The stir-fry is a great exercise in intuitive cooking. You can use as many or as few ingredients as you want, with just about any seasoning (or none). You can use almost any vegetable or protein. It’s all about order: you pick your ingredients, you decide what goes in first, second, and so forth, and you just fry away. They are most often Asian in flavor, with lots of soy sauce and ginger and the like, but there’s plenty of room for variation. Their one fault is that it’s hard to include grains – so put a pot of rice on the back of the stove when you start, and you’ll all set.
The secret to the stir fry is to consider how long each ingredient will take to cook, and add them in such an order that they will all be done at about the same time. It helps to be familiar with how each vegetable cooks on its own before you try it in a stir fry, so you have a sense of how long it will take.
The Basics: you’ll start out with these almost every time
- Oil – essential. Most of the time you’ll use a vegetable or canola oil. Don’t use olive oil, unless you really want that flavor.
- Onions – almost always
- Garlic – almost always
- Ginger — depending on the flavor you want.
Adding Substance: Pick your favorites from this list. You can use almost any vegetable. These are listed roughly in order of cooking time.
- Potatoes/Sweet potatoes/beets
- Water chestnuts/bamboo shoots, peas in pod
- Tomatoes, peas
Adding Flavor: Add lots of seasoning, or just let the flavor of the food stand out on its own. Choose your favorite combinations.
- Soy sauce, maybe mixed up with a little sesame oil and brown sugar
- Hoisin sauce (maybe mixed with soy sauce)
- Teriyaki or other prepared sauce
- Chili peppers
- Herbs and spices of your choice
- Chop everything up.
- Heat a bit of oil in a large frying pan, or a wok if you have one. Medium heat is fine. Add whatever will take longest to cook: onions, garlic, and ginger. Saute – stir them frequently – until they just start to get tender.
- Add your next vegetable (whatever takes the next longest to cook). Keep stirring and frying as it cooks.
- Repeat, until everything is cooking.
- Add seasonings to taste. (Depending on what they are. You can add dried herbs at the very beginning with the onions, but always add fresh herbs towards the end or they’ll lose their flavor. Add sauces once everything else is cooking, or else it won’t absorb evenly. Always, always taste as you add seasoning!)
- Give it another minute for the flavors to mingle, and make sure everything is cooked through, then remove from heat and serve.
How do you tell when it’s done?
The trick of the stir fry is getting everything to be done at the same time – nothing too crunchy, nothing too mushy. Keep a fork next to the stove, and jab your veggies every couple minutes. You’ll know what “done” feels like – it’s the texture you’d want when it’s on your plate. Try to add the next ingredient when the previous one is a little more than halfway towards done. If something starts to get mushy, pick up the pace with the rest of the ingredients – and make a mental note of the offending veggie so that next time, you will cook it less.
How do you tell if it will taste good?
Seasoning to taste means one thing: taste early and often. Smell it, too. If you’re stirring herbs and sauces together, taste as you go. Tasting/smelling each addition will guide you towards something tasty. And when you add it to your stir fry, go slow. Err on the side of too little. No one wants a salty, soy-drenched stir fry! It’s easier to add more than to add less.