I've been exploring the art of stir-fry in preparation for my Summer Stir-Fry class next week at Cancer Support Community Atlanta. Luckily my husband, Michael, loves stir-fry because between all of the recipe testing and leftovers, we've pretty much been eating it all week! We aren't sick of it though which speaks to the versatility in this cooking technique. Changing the types of vegetables, the sauce, the protein, or the aromatics, will change flavors and presentation and before you know it, a new dish is born.
Stir-fying is considered a healthy cooking technique for many reasons. It relies on quick cooking, which helps vegetables retain delicate nutrients. It can be easily converted into a vegetarian dish and utilize plant based protien sources like nuts, tofu and tempeh. Also, color and reliance on vegetables increases antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that promote health and healing.
If you're following the traditional approach, stir-frying is a more advanced cooking technique that can go wrong for various reasons, but don't let this deter you from trying it out. Like everything, practice makes perfect!!
These are my 6 tips for success:
- Choose a carbon steel wok – they are inexpensive, rapidly become very hot, and once seasoned become a natural nonstick surface (so less oil is needed). I prefer one that has a long wooden handle because it will be heat-proof and aid in easy lifting. You'll need to consider the bottom of the wok – round vs. flat. A round bottom will allow the flame to come up around the sides of the wok and will therefore heat a larger surface area faster (high heat is key for success), but this shape won't sit properly on flat induction or electric stovetops. For these heat sources, choose a flat bottom wok. Choose a 14-inch diameter or larger if your cooktop will allow. Additional equipment to consider: Chinese spatula for easy lifting and flipping of food, spider for precooking/blanching hard vegetables or velveting proteins, lid for the wok to aid in steaming, wok ring if using a rounded bottom wok.
- Be very organized – mise en place is super important. Cut all the vegetables, protein and aromatics and place each into a separate container/bowl. There is no time for hesitation when cooking a stir-fry, so this essential step will allow you to line up the ingredients in the order that they will be placed into the wok. The order will depend on what's going into the stir-fry. Generally, protein is first until 2/3's cooked, then removed, harder veg goes next, followed by softer veg, aromatics, then protein goes back in to finish cooking, followed by sauce. All of this happens in a matter of minutes and if there is delay, there is opportunity for overcooked or burned ingredients. The end result should be crisp, tender, brightly colored vegetables with moist protein.
- Cut ingredients into small and even sizes – this allows the ingredient to have maximum contact with the oil and cooking surface which ensures quick cooking and allows for even cooking. For example, if some slices of onion are thick and some are small, the small pieces will burn while the large pieces risk staying raw. Evenly sided ingredients will enhance presentation and will aid in the beauty and taste of the dish.
- Consider some finishing touches – these are ingredients that will be added at the end of cooking just before plating. Some examples include: toasted sesame seeds, nuts (peanuts are a great and inexpensive option), bean sprouts, pea sprouts, fresh herbs or sliced scallions. These finishes will enhance nutrition, texture, presentation and flavor.
- Choose a unique grain accompaniment – rice is an obvious and traditional companion for stir-fry, but experimentation this week led me to serving stir-fry with farro and red rice as accompaniments. These added amazing texture and varied nutrients/fiber. When going this nontraditional route, stick to grains that have delicate flavor. For example, I also tried black rice (aka Forbidden rice) this week, which looked nice, but we found the flavor competed with the stir-fry. The stir-fry should be the star attraction.
- Don't limit yourself to the ingredients listed in the recipe – remember, stir-frying is versatile. As long as you have the main components (protein, vegetable, aromatics and sauce) and understand the cooking technique, you can get creative with what goes into the dish. Check your refrigerator for produce already on hand or consider seasonal produce. Summer is a great time to add produce that's readily available at farmers markets and/or in your garden – peppers, summer squash, eggplant, sweet onions, zucchini, green beans, basil, etc. No matter the season, you'll find produce that will suit a stir-fry. When choosing vegetables, think about harmonious color combinations, flavors and textures. Often, less is more!