Let’s all get back to the stir-fry ba­sics

If you think gin­ger and gar­lic to­gether make for the be­gin­ning of a great stir fry, you’re right

The Peterborough Examiner - - ARTS & LIFE - KATIE WORKMAN

For ev­ery home cook hap­pily toss­ing to­gether a stir fry at home, there are a dozen would-be stir fry­ers want­ing to make chicken-broc­coli-sugar-snap-pea stir fry. And then sheep­ishly reach­ing for the takeout menu.

Stir-fry tech­nique has many peo­ple in­tim­i­dated. But if you can slice and stir, you can stir fry. So, let’s break it down, re­view the ba­sics, and get every­one on their way to stir-fry suc­cess.


1. Read the recipe all the way through. The in­gre­di­ents, the steps, ev­ery­thing. Get­ting a sense of the or­der of events so you know what’s com­ing will make you more con­fi­dent as you cook.

2. Prep ALL the in­gre­di­ents be­fore you start cook­ing. Stir-fry­ing goes quickly, so make sure your in­gre­di­ents are all cut and ready to roll. You don’t want to re­al­ize sud­denly that you still need to mince the gar­lic that’s sup­posed to be sautéing along with the broc­coli.

3. Make sure your in­gre­di­ents are of sim­i­lar size. Most stir fries in­volve fairly small-cut in­gre­di­ents added in stages, some­times in batches, so ev­ery­thing ends up prop­erly cooked at the same time. When chop­ping broc­coli, for in­stance, or cub­ing chicken, try to make all the pieces roughly the same size.

4. Feel free to swap or sub­sti­tute in­gre­di­ents. If you want broc­coli in­stead of sugar snap peas, great! Again, just make sure the veg­eta­bles you sub in are cut com­pa­ra­bly and have a sim­i­lar den­sity, there­fore a sim­i­lar cook­ing time. Or ad­just the time as needed: Sliced car­rots will need more cook­ing time than spinach, for in­stance, so add a few min­utes to the cook­ing time, or add them ear­lier in the recipe. Cubed pork can be used in place of chicken, tofu can be swapped in for shrimp — most stir fries are flex­i­ble.

5. A skil­let may be bet­ter than a small wok. The bowl-shaped pans sold as woks are not al­ways the best an­swer for a home cook. Be­cause there is a lot of sloped side area to a wok, there isn’t much flat bot­tom sit­ting di­rectly on the heat. I like us­ing a very large skil­let, so the food in the pan is less crowded and gets a bet­ter dis­tri­bu­tion of heat. If you do want a wok, get a big one!

6. Make sure the pan is hot. You need high heat to get the best flavour from the in­gre­di­ents in a stir fry. And you need the pan to be hot be­fore the in­gre­di­ents hit it, so they have a chance to sear a bit, lock­ing in colour and flavour.

7. Cook in lay­ers and batches. The se­cret to great stir fries (and lots of other cook­ing meth­ods, like fry­ing and sautéing) is to not crowd the pan, and to leave the food alone be­tween stirs. Giv­ing in­di­vid­ual pieces of food a chance to come in di­rect con­tact with the hot pan on a con­tin­u­ous ba­sis is the dif­fer­ence be­tween nicely browned pieces and a pile of steamed food. That’s why many stir­fry recipes call for cook­ing in­gre­di­ents sep­a­rately or in batches. And be­cause stir-fry food is cut small, cook­ing goes quickly. So do­ing it in stages and batches and then com­bin­ing it all at the end adds only a hand­ful of ex­tra min­utes.

8. Add the sauce at the end. Only once your in­gre­di­ents are cooked do you want to add any liq­uid. Oth­er­wise, you wouldn’t re­ally be stir fry­ing, but brais­ing or poach­ing. A bit of corn­starch mixed into the sauce will al­low it to thicken as it sim­mers.

9. Make some rice. It’s nice to have some­thing to soak up that sauce. Choose any kind of rice you like: white, brown, jas­mine, bas­mati, whichever. Noo­dles, es­pe­cially Asian noo­dles, are an­other nice base for stir fries.


Here are a hand­ful of condi­ments called for in many Asian recipes. Once you get to know them, you can play with them like mad.

Soy sauce. In­dis­pens­able in Asian cook­ing (and in­ter­est­ing in non-Asian recipes as well). It packs a rich, salty taste, and is brewed from soy­beans and wheat. You can choose reg­u­lar or less-sodium soy sauce, and if there are gluten in­tol­er­ances in your fam­ily, go for tamari, which is sim­i­lar but with­out wheat.

Se­same oil. Made from toasted se­same seeds, this oil has a nut­like and aro­matic flavour. It’s of­ten added at the end of cook­ing to pre­serve its won­der­ful flavour. It’s strong, so use in small amounts. Chili se­same oil is a nice way to add that se­same flavour and some heat at the same time. Keep it in the fridge to keep it from get­ting ran­cid.

Hoisin sauce. A thick, some­what in­tense sauce made from ground soy­beans and some kind of starch, sea­soned with red chilies and gar­lic. Vine­gar, Chi­nese five-spice and sugar are also com­monly added.

Chili gar­lic sauce. Ver­sa­tile, spicy and gar­licky, as the name sug­gests. It’s got a slightly rough tex­ture, and a dose of tangi­ness from vine­gar.

Oys­ter sauce. Made from oys­ter ex­tracts com­bined with sugar, soy sauce, salt and thick­en­ers. This thick, dark brown sauce is a sta­ple in Chi­nese fam­ily-style cook­ing. An­other way to add salti­ness and umami (savouri­ness) to stir fries.

Fish sauce. A ba­sic in­gre­di­ent in South­east Asian cuisines, par­tic­u­larly Thai and Viet­namese. It has a pun­gent odour, but when used in cook­ing, the flavour is much milder. The aroma comes from the liq­uid given off by an­chovies that have been salted or fer­mented. This is the kind of thing you might want to keep to your­self un­til your kids have eaten and en­joyed fish sauce in a recipe.

Two items to keep in the fridge:

Gin­ger. Fresh gin­ger is one of the great­est in­gre­di­ents in stir fries. Spicy, brac­ing, up­lift­ing. It’s an easy way to add bang-for-your-buck flavour.

Gar­lic. Usu­ally finely minced, some­times thinly sliced.

The base of gar­lic and gin­ger heated to­gether in oil is a sign of a ter­rific stir fry in the mak­ing.


If you can slice and stir, you’re more than on your way. One hint: When chop­ping or cub­ing in­gre­di­ents, try to make all the pieces roughly the same size.

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