For anyone that needs to put together a meal quickly, stir-frying is probably the easiest way to get dinner ready. You can put almost anything in a stir fry but there are a few tips and tricks that elevate them into restaurant worthy status. Whether you’re just starting out or cooking regularly, these secrets will make your next stir fry highly requested!
- What is a stir fry?
- Don’t know what to make for dinner? Make a stir fry!
- The Secret to a Good Stir Fry
- What are the three important steps to a good stir fry?
- What are the basics of stir fry?
- How to Stir Fry in 8 Easy Steps
- Success Tips for Stir Frying (The Do’s and Don’ts)
- Beginner Tips and Tricks for Stir Frying
- Stir Fry Dish Ideas
What is a stir fry?
Stir fry is considered a type of dish especially in North America but in Chinese culture, it’s a cooking technique (炒 chǎo). Proteins and vegetables are cooked in scorching high heat with aromatics in a wok resulting in a smoky charred flavor that’s like nothing else.
Don’t know what to make for dinner? Make a stir fry!
You can make anything in your fridge a stir fry which is why I stir fry 2 to 3 times a week. You also don’t need any fancy ingredients and can pull together dinner without much planning. Plus it also checks off the major food groups, which means my kids are getting a well-balanced meal. All you need are some vegetables, protein and some aromatics to pull together something the family will love.
The Secret to a Good Stir Fry
Anyone can prepare stir fry. In the simplest terms, ingredients are sliced up and then cooked in a frying pan with some oil. The secret to a good stir fry takes into account the level of heat, the timing of the ingredients and movement. The secret to a Chinese restaurant stir fry, includes velveting your protein, using a wok and key flavors like garlic, rice wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce and sesame oil*. I include an easy stir fry recipe with step by step instructions below so you can put all this in practice at home!
*Powdered MSG also plays a huge role but I generally omit that in my homecooked meals but it definitely adds that extra savory note!
What are the three important steps to a good stir fry?
Most simply, especially if you’re just starting out, the secret to a good stir fry involves three important steps regardless of your ingredients and flavours:
- Heat your pan and oil – Heat the pan and the oil adequately for aromatics and good searing.
- Move and toss your ingredients continuously – Moving and tossing the ingredients around aerolizing fat and juices for optimal flavour.
- Time your ingredients properly – Slice all ingredients the same size and stir fry in a proper order so that everything is perfectly cooked at the same time.
What are the basics of stir fry?
The basics of a stir fry are proper heat, movement and timing and here’s why that matters.
To stir fry like a pro, you will need high heat. Stir fries get their flavors from “wok hei” or “breathe of the wok” which is a charred, slightly smoky metallic flavour that comes from heating metal (ideally cast-iron or carbon steel) at super hot temperatures. High heat will also properly infuse your oil with aromatics and prevent your food from sticking.
Stir frying means tossing your ingredients around. Through movement you aerolize the fat and juices from your food which creates amazing flavour. Movement also means rapidly cooling and heating your food so you get a nice sear but also cooking your food through. This is why a wok is the best choice for stir frying because it allows different heat zones and a large surface area. If you don’t have a wok, a straight sided large saute pan is a good alternative due to its browning capabilites and fast heat up time.
Timing of your ingredients
Nobody likes overcooked or undercooked food. Stir frying is a fast moving endeavour so all your ingredients should be sliced thinly for fast cooking and optimal sear. Always cook the ingredient that takes the longest first and work your way down. For proteins which tend to dry out, like chicken breast and pork, cook them first and add them back near the end to keep them tender.
How to Stir Fry in 8 Easy Steps
I’ve broken down how to stir fry in 8 easy steps. I’ve also included a simple recipe of chicken and broccoli to showcase all the basics in practice. I personally feel this is the easiest way to understand the guidelines and get some hands on experience!
How do you make stir fry step by step?
Step 1: Prepare your ingredients
Slice your ingredients thin and make sure they’re the same size. Stir frying comes together quick and each ingredient shouldn’t take more than 2-3 minutes to cook. Proteins like chicken and beef should be sliced ⅛ – ¼” against the grain. Vegetables like peppers, celery and zucchini should be sliced about ⅓” thick and shaped into 2 inch sticks. Broccoli and other vegetables that take longer to cook should be cut into 1 inch florets (like this sample recipe). Snow peas and bean sprouts can be left as is.
Marinate your protein for 20 minutes. This is the secret to a Chinese restaurant stir fry. Marinate chicken with corn starch, oil, water and soy sauce (like this recipe). Same for beef plus a bit of baking soda https://thewoksoflife.com/prepare-beef-for-stir-fry/. This ensures your protein is flavourful and stays moist and juicy from the hot temperatures of your wok.
Step 2: Prepare your aromatics
For Chinese stir frying, the holy trinity of aromatics is ginger, garlic and onion. Mince your garlic and ginger for more intense flavor or slice them for a milder one. White onions are sliced thin and green ones are cut into 2 inch segments with white and greens separated.
Step 3: Heat your wok
Place your wok or pan on the stove to heat it up. Don’t add oil. This is how you prevent your meat from sticking to the pan and get a nice sear. When you see the heat shimmering above and slightly smoking your pan is ready.
Add oil to your heat wok or pan. Use an oil with a high smoke point so that it doesn’t burn. Grapeseed, vegetable or canola oil are great options and are neutral in flavour. Don’t use olive oil because of the low smoke point and it will alter the flavour of your stir fry.
Step 4: Velvet your protein
Pre-cook your protein by flash frying it to create a nice crust for added flavour. It will also avoid overcooking and drying out your meat. This is called (走油) in Chinese which is “to cook briefly in oil”. Restaurants generally deep fry but I pan sear it to be a bit healthier.
Place your protein as a single layer on the surface of your heated wok or pan. Once it changes color (about 20 seconds per side), remove and set aside. Don’t worry about sticking, if the wok is heated properly the meat will release easily once cooked. The same method can be applied to firm tofu!
Step 5: Cook your aromatics
Lower your heat to medium. Add more oil and add ginger, garlic and the white parts of your scallion (if using). You’re infusing the oil with your aromatics but with a lower heat to avoid burning. A bit of browning is fine.
Step 6: Add your ingredients and toss
Add your ingredients in the order from longest cooking time to the shortest cooking time. Toss them to coat your infused oil and add flavour. Use a scoop and flip method to rapidly heat and cool your food to create “wok hei”!
By cutting your ingredients smaller and thinner, this allows the tossing to happen faster and easier. Set aside when almost fully cooked.
Step 7: Make your sauce
I love sauce in my stir fry. It coats noodles or soaks deliciously in steamed rice. My Chinese brown sauce has all the authentic flavorings for stir fry. I usually add more aromatics (garlic and ginger) but since they were added when tossing your ingredients, you can add the rice wine, broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce and brown sugar and bring to a simmer.
Thicken your sauce with a corn starch slurry and bring it to a simmer.
Step 8: Finish and serve
Once your sauce is thickened to your liking, add back the ingredients and give it one final toss! Top if off with a bit of sesame oil and/or chilli oil and garnish with the green parts of the scallions.
Success Tips for Stir Frying (The Do’s and Don’ts)
Based on the 3 basics of stir frying, I’ve described some expert tips so you can start stir frying like a pro!
- Heat your wok or pan on high heat before adding any oil.
- Use an oil with a high smoke point like grapeseed, canola or vegetable oil.
- Heat your oil and infuse it with aromatics like garlic, onion and ginger.
- Add your ingredients in a cold pan or cold oil. Your stir fry will be oily and/or your meat will stick.
- Cook your aromatics on high heat or they will burn.
- Use a wok or cast iron or wide saute pan. Something that can brown and with ample space to flip your food around.
- Toss your continuously. You’re aerolizing the juices and fat for optimal flavour!
- Don’t overcrowd your pan. This will lower the temperature of your wok and ultimately your “wok hei”.
- Don’t use a small pan. You can’t move your food around easily.
Timing of your ingredients
- Use fresh ingredients. Frozen vegetables will leech water into your pan making searing difficult.
- Always have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go. Stir frying goes fast so there is no time to mince or chop in between.
- Understand the cooking time of all your ingredients. So you don’t overcook any.
- Thin slicing will help cook your ingredients quickly.
- Cut the same ingredient the same size so it cooks properly.
- Marinate your protein to ensure it stays moist, flavorful and juicy.
- Pre cook your protein by flash frying it or pan searing it for 20 seconds per side.
- Make your sauce last to soak up all the flavor developed in your pan to make a kick ass sauce.
- For authentic Chinese flavors, use rice wine, soy sauce and oyster sauce and finish off with a bit of sesame oil.
- Don’t use too many ingredients. Try not to use more than 4 to 5 ingredients. The more different types you add, the more likely you might overcook one of them.
- Don’t walk away from your pan. This won’t take long to cook!
Beginner Tips and Tricks for Stir Frying
If you’re stir frying for the first time, it can seem a bit daunting at first. You might not be familiar with a knife or how to handle certain ingredients. Here are a few tips I found helpful to guarantee stir fry success!
- Cook ingredients separately if you’re worried about overcooking. If you don’t know how long each ingredient takes to cook, make them separately and combine them together at the end.
- Stick to two ingredients such as chicken and broccoli if stir frying for the first time. Add additional ingredients as you get more comfortable.
- Not sure if something is cooked? Taste a piece to make sure it’s done to your liking. For protein, since you’re slicing it thin and cooking it twice, it is cooked once it fully changes color.
- Start with only vegetables and protein if you’re a beginner. Noodles, especially rice noodles are more challenging and I’d recommend tacking those once you’re more comfortable.
- Skip the starchy vegetables if you’re starting out. Yams, taro, rutabaga are generally more difficult ingredients to work with. Slice them thin and into sticks if you’re up for the challenge!
- Use a damp paper towel under your cutting board when chopping to avoid your board from sliding around.
- To slice chicken or beef thin, half freeze your protein to make it easier to work with.
- Peel your ginger with a spoon instead of knife.
- Use ready peeled whole garlic to slice or mince to make prep faster. Not minced or sliced – whole!
- Add a splash of water or rice wine if you find your wok too hot (and your food is browning too fast) and turn down the heat.
Stir Fry Dish Ideas
Stir frying is so versatile, you can make anything a dish. Always start with your aromatics of garlic, ginger and onion and add your favorite proteins and vegetables. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Sliced chicken and broccoli (this recipe)
- Sliced chicken and peppers with black bean sauce
- Pork chow mein
- Shrimp with celery and snow peas
- Firm tofu, snap peas, baby corn and shiitake mushrooms
Simple Wok Style Chicken and Broccoli With Authentic Stir Fry Sauce
- carbon steel wok (or 12 inch cast iron pan or tri-ply sauté pan)
For the Chicken and Marinade
- 12 oz. boneless and skinless chicken breasts (about 2 chicken breasts) (Note 1)
- 3 Tbsp. water (or Shaoxing wine)
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 2 tsp oil
- 3 tsp light soy sauce
For the Rest of the Dish
- 1 large broccoli crown (cut into 1 inch florets) (Note 2)
- 1 tsp ginger (minced) (Note 3)
- 2 tsp garlic (minced – about 2 cloves) (Note 3)
- 3 scallions (whites cut in 2 inch section and green parts chopped)
- 1 cup unsalted chicken broth
- 2 Tbsp. Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
- 2 Tbsp. light soy sauce
- 2 tsp. oyster sauce
- 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp. cornstarch (divided) (mixed with 4 tbsp water to make a slurry)
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- grapeseed oil for stir frying (or other neutral oil) (Note 4)
Prepare Your Ingredients (I describe the instructions for prep but this is also specified in the ingredients list above)
- Slice your chicken breasts into ¼" slices and place in a bowl. Add the water, oil, cornstarch and soy sauce. Mix thoroughly and set aside to marinate at least 15 minutes. (Note 5)
- Cut up the broccoli crown into 1 inch florets.
Prepare your aromatics
- Mince your garlic and ginger and cut the white part of scallions into 2 inch sections. Chop up the green parts of the scallions.
- Combine the sauce ingredients, broth, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce and brown sugar in a bowl. In a separate dish, mix the cornstarch with water to make a slurry.
Heat your wok
- Place your wok on the medium/high heat until it starts to slightly smoke and/or you see the surface shimmering.
- Add enough neutral oil to the wok to coat the bottom.
Velvetize the chicken (Note 6)
- Place chicken as a single layer and sear both sides for 20 seconds. The chicken should change color quickly. Some pink spots are ok.
Cook your aromatics
- Lower heat to medium. Add some more neutral oil and the ginger, garlic and the white part of the scallions. Fry for about 30 seconds making sure they don't burn.
Add your ingredients and toss
- Increase the heat to medium/high again. Add the broccoli florets. Using a spatula, toss the florets around the wok to coat them with the aromatic oil. Lift and flip and cook for about 3 minutes. (Note 7)
Make Your Sauce (Note 8)
- Pour the sauce liquid in with the broccoli and bring to a simmer.
- Lower the heat to medium again. Add half the cornstarch slurry and mix. If the sauce is too watery add more slurry until desired thickness.
Finish and Serve
- Add back the slices of chicken along with any juices. Toss until thoroughly mixed.
- Add sesame oil (optional) and garnish with chopped green onion. Serve with fresh steamed rice.
- Place chicken breast in the freezer for 20 minutes to partially freeze and make slicing it easier.
- Optionally blanch the broccoli if you want it more tender. We will be steaming it briefly in the stir fry sauce which will cook it thoroughly. I find this works just fine!
- Slice your ginger and garlic if you want a milder flavour.
- Use an oil with a high smoke point. Canola, peanut and vegetable oil also work great.
- This will velvetize your chicken and create more a tender and juicy chicken. All Chinese restaurants do this. You can do this step the night before and place in your fridge or skip it altogether. Your chicken will turn out more dry.
- This is a healthy alternative to flash frying (deep frying) which most Chinese restaurants do. You can also poach briefly in water instead of pan searing for an even healthier option.
- Make sure your broccoli florets are no larger then 1 inch since they don’t cook for very long.
- I recommend blanching broccoli and other vegetables that take longer to cook (like cauliflower). To save more time, we skip this step by cutting the florets smaller and briefly steaming it in the stir fry sauce.
Thanks for such a comprehensive stir frying guide!
You’re very welcome Marty! Just a few small tweaks and it really does make the biggest difference. Have fun stir-frying 🙂