Brave New Stir Fry

Stir fry rules Asian cuisine with its beauty, textures, and bounty of flavors. It also lends itself to almost any world cuisine; borrow the technique and make Caribbean or Mediterranean stir fries.

Stir fry can be intimidating, but when you break it down into mini-tasks, it comes together quite easily. Another bonus, you prep everything ahead so the actual stir frying takes only a few minutes before serving.

After many years and many dishes I have learned that there is a simple structure to stir fries. Learn them and you will open your kitchen to a brave new world.

This is the first part of a two-part series on stir fries. For part two—simplified mother sauces—here is your link.

800px-Chicken_stir_fryThe beauty of stir fry is combining a few veggies and a protein with a concentrated sauce. Cooking is actually a series of mini-stir fries that are then recombined and sauced.

In stir fry dishes, meat need be only one of the ingredients; yet you will have a great meaty satisfaction amidst a crowd of veggies. Or vegan versions have enough complexity to take over and satisfy. I love fresh or dried mushrooms, or tofu to fill in on meatless night stir fries.

To complete the dish serve stir fries over any variety of staple carbs: rice, fried rice, noodles and you will be in the stir fry swing of things.


Per diner plan on about a 1/2 cup of protein and about a cup of veggies. As you know leftover stir fry is even better, so make extra for a planned-over meal.

  • Begin a carb dish: rice, noodles, etc.
  • Prepare the sauce and thickener

    Moo Goo Gai Pan
    Moo Goo Gai Pan
  • Cut veggies and protein into uniform, bite-sized pieces for consistent cooking success
  • Match similar density veggies and fry them together in small batches (about 2 cups per batch)
  • Use a large, heavy skillet or a flat bottomed wok and do not crowd the skillet. Make mini-stir fries instead.
  • Cook veggies separately first and then protein last in the same pan.
  • Add all the cooked ingredients back into pan and reheat while tossing over high heat
  • Add sauce for a few seconds, then add the thickener and stir to coat
  • Garnish and serve

Stir fry success is to brown the surface of veggies using high heat, but still have a crisp interior. It’s like eating cooked and raw veggies in the same bite. If you overload the pan, it will steam and not add caramelized flavors. No more than two cups of ingredients at any one time will prevent steaming.

I love to prep stir fry, you actually create a palette of colors using a variety of veggies and proteins. I use a large cutting board and bunch up each ingredient into assorted piles on the board. Then it all marries with a classic sauce. What’s not to love about the simplicity and variety of dishes you can create with stir fry!

Stir Fry

Two-Step Saucing

It is amazing how simple it is to prepare stir fry sauces. They are inexpensive and store well. Be sure to label each container—all sauces look alike over time.

My saucing technique is a little different in two ways;

  1. I separate out ginger and garlic from the sauce and add it near the end of cooking for a fresher, brighter result. Just scrape open a little spot in the skillet, drizzle a little oil and add the ginger and garlic. Wait 30 seconds and stir it into the mix.
  2. Secondly, I separate the sauce into a marinade and a thickener. In this way the marinade will better penetrate the cooking ingredients. If you include the thickener with the marinade it solidifies before it can fully act as a marinade.
  3. Add the thickener a few seconds after the sauce. If that is too inconvenient, combine sauce and thickener and add as the last step.

Thickening Agents:

Along with arrowroot powder, you can also use cornstarch, tapioca flour, kuzu starch, or potato starch. You always need to dissolve in cold liquid. Also, stir it thoroughly before adding to the pan, as it will separate and lump in the bottom of the bowl while it sits.

Link to these Mother Sauces

  • Everyday Sauce

    Plum Sauce
    Stir Fry with Plum Sauce
  • Teriyaki Sauce

  • White Sauce (Moo Goo Gai Pan)

  • Plum Sauce

  • Sweet-Sour Sauce

  • Peanut Sauce

  • Eurasian Sauce

Home Wok Assignment: Basic Stir Fry

  • Gather an onion, carrot, celery, mushrooms, cabbage, garlic and ginger
  • Cut the onion, carrot, celery, cabbage, and mushrooms into bite-size pieces. Hint: the carrot needs to be thinly sliced. [Cabbage can be in strips].
  • Mince the ginger and garlic
  • Make a plum sauce [or any sauce of choice]: 2 TBS. each plum jam, soy sauce, rice vinegar.
  • Combine 1 tsp. of cornstarch with 4 TBS. water to make the thickener
  • Heat a large skillet and add some neutral oil: peanut, grape seed, sesame…
  • Add 2 cups total of onion and celery and stir to coat. Leave them sit for 30 seconds and then stir; repeat and wait 30 seconds before stirring and do a few times until brown spots show on them. Remove to a plate.
  • Repeat with carrots and cabbage, maintaining about 2 cups total per stir fry batch.
  • Wipe out skillet or wok if little bits begin to blacken. Then add a bit more oil. Add the mushrooms. When almost cooked through, add a bit of oil and the garlic and ginger and stir fry 30 seconds.
  • Add back all the cooked veggies and toss while heating through
  • Add in the sauce and after a few seconds of stirring, add in the thickener. Stir until combined and thickened.
  • Serve with sliced scallion tops, chives or green herb.

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