Stir Fry Rules

Posted on January 28, 2009 by psu

Today I made a perfect stir fry. This doesn’t happen often, I usually get some small detail wrong that throws the whole enterprise off. I thought I would celebrate by imparting upon you, my dear readers, the rules you need to keep in mind to make the perfect stir fry happen more often. As is usual with my recipe advice, it will do you no good at all.

Make the rice first

Have the rice ready half an hour to an hour before you start cooking. This way you make sure that it has had time to rest and obtain its perfect texture. This works especially well in rice cookers which can keep the rice warm and perfect for you while you work. I don’t know what non-rice-cooker-using barbarians would do.

If I catch you using brown rice, minute rice, Uncle Ben’s rice, or other objectionable inferior grains I will cut you.

Less is more

Stir fry recipes often turn up in mainstream cookbooks or TV shows as a vehicle for cooking vegetables in a way that is not completely psychotic. Unfortunately, the people who write these recipes seem to think the the wok is a place where you should mix huge numbers of different vegetables together to make a hot tossed salad or something.

This is garbage. Don’t do it.

If you look at the best dishes in any reputable (say) Chinese restaurant, you will always find that they combine three, maybe four ingredients that work well together into a pleasing whole. You should follow this advice. You should typically combine an aromatic or two (such as ginger, garlic, scallion, onions, shallots, celery, carrots, etc), a main vegetable and a main meat or other accompaniment and then some kind of sauce substrate.

No one wants to eat a mashup of tofu, sweet potatoes, bok-choy, bell peppers, mushrooms, red onion and blue cheese dressing. It’s not even good as a salad, it won’t be good as stir fry.

Don’t fill the pan

Never cook more food than will fit in your pan with enough room left over to toss it around. This is very important. You have to be able to move the food around while it cooks in order for anything to work. Always adjust all quantities with the size of your pan in mind. Even if the final product will fill your pan, you can always do the intermediate steps in stages so things fit, and then just mix it together at the end.

Heat is nice, but not necessary

My mom made better stir fry than you have ever had in almost any restaurant you ever went to. She used nothing but an anemic coiled electric burner and a cast iron skillet. A flaming 150,000 BTU gas burner is cool to play with, but you don’t need it.

Harmony is important

Not only should your ingredients taste good together, you should make them look good together. You should cut the food into the same size pieces. You should cut the food into similar shapes. This has a practical as well as aesthetic value. Food that is more uniform in size will cook more uniformly. This makes it easier to get everything done at the same time.


Have everything prepped before you turn the stove on. Cook things that take a long time first. Cook things that cook instantly last. Cook meat (especially beef) almost all the way through in a separate pass from the vegetables and then mix it together at the end. Integrate the sauce only in the final few seconds before you dish it out.


Practice makes perfect. Make the same dish dozens of times and you will get good at it.

What I made tonight

For reference, what came out perfectly tonight was as follows: beef and broccoli with a bit of black bean sauce.

  1. Cut up a head or two of broccoli into uniform pieces about half an inch to an inch long. Peel and cut up the stalks if you like. I’m usually too lazy. You should end up with around a cup and a half or a bit more, depending on how large your pan is.

  2. I had 10oz of flank steak. You cut this across the grain into thin slices about half an inch long. Put the slices in a bowl and marinate in soy sauce, sherry or red wine, salt and pepper. I think I had about 2T of marinade that was half and half soy sauce and wine. If you want to be fancy you can add grated fresh ginger. Let this sit for 45min while the rice cooks.

  3. Heat up your pan. Mix 2 tsp. of corn starch into the meat. Put oil in the pan. I use olive oil because that’s what I have. Add the meat. If you are less lazy than me, also toss in chopped garlic and ginger. Stir the meat around for 3 to 4 minutes until it’s brown almost all the way through and it’s starting to let out its yummy juices into a pan sauce. Take it out of the pan and put it on a platter.

  4. Add the broccoli to the pan along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss it around then add a couple of dashes of broth and cover the pan to let the broccoli cook. After a few minutes it should turn bright green and soften up a bit. Then you know it’s right.

  5. Put the meat back in the pan and toss it around. Add some of that fermented black bean goop you can buy at the Chinese store along with a tiny bit more broth (or water). Toss it around to distribute the goop. Check for salt and pepper.

At this point, if you added too much liquid and the sauce is watery, you can add a mix of cornstarch and water to the pan to fix it up. But you should have had enough corn starch on the meat itself to get things right.

Pour the food on a platter. Eat it with the rice. I ate it all before I could take a picture. Sorry.