You’ve decided to a prepare a healthy stir-fry from scratch using ingredients you have on hand, but you are not sure whether a certain vegetable is a good candidate for stir-frying. Will it be able to withstand the high cooking temperature? Does it need a longer cooking time than stir-frying allows? Will it achieve the right texture? Once you know a few stir-frying rules you will be able to throw together a vegetable stir-fry no matter what is in the refrigerator.
The Right Vegetables
Basically, it all comes down to the density and moisture level of the vegetable. High moisture vegetables that are not too hard, like zucchini, sweet peppers, spinach, and mung bean sprouts, can be quickly stir-fried at high heat without the addition of extra liquid.
Denser, low-moisture vegetables like broccoli and carrots require more cooking time. Many recipes call for the vegetables to be stir-fried briefly and then boiled in a liquid such as chicken broth. Another option is to briefly blanch the vegetables prior to stir-frying.
Many vegetables fall somewhere between these two extremes. Snow peas (also called sugar peas and snap peas) have medium moisture levels and thickness—they can be stir-fried dry or finished in a sauce. Asparagus, on the other hand, is a high moisture vegetable but relatively hard and thick, so a liquid is usually added.
By following a few simple techniques—from vegetable chopping to stirring—you will find stir-frying a breeze and your dish will be a success every time. First, you need to cut the vegetables into uniform size before stir-frying. This ensures that they will cook evenly at the same rate. And if some of your vegetables take longer to cook than others, then you will need to add them in stages, starting with those that require a longer cooking time.
If you have rinsed the vegetables, or they happen to be from a can (like water chestnuts and baby corn), be sure they are thoroughly drained before stir-frying. Wet vegetables can ruin a stir-fry—the moisture will not allow the vegetables to crisp up and you will end up with a soggy stir-fry. A good tip is to wash the vegetables earlier in the day and then leave them to drain until you are ready to cook in the evening.
Because you are cooking on such high heat, there is a risk of burning your stir-fry. There are two ways to prevent this from happening—one is to keep moving the vegetables around the wok or pan so they don't sit long enough to overcook. The other is to splash them with a bit of Chinese rice wine, dry sherry, or water while stir-frying, but only if you notice the vegetables becoming too dry during stir-frying.
Vegetable Stir-fry Recipes
Once you have mastered the stir-frying technique, and have found one or two recipes for sauces that you like, you can whip up a vegetable stir-fry easily, without a recipe. But in case you need some inspiration, no worries—there are plenty of delicious vegetable stir-fry dishes to choose from. Asparagus stir-fry combines the vegetable with mushrooms and bell peppers in a flavorful oyster sauce, while stir-fry baby bok choy keeps it simple highlighting this tender vegetable in a soy-ginger sauce. Reminiscent of Chinese take-out, this recipe for stir-fried broccoli with garlic incorporates a cornstarch slurry to give the sauce that familiar texture.
Ideal for a busy weeknight, this simple snow peas stir-fry has just five ingredients and can be on the dinner table in less than five minutes. And next time you serve steak, instead of a creamy spinach side dish, surprise the family with a spinach with garlic stir-fry—the drizzle of Asian sesame oil will have everyone asking for more. Have nothing in the fridge except for a head of lettuce? Believe it or not, you can make a delicious lettuce stir-fry—turning what is usually eaten raw and crisp into something tender with a bit of umami.