I’m sure you’ve had a great stir-fry before—full of brightly colored, crispy vegetables and tender proteins. Sadly, I’m equally sure you’ve had a mediocre one—drowned in sauce with vegetables so waterlogged they could slide onto the plate themselves.
Stir-frying is the ingenious method of cooking very rapidly over very high heat, tossing the ingredients as you go—resulting in crisp, bright results that are as fun for the eyes as the palate. The technique is said to have originated in China when fuel for fire was scarce—necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Today, it can still play the convenience card as an excellent, speedy weekday dinner or impromptu, fridge-scavenge lunch. Whether you’re in the mood for fried rice, noodles, meat, or vegetables, here’s how to (at least attempt) honor its past and do it right(-ish):
1. Mise is a must!
Some of my earliest cooking memories are of my mother making stir fries, meticulously julienning vegetables and assembling a battalion of sauces by the stove before firing up the wok. It was only as an adult that I realized she’d been making a mise en place (that's the fancy term for 'prepping all ingredients before beginning to cook') all along—so if you’ve been deterred by the cheffy sounding term in the past, don’t be. Home cooks have been doing it this whole time!
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Since you need to act fast when stir-frying, it’s essential to have everything ready to go and within arms’ reach to prevent burning or overcooking—so slice and chop everything you need (making sure to keep your sizing uniform so everything cooks at the same rate), have dry noodles soaked and drained, rice cooked, and pre-mix any sauces in a bowl.
2. Fry on high
Since you want to reach high temperatures when stir-frying it’s a non-negotiable to fry on high heat with oil. It’s best to use a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point like peanut oil, rice bran oil, or canola oil. Save sesame oil to use in scant amounts at the end of the cooking time as an aromatic touch. If you want to know more—look no further than our guide to oils.
3. Cook in batches
A good stir-fry rests on each component of the dish being cooked “just right.” You’ll notice that many stir-fry recipes, particularly if you’re working with meat, will have you brown the meat before removing it and setting it aside while you fry aromatics, then vegetables, create the base of your sauce, and finally add the meat back in to warm through a few steps later. This is not needlessly finicky—it ensures that each component is cooked as it needs to be, leading to a final result of textural harmony.
All in good time: How long to stir fry each ingredient
With the previous point in mind, it’s important to understand how long it takes for each element of your stir-fry to cook.
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Meat should be cooked through (in the case of chicken and pork let it brown slightly for flavor) so it stays succulent. Since stir-fried meat is usually in bite-sized pieces or strips, this usually takes just a few minutes in hot oil.
Chinese cumin and lamb stir-fry
Aromatics like garlic, ginger, and onions need only a flash in the pan (again, in hot oil). Pretty much as soon as you smell them releasing their aromas (around 30 seconds to 1 minute), you’re good to add the next ingredient to the pan, which will add liquid and prevent burning.
Vegetable stir-fry with ginger-lime sauce
Vegetables should be cooked, you’ll see them brighten before your eyes in the pan and they’ll still have an audible crunch to them in your mouth. Hardier vegetables like broccoli, carrots, or bell peppers need to be added before quicker cooking vegetables like snow peas, bean sprouts, or mushrooms. The most common stir-frying mistake is to add everything at once and overcook the delicate ingredients—so pay attention to the above, work quickly and taste as you go to prevent this!
Make bok choy and crispy tofu stir fry with Hanna
Since noodles are generally pre-cooked and they’re a bit bulky, they’re added towards the end of the cooking process, often after any vegetables—again, to ensure everything is cooked evenly. They really only need to be in there for as long as it takes them to warm through, be coated in the sauce, and in the case of “drier” stir-fry recipes, take on a bit of delicious, slightly charred flavor.
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Vegetable chow mein
5. Consider your tools:
You can’t stir fry without a wok—sorry! The depth of a wok allows you to toss your ingredients constantly so everything in the pan cooks evenly, which is just not possible in a frying pan without things flying everywhere. Remember there are plenty of other uses you can put a wok to, from making omelettes, deep-frying, using a bamboo steamer (for bao, dumplings, fish, veg, and more), cooking shellfish, or making any soupy dish. If you’ve got a particularly heavy-based wok, you can even use one implement in each hand, which is a true joy when tackling a lot of heft like noodles or rice.
6. Check your pantry
It’s useful to stock up on basic sauces and pastes to work with so you’re always ready to stir-fry. I’d recommend (non-negotiably) sesame oil, oyster sauce, and light, dark, and sweet soy sauces (if you need to know the difference, read the guide here). If you want to go the extra mile, things like jarred sambal, gochujang, and miso paste make great additions right at the end of stir-frying. If you’re looking for a thicker, glossier sauce, dissolve some starch in water and add along with other sauces.
Easy pad kee mao (Thai-style drunken noodles)
Make bok choy and crispy tofu stir fry with Hanna
Xueci makes mapo tofu
Stir-fried sweet soy chicken
Chinese fried rice
5-ingredient stir-fried udon noodles with spinach and beef
Easy japchae (Korean glass noodles with stir-fried vegetables)
Chinese-style fried noodles
Beef and broccoli stir-fry
Sichuan-style crispy pork belly
Kung Pao chicken
Tofu stir-fry with rice
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