How to Cook a Customizable Stir-Fry

You can riff on recipes all you want, but here's the basic technique

Anyone can follow a thoroughly laid out recipe and wind up with an impressive meal to show for it. But there’s a difference between following a to-do list and actually developing a reliable cooking instinct that you can build upon when you're firing something up off the cuff. That’s why we’re not going to give you our favorite stir-fry recipe – but we will give you some trusted stir-frying tactics to make sure that no matter what you’re sizzling up, it’ll taste great every time. No recipe required.

Crank Up the Heat

Before we even think about ingredients, it’s important to touch on the biggest part of what separates a good stir-fry from a great one: getting your wok searing hot before you even add any oil.

If you’ve ever seen a restaurant chef well-trained in the art of Chinese cooking, you probably noticed the enormous flame he or she was keeping the wok over while tossing around the ingredients. Chinese kitchens use specialized burners that crank out absurdly powerful levels of heat, which means the chefs can cook extremely rapidly when they need to get a deep, hard sear on a batch of sliced beef or chopped vegetables without overcooking it too much.

Your home stove won't get as hot as a pro kitchen, but you should still follow their lead and crank up your burners all the way up and get that pan ripping hot. This’ll give your main meat or protein that singed, smoky exterior you’re looking for while keeping plenty of tenderness on the inside, and give your veggies the proper sear they deserve without removing their crunch.

Choosing Your Ingredients Wisely

The first step is to choose the main component of the meal: usually a protein like chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp, tofu, and the like. Once you’ve got this locked down, choose a few veggies to accompany. Options in this category are mushrooms, red onions, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and bell peppers, but feel free to go wild with whatever looks good at the farmer's market or grocery store.

Now you need few aromatics and add-ins to start layering on the flavor. Try garlic, ginger, citrus, peanuts or cashews, or any herbs and spices you’d like to bring along for the ride.

Finally, you're gonna want some kind of sauce that complements the ingredients you've chosen. We've got a few mouthwatering options if you need a recommendation.

Preparation is Key

Once you’ve got all your ingredients on hand, you’ll want to prep them all ahead of time so that you can cook quickly once your pan is hot. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Pre-wash (and more importantly, dry) your vegetables. Let them sit on a paper towel for a few minutes after you've gotten rid of any dirt – that way, they can sear immediately once they hit the pan rather than energy being expended to heat and steam the moisture still present in the vegetables.

  2. Slice away. It helps to chop every ingredient into uniformly-sized pieces so that everything cooks evenly, but it doesn't have to be perfect. There’s no hard-and-fast measurement – just slice everything into bites you’d be comfortable taking at a fancy restaurant, and you’re good to go.

  3. Establish a cooking order. The key to making a stir fry with evenly-cooked contents is adding each ingredient at the right time. For example, denser vegetables like broccoli or carrots shout hit the pan earlier than the thinner, smaller ones like bok choy or spinach.

Cooking the Protein

This is a two-step process. You cook your main ingredient first until it’s about 80% done, take it out while you cook up your veggies, and then toss it back in at the end to finish it off. That way, you can get a good sear without cooking your protein so fully that it'll be overdone after a few more minutes in the pan when you need to toss all your ingredients together.

This is also the step when you'll want to add any aromatics that benefit from being heated in oil – garlic, ginger, chili flakes, stuff like that. Letting them sizzle along with your protein will help flavor the oil that you're frying everything in and deepen their contribution to the dish.

So heat your pan on high, drizzle in plenty of any oil with a high smoke point (you don't want it to scorch from the sustained high heat you're going to use), and once it's ripping hot, add your aromatics and protein. While you are preparing a stir-fry, you won’t need to toss your protein around much during this first stage of cooking. Let it sit still until the edges begin to look cooked before you begin to stir at all – the longer the undisturbed contact with the hot pan, the crispier the texture will be.

Cooking the Veggies

Once your main protein is set aside, it’s time to let the pan heat back up, drizzle in some more oil, and toss in your vegetables. Luckily, you’ve already got them arranged in the order you’ll be placing them into the pan – toss 'em in one after another.

The key here is to keep the whole thing moving at all times, so all your ingredients are constantly being rolled across the hot surface of your pan. So, you’ll add an ingredient or two, toss and stir for a bit, and repeat until everything is in your pan. Then pluck out a couple of bites and taste to see how your flavors and textures are shaping up. Once they're almost fully cooked, you're ready to continue on to the next step.

Bringing It All Together

Add your meat back in and toss the whole thing up while you drizzle in a sauce, if you're using one. Give it a minute or two to keep cooking while continuing to stir to let the sauce coat everything evenly and heat into a sticky, caramelized glaze, then turn off the burner. You're done. Pour everything into a big serving bowl and enjoy, either solo or over some rice or noodles.

And remember: as with all things, practice makes perfect. Don’t let an overcooked mushroom or two discourage you from trying the same recipe a few times until timing perfectly becomes second nature.

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