5 Tips for Making the Perfect Stir-Fry

Vegetable stir fry in a large wok
gordana jovanovic / Getty Images

If you have ever tried making a stir-fry at home and feel like you could have done better, well, try again. There one common mistake that rookie cooks make right out of the gate and that is adding too many things to your wok at once.

If you add too many items, it will cool down your wok. Your food will simmer or steam and not fry. You really want it to fry—especially meats. Also, if you add all your ingredients at once, you are not accounting for all the different cooking rates of your foods. For instance, hard carrots need more time to cook than shrimp or thin strips of chicken breast.

Check out these five cooking tips that can make your stir-fry a sure bet.

Your Wok Should Be Smoking Hot

To make a good stir-fry, you absolutely must have an extremely hot wok. A sauté pan works well, too.

Not getting the pan hot enough is one of the most common problems for home cooks. This is true in general, not just with stir-fries.

Restaurants have extremely powerful stoves pumping out mega-high heat, which enables them to get a beautiful sear on meats and cook foods quickly so that they do not spend too much time in the pan.

If you have ever seen the gigantic burners they have in Chinese restaurants specifically for the stir-fry wok, they're called "volcanos" because they get so ridiculously hot. Those things blast out 75,000 BTUs, which is about ten times hotter than the average burner on a home range.

If you have a high-end range, it might feature one extra-hot burner that approaches 12,000 BTU. That is definitely the burner you should use. But even with that, you simply do not have the equipment to duplicate what a cook in a Chinese restaurant is able to do using one of their volcano burners. That is not to say you should not try it, but it is going to be challenging.

So, since you cannot produce the same heat as a Chinese restaurant, you have to heat your wok for a long time. Think about heating your wok for 5 to 10 minutes over the highest heat on a gas range that you can get. Just heat it dry with nothing in it. If you have to, close the kitchen door and turn on the vent fan while this is happening. Note, you cannot do this with a non-stick coated wok. The best woks are made of carbon steel. Also, you cannot do this on an electric range, since heating an empty pan on high could damage the pan. Instead, set it to 6 or 7 (or medium-high).

Once the wok is really hot, add some oil. Use the most refined high-heat vegetable oil you can find. That is usually a refined safflower oil or a refined sunflower oil. These oils have the advantage also of being neutral-flavored, so you will taste the food and the seasonings, not the oil. Peanut oil is also a good choice, and it imparts a slightly nutty flavor.

Do Not Cook Ice-Cold Meat

Adding cold meat will instantly cool off your wok. To avoid this, let the meat sit out at room temperature for 20 minutes before you cook it. You can marinate it during this time with soy sauce and a little bit of wine. Then, when you are ready to cook, remove the meat from the marinade, drain it, and pat it dry before you add it to the wok.

When you are shopping for the meat at your supermarket or butcher, you will sometimes see strips of beef already cut up for sale as "stir-fry meat." Your better bet is to slice up your own sirloin, skirt steak, or flank steak. It is an extra step, but your meat will be fresher. To reduce the meat's chewiness, slice meats against the grain.

Cook the Meat in Batches

If you have more than 8 ounces of meat, cook it in batches. Overloading your wok with meat will cool it off, and as the meat releases its juices, it will end up simmering and steaming rather than frying. Which means the meat will turn gray and tough rather than brown and tender.

First, heat up the oil, then add flavoring ingredients (like garlic and ginger), and then add the meat. Spread it out so it is not all piled up in the center. And, do not immediately start stirring it around either. Leave it for at least half a minute to give it a chance to brown. Then, stir it around until it is nicely browned.

Cook the meat until it is nearly done, then remove it, and set it aside. Reheat the pan and add more oil if necessary, then repeat until all your meat is cooked almost all the way.

You cook it almost all the way because you will add it back to the stir-fry right at the end, and then it will finish cooking. Otherwise, it will be overcooked.

Cook the Vegetables Next

Once you have set aside the meat, heat up the wok again, add fresh oil and seasonings, and then cook the vegetables. Things like onions and sliced mushrooms can go in early. Leafy vegetables like spinach or shredded cabbage go in at the end, and so would anything like bean sprouts if you want them to retain their crisp texture.

Some items like green beans, carrots, and broccoli need extra cooking time, and you might even want to blanch them in boiling water for 60 seconds, shock them in ice water, and drain them completely. This is an extra step, but the goal with a wok is to cook quickly so that you do not end up with a lot of liquid at the bottom.

You might add some soy sauce, wine, or stock, and cook until all the veggies are cooked. You want them to be crisp and retain their bright colors. Overcooked veggies will be soft and drab in color.

Add the Cooked Meat at the End

You want to add the cooked meat back to the wok at the end to finish the cooking and mix in with the other ingredients. You can mix up a slurry of cornstarch and cold water and stir it in at this point to thicken the sauce. The slurry usually includes a tablespoon of cornstarch and an ounce of cold water to form a paste, then you stir it into the stir-fry and cook until it thickens.

Finally, add a few dashes of sesame oil at the very end, but not before. Pure sesame oil burns really quickly, it is more a flavoring than a cooking oil.