquid at the end so they become tender. Add leafy greens like spinach or chard at the last moment since they cook in seconds in hot oil.
Choose tender cuts of meat like chicken breasts, flank steak or pork tenderloin and cut them into thin, bite-sized strips. Avoid larger or tougher chunks of meat that require long, slow cooking to tenderize them. Shrimp, scallops and firm-fleshed fish like halibut are better choices than delicate flaky fish that falls apart easily.
Although successful stir-fry has been made in fry pans, a wok is ideal and a broad, curved spatula makes the process easier. A wok is shaped like a large wide bowl with high, sloping sides. The curve of the pan allows for the food to be stirred and scraped down the sides without flipping out of the pan. The round bottom sits better on gas burners with the opening in the center than on flat electric range heating elements.
Carbon steel woks are relatively inexpensive — costing perhaps $20 online or at retail stores. If you are willing to spring for it, an enamel-clad cast iron wok may cost about $160 or more.
Used frequently, carbon steel and cast iron woks darken and become somewhat non-stick. Pans that come with a non-stick finish are not good on the high heat that is ideal for stir-fry cooking. Foods don’t brown as well.
As I mentioned, a sauté pan with sloped sides can be used, but you will need to use more care to keep from flipping food out of the pan. Get a pan that conducts heat well. These pans don’t develop the non-stick patina, so you will have to use more oil in cooking.
Get a wide spatula — preferably wooden. Wok spatulas are slightly curved so they fit easily to scrape down the side of the pan. A lid is useful since some vegetables may need to be steamed for a few moments at the end of the cooking.
Prepare all your ingredients before you begin cooking. It is a fast process of five or so minutes and there won’t be time to fiddle with cutting ingredients during the cooking process. Read the recipe, cut, measure and mix ingredients and set them near the wok. Get out the serving dish. Plan to cook when those who will eat the meal are nearby. Then turn on the heat.
Choose oil that can take high heat. Olive oil and sesame oil are not ideal for stir-frying since the high heat will diminish their flavor. Use these oils in marinades to add flavor or add them at the end. Avoid butter, which will burn at high temperatures. An all-purpose, neutral-flavored oil like canola oil works best.
Preheat the wok on high heat until it is very hot. You should see a little smoke rise from the wok or if you flick a drop of water into the pan, it will sizzle and evaporate very quickly. (Traditionally, woks were heated to almost a dull red color.)
Add oil and rotate the wok to coat the surface. The oil will get hot right away and ripple across the surface.
Stir-fry thinly sliced meats in small batches of six ounces or less so that it doesn’t become soggy. You can cook up to a pound of less juicy foods or pieces coated with cornstarch or thicker pieces like shrimp at one time.
Cook four to six cups of vegetables at a time (eight or ten cups for leafy greens.) Some stir-fry recipes may call for only one vegetable, but if several are included, add the thickest, densest first then add smaller thinner pieces later. Leafy vegetables go in last.
Keep the food moving once it is in the pan to prevent burning. Scoop the food out of the pan using your spatula.
Stir-fry can be served over rice or rice noodles or as a side dish on its own. Some recipes mix the pre-cooked rice or noodles with the meat-vegetable mixture.