The Weeknight Stir-Fry Guide

A truly authentic stir-fry is an art, a centuries-old technique that originated in China in which a variety of ingredients—often some sort of protein and an array of vegetables—are quickly cooked in a searing wok. But you don’t have to be a master to create a good stir-fry. Because it comes together quickly, and because you can use nearly any combination of protein and veggies that your heart desires, it’s a perfect, healthy weeknight meal that can be designed to your taste. Bonus: you can clear out all those extra bits of veggies that you weren’t sure what to do with and you were hoping to use up before they became compost.

Now, before anyone gets into a huff, I am not the expert on stir-frying (if you really want to get into some authentically delicious stir-frying you should check out Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge or The Breath of a Wok). However, I do love to make a great stir-fry, and my family is always happy when I do so. Here, I’ll give you lots of ideas to create your own masterpiece depending on what you have in the fridge and what you like, plus some of my favorite combinations. I’m not providing exact amounts here because, well, it depends on how many people you want to feed and how much you have in the fridge. Regardless, I’ll give you a more specific recipe down below so you have a good idea of how many ingredients to use with the sauce recipe I provide. The sauce is pretty versatile and straightforward, but you can change it up as you like…just be sure to use low-sodium soy sauce or your sauce will be too salty.

Let’s start with some ideas for ingredients:

    Protein:
  • Steak, thinly sliced across the grain or cubed
  • Boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast, thinly sliced or cubed
  • Pork tenderloin, cut into thin strips
  • Shrimp, peeled and deveined with tail intact
  • Firm tofu, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast, thinly sliced or cubed.
Boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast, thinly sliced or cubed. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Vegetables that I like to blanch* before adding:
  • Broccoli florets
  • Cauliflower florets
  • Green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Long beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

*To blanch vegetables: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the veggies, then cook until crisp-tender. Drain in a colander in the sink, then plunge veggies in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking quickly.

Blanched broccoli
Blanching broccoli (Wendy Goodfriend)
Plunge broccoli in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking quickly.
Plunge broccoli in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking quickly. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Vegetables that I cook directly in the wok:
  • Yellow or red onion, halved and sliced
  • Red, orange, or yellow bell peppers, cored and cut into thin strips
  • Carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • Zucchini or summer squash, cut into chunks
  • Baby bok choy, halved or quartered
  • Fresh English peas, shelled
  • Mushrooms, sliced
  • Sugar snap peas, trimmed
  • Snow peas, trimmed
  • Green onions, sliced
Mushrooms, sliced.
Mushrooms, sliced. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Other additions:
  • Minced garlic (add with vegetables)
  • Whole dried Chinese red chili peppers (cook these in oil before cooking protein, remove then add back with protein at the end)
  • Roasted peanuts or chopped, roasted cashews (add at the end of cooking)
    And some ideas for combinations of ingredients:
  • Chicken breast, zucchini, green onions, peanuts, red chili peppers
  • Steak, asparagus, sugar snap peas, minced garlic
  • Pork tenderloin, green beans, mushrooms
  • Shrimp, baby bok choy, snow peas
  • Tofu, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, sugar snap peas

Here’s the basic method:
Heat a well-seasoned wok over medium-high heat, add a little oil, then add your protein. Cook until just cooked through, only stirring occasionally (the timing will depend on the protein). I like to let the first side cook without moving it until it browns, then start stirring. Transfer to a plate or bowl and set aside. Add a little more oil to the wok, then add vegetables in order of hardness (those that need to cook longer should be added first, then layered with other vegetables). Cook, stirring, until tender, then add the protein back to the wok along with the sauce. Cook, stirring and tossing until the sauce thickens.

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Serve your stir-fry as it is, or over a bowl of steaming white or brown rice or cooked noodles (I love the Chinese-style egg noodles that you can find at Ranch 99 or Berkeley Bowl).

Basic Stir-Fry Ingredients
Basic Stir-Fry Ingredients (Wendy Goodfriend)

Recipe: Basic Stir-Fry Example

    Ingredients:
  • Peanut, canola, or vegetable oil
    Protein:
  • 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed
    Veggies:
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
  • 3 small-medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 1 cup small broccoli florets, blanched*
  • 3 green onions, sliced
    Sauce:
  • ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
  • 2 tablespoons mirin, sherry, or broth
  • 1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • Steamed rice or cooked noodles, for serving
Basic Stir-Fry Ingredients prepped
Basic Stir-Fry Ingredients prepped (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Instructions:
  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sauce, then add the chicken. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes at room temperature. (You can marinate beef, pork, chicken, or tofu, but avoid marinating fish or seafood for very long.) Strain the sauce into a bowl. Set the sauce and chicken aside separately.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sauce.
    In a medium bowl, whisk together the sauce. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Add the sauce to the prepped chicken. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes at room temperature.
    Add the sauce to the prepped chicken. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes at room temperature. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    Strain the sauce into a bowl. Set the sauce and chicken aside separately.
    Strain the sauce into a bowl. Set the sauce and chicken aside separately. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  3. Heat a well-seasoned wok over medium-high heat, then add a few teaspoons of oil. When the oil is very hot, add the chicken. Cook on the first side without moving it, until it begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Stir, and continue to cook until cooked through, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a plate or bowl and set aside.
  4. Heat a well-seasoned wok over medium-high heat, then add a few teaspoons of oil.
    Heat a well-seasoned wok over medium-high heat, then add a few teaspoons of oil. (Wendy Goodfriend)
    When the oil is very hot, add the chicken. Cook on the first side without moving it, until it begins to brown, about 2 minutes.
    When the oil is very hot, add the chicken. Cook on the first side without moving it, until it begins to brown, about 2 minutes. (Wendy Goodfriend)
  5. Add a teaspoon or two of oil to the wok, then add the bell pepper and carrots. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until just starting to become tender. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 3 minutes, until just tender. Add the broccoli and green onions and cook until the vegetables are all tender, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken back to the wok along with the sauce. Cook, stirring and tossing until the sauce thickens, cooks through, and everything is well coated. Serve at once over rice or noodles.
Add a teaspoon or two of oil to the wok, then add the bell pepper and carrots. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until just starting to become tender.
Add a teaspoon or two of oil to the wok, then add the bell pepper and carrots. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until just starting to become tender. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Add the mushrooms and cook for about 3 minutes, until just tender.
Add the mushrooms and cook for about 3 minutes, until just tender. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Add the broccoli and green onions and cook until the vegetables are all tender, about 3 minutes.
Add the broccoli and green onions and cook until the vegetables are all tender, about 3 minutes. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Add the chicken back to the wok along with the sauce.
Add the chicken back to the wok along with the sauce. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Cook, stirring and tossing until the sauce thickens, cooks through, and everything is well coated.
Cook, stirring and tossing until the sauce thickens, cooks through, and everything is well coated. (Wendy Goodfriend)
Serve at once over rice or noodles.
Serve at once over rice or noodles. (Wendy Goodfriend)

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