Stir-fries, the perfect weeknight fix. They’re quick to put together while also providing a balanced meal all in one bowl—they’re essentially the ideal family dinner. But even though they’re such an easy dish, the technique deserves a bit of attention if you want to master the process. Here are nine simple ways to bump up the quality of your stir-fry tonight.
How to make a stir-fry
1. Prepare all the ingredients before turning on the heat
Once the heat is on, things move quickly. Have your ingredients sliced and your liquids measured before you start, and keep them close by. Be prepared to add things quickly, making sure each component is cooked properly.
2. Slice meat and vegetables for maximum surface area
The goal is to expose as much surface area as possible: vegetables are often sliced thinly on a sharp diagonal, aromatics like garlic and ginger are usually finely chopped, and meat is always sliced against the grain to increase tenderness. The greater surface area gives it all more contact with the heat and more flavour.
3. Use a wok or cast-iron pan
If you have a wok, always use it. A wok has a large surface area and retains heat very well, making it ideal for stir-fries. If you don’t have a wok, opt for a cast-iron pan. As you add more ingredients, you want the pan to remain very hot and cast-iron pans will retain heat better than other materials. This makes it particularly important when cooking on an electric stove, because, compared to a gas flame, the element has more difficulty retaining heat.
4. The aromatics should be cooked low and slow
There is one exception to cooking at a high heat, and that’s when you’re using finely chopped aromatics such as ginger, garlic, lemongrass or green onions. They should be cooked first, at a lower heat. If added to a wok or pan on high heat, they will burn quickly and taint the flavour of the stir-fry. As these items are used to flavour the oil, heat the oil over medium heat and cook the aromatics gently. Make sure to spoon them out of the pan before increasing the heat. (They can be added again at the end if desired.)
5. But the stir fry needs to be cooked fast and hot
Your heat should be set to high—but it still needs to be controlled (you don’t want it smoking). Heat your wok or pan before adding the oil, as this step will help prevent sticking. Once the oil is added, roll it around the pan to coat it well. Select oil with a high smoke point. (Peanut oil works very well for stir-fries.)
6. Add ingredients according to cook time
Make a plan and decide what order to add the ingredients into the pan, based on their cook time. (Some items will take as little as 30 seconds to cook.) Don’t be afraid to cook the meat first and take it out of the pan, to be added again at the end. This will allow you to cook the vegetables without overcooking the meat. Don’t expect the meat to appear browned—in stir-fries the meat is only just cooked through, so there’s no time for caramelization.
7. Stir your ingredients often
Your ingredients should cook fast, but to ensure that everything is cooked evenly, stir constantly (hence the name). It’s important to move the food in and out of the centre of the pan quickly.
8. Thicken the stir-fry sauce
Some recipes will call for a mixture of cornstarch and water to thicken the sauce at the end of a stir-fry. If this is the case, make sure that they are mixed until smooth to prevent clumping when added.
9. Always add a garnish
Serve stir-fries with a steaming bowl of rice or noodles, but don’t forget to add a fresh element: herbs, sprouts or fresh citrus wedges make a big difference.
Originally published February 2014. Updated January 2022.
Watch: How to make Kung Pao chicken stir fry
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