Satisfying Stir Frys
|Beef and Mushroom Stir Fry|
A lot of people are dismissive of stir fries, claiming it's just a matter of chopping up a bunch ingredients, throwing them into a pan or wok with oil and some kind of Asian style sauce, and tossing everything around with a spatula or cooking spoon until all the ingredients are done.
Anyone who is dismissive of stir frys can kiss my butt!
If done right, stir fries are a quick, healthy, and delicious alternative to heavily dressed salads and fattening pasta dishes.
If done wrong, they can be a soggy mishmash of over and undercooked ingredients with a sauce that will not only soak into your rice, but maybe even spill off your plate.
It's for the latter reason that I hated stir frys as a kid. My dad often made them after learning to appreciate vegetables from my Asian mother, but he always overcooked everything, leaving my siblings and I with a soupy, flavorless mess.
There's an art to making a stir fry correctly, but it's an art that's very easy to master.
BEFORE I give you my base recipe, I want to give you 9 tips on how to get a PERFECT stir fry.
1. Cut all your individual ingredients into pieces that are roughly the same size.
I don't mean that every single piece of every single ingredient has to be the same size. I mean that if you're stir frying onions, for example, make sure that every piece of onion going into your pan is about the same size. If you're going to add peppers, make sure that the peppers are all cut into similarly sized pieces. Evenly sized pieces will ensure that everything in your pan is cooked evenly.
2. Do a Mise-En-Place.
Mise En Place translates to "put in place" in French and is something chefs do to make sure they have all the ingredients ready and on hand when it's time to cook.
It looks like this:
|Stir Fry Mise En Place|
For some dishes, a mise en place isn't necessary, as you can prep some ingredients while others are cooking. This not the case with stir frys. You need to have all your vegetables, meats, oils, and flavorings chopped up and/or mixed and ready the second you turn the stove on, as stir fry cooks very fast.
3. Stir fry the ingredients in order of the cooking time they need.
Not everything needs the same cook time in the pan or wok. Harder or chewier vegetables like broccoli, eggplant, carrots and zucchini will typically need more time than thinly sliced peppers, onions, mushrooms, and meats.
4. Slice your meats (if using, as stir frys can be vegetarian or vegan) as thin as possible.
This is not the case for stuff like shrimp and tofu, which cook very quickly. However, if you're dealing with raw chicken, beef, or pork, your best bet to make sure everything cooks quickly and evenly is to cut it as thin as possible. Meat too slippery and slimy to get even slices? NO PROBLEM! Stick it in the freezer for an hour or three, as slippery proteins will slice thinly and evenly once even slightly frozen. If you're dealing with cooked leftover meats, slice them thin anyway so they warm through and you're not left with any cold spots in your stir fry. Cold spots are for lakes.
5. Flavor everything more strongly than you would in other dishes.
Because you're cooking meat and vegetables together, you'll probably see a lot of liquid coming out of these ingredients as they cook. This liquid, while nutritious, dulls flavors a bit, so if you're used to using your favorite teriyaki sauce on baked fish and want to try it in a stir fry, add more than you usually would.
6. Use an Oil that can take the HEAT.
Stir frys need to cook on high heat, so don't waste good olive oil on them, as its low smoking point will result in something burnt or worse, a fire. Peanut, canola, corn, grapeseed, safflower, coconut, avocado, or even Crisco oil are better choices as they can handle high temperatures better. If you have any doubts, look at the label on the bottle. If it says the oil is good for frying, you're good to go.
7. Cornstarch and water are your friends.
A tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon of water is a quick thickener that will ensure that your sauce is the correct consistency and your stir fry not too runny. The trick is to add it a little at a time, stirring with your cooking spoon or spatula until it's thick enough for you.
8. Don't leave out the Garlic and Ginger.
These have great health benefits and are the base flavors of most stir frys. They are also the first things to go into your pan or wok after you add the oil. Don't worry about the harshness of these ingredients when they're raw. That will wear off when you cook them.
8. Rice or Noodles can make a little look like a lot.
The beautiful thing about stir frys is that you can feed a lot of people with very little. The trick is starchy accompaniments. Let's say you make a stir fry that yields 1 cup of food. That could probably serve 2 people, giving them each half a cup. You can stretch that stir fry to feed 4 simply by giving each person half a cup or more of rice or noodles. Here are instructions on how to cook rice or prep rice noodles, my starches of choice for stir frys.
All that said, let's get started.
Sammy's Satisfying Stir Fry
Difficulty Level: Easy
Total Prep and Cook Time: 20 minutes
Serves 2 to 4 depending on appetites and quantity of rice or noodles served with it.
1 Tablespoon of peeled and finely chopped, grated, or crushed Garlic (1 large clove or 2 small ones will usually do the job)
1 Tablespoon of peeled, finely chopped or grated Ginger - Given the unusual shape of ginger roots, an ordinary vegetable peeler won't clean your ginger. Use the tip of a spoon to peel it. You'll be surprised at how well it works. Leftover ginger? No problem. Throw the root in the freezer for future use.
1 Tablespoon of Cornstarch mixed with 1 Tablespoon of Water
4 Tablespoons of Soy Sauce - Soy sauce comes in light or dark varieties. I say use whatever's available in your grocery store, though if the sauce seems thick or extremely salty (according to your taste), dilute it with a little water (say a teaspoon at a time) until it's runny and/or just slightly above your personal tolerance for salty things.
1 Teaspoon of Honey, Pancake Syrup, Marmalade, or whatever liquid Sweetener you have on hand (Optional) - Liquid sweeteners will blend much easier into stir fry sauces than powdered ones like granulated sugar. Marmalade will impart a slight citrus taste to your stir fry.
1 Teaspoon of Hot Sauce (optional) - I like a little heat in my stir fry, and my sauces of choice are Sriracha or Sambal Oelek, Thai-style hot sauces. Use whatever you have on hand. Needless to say, if you're serving people who can't eat spicy food, leave it out and/or serve it on the side.
3 Tablespoons of Oil - (2 Tablespoons if you're using a wok)
1/2 a Cup of Thinly Sliced Meat
Beef, chicken, or pork will all do the job. Slice them as thinly as your knife skills will allow.
- OR -
1/2 a Cup of Shelled and De-Veined Shrimp
De-veined shrimp are shrimp that have had that the dark gray thing running down the back - they call it the "vein", but it's really the poop shoot - removed. You can buy them this way in the freezer section of the grocery store, and thaw them out by soaking them in cold water for a half hour. I don't use fish in my stir frys for unless the fish has been cut into cubes and then batter dipped and deep fried prior to stir frying, it tends to fall apart.
- OR -
1/2 a Cup of Tofu, cut into cubes
1 Cup of Chopped Vegetables - If you want to use root vegetables like carrots, slice them as thinly as possible or they won't cook in time.
If ya wanna get fancy...
2 Tablespoons of Sesame Seeds, toasted - Sesame seeds add a nice texture and look pretty on top of a stir fry. You can find them with the nuts in your grocery store, and sometimes in the spice section (albeit they're usually more expensive in the latter section). Toasting them is easy: just put a pan on the stove on medium high- heat and dump in the seeds, making sure they're spread out, and watching them carefully. Do not add oil to the pan. The sesame seeds have plenty. The SECOND you smell the seeds or they start to SLIGHTLY change colour, take the pan off the stove and dump the seeds into a bowl.
1 Green Onion, rinsed, dried, 1 inch cut off the green top (as it's nasty), and thinly sliced - This adds a nice pop of colour and some extra onion flavor.
At Least 3 Regular Bowls or Plastic Containers - For your mise-en-place - use the tiniest ones you have for the garlic, ginger, oil, and the cornstarch-water mixture
1 Cutting Board
1 Fork or Small Whisk
1 Frying Pan or Wok - A wok is a bowl shaped pan used in Asian cooking, see below.
A wok is an economical cooking vessel because its shape and design distributes heat evenly while allowing you to use less oil. You can get one in most major department stores for between 20 and 50 bucks, but it's not worth buying unless you need to lower your cholesterol, and/or plan to make a lot of stir frys and fried rice (I'll be tackling fried rice in the next entry). You can make a stir fry just fine in a frying pan with a little more oil, but if you really want a wok and there's an area of your hometown that caters primarily to an Asian community - the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and people from India and Pakistan all use woks for their cooking - shop for one there. I guarantee you will get a better quality product for a better price.
1 Spatula, Large Wooden Spoon, or Sturdy Cooking Spoon - If your wok or pan is non-stick, USE PLASTIC OR WOODEN TOOLS, NOT METAL ONES, as metal tools tend to destroy non-stick surfaces.
MAKING THE STIR FRY
Prep your mise en place. The tougher vegetables should go in one bowl, the softer ones in another, and the meat, shrimp, or tofu in another. The ginger and garlic can go together in a small bowl or container, the oil in another, the cornstarch and water in one more. The soy sauce, hot sauce, and sweetener (if using), should be mixed together in its own bowl or container with a small whisk or fork.
Take 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce mixture, dump it into the bowl or container of meat, and stir everything around until the meat is tinted with it. This will allow the meat to marinate a little while the vegetables are cooking.
Put your pan or wok on the stove and turn the heat on high.
Count to ten slowly - to allow the wok or pan to heat up - and then dump in your oil.
Count to 5 to allow the oil to heat, and then dump in the garlic and ginger and stir it around with your cooking spoon or spatula.
The second you smell the garlic and ginger, dump in the tougher vegetables and stir them around.
When the veg brightens in colour a little (it will take about 3 to 5 minutes), add half the remaining soy sauce mixture. Stir everything around to incorporate.
Add the softer vegetables and stir everything around for about 3 minutes, to soften and cook the vegetables together.
Add the rest of the soy sauce mixture and stir everything around for 1 more minute, and then add your meat or other protein.
If you started with cooked meat, shrimp, or tofu, you only need to stir everything around to heat the meat through.
If you started with raw, you need to stir everything around until the meat or shrimp is cooked. Because the meat is sliced so thin and shrimp cooks fast, the second the meat changes colour, it's ready.
If the stir fry seems a bit liquidy to you, now is the time to add your cornstarch and water mixture.
Stir the cornstarch and water together (it will have separated by now).
Using your trusty cooking spoon or spatula, push the solids of your stir fry to one side of the pan or wok.
Add a teaspoon of the corn starch and water mixture to the accumulating liquid, and stir the whole stir fry around to distribute it and thicken the sauce. Repeat the process if the stir fry still seems runny.
You are now ready to serve over rice or noodles.
And stay tuned for next time when I'll be showing you one of the easiest ways to use leftovers...
In fried rice!
-Samantha R. Gold
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