Stir-frying is an easy way to make healthy meals in a flash, right? Chop up some veggies and some protein, get your pan screaming hot, and you’re good to go. Except this is exactly where most home cooks fall into at least one of many traps.
Maybe your pan isn’t hot enough, or you’re using the wrong oil, or you’re crowding the pan with too much food—the list of offenses goes on and on. To better understand the ins and outs of stir-frying, we reached out to Christy Wolf, Resident Chef and stir-fry guru at our Palo Alto store. Here’s what she had to say.
So Christy, what is stir-frying anyway? How is it different from sautéing?
Stir-frying is when you cook small (bite-size), evenly cut pieces of food over really high heat while continuously stirring the food. This is often done in a wok and most commonly for dishes with flavor profiles from Asian cuisines. Sautéing is very similar except the heat is slightly lower and the action or movement of the items in the pan is not as fast as in stir-frying.
What if you don’t own a wok. Can you still stir-fry?
Yes! You can use a skillet with slanted sides, and the higher the sides, the better. Make sure you use a good skillet that can handle high heat; nonstick cookware would not be the best choice here. If you’re using a skillet, it’s even more important that you do not overcrowd the pan.
What are the common mistakes most home cooks make when stir-frying?
I think the most common mistake is not having the pan hot enough when you begin. People either start before the pan is hot enough or overcrowd it, decreasing the pan’s temperature. Also, cooking with pieces of food that are too big and adding them at the wrong time is a common mistake.
When my husband and I were first dating, he attempted to make a stir-fry when he cooked for me for the first time. The pieces of food were huge, and the pan was barely hot. In the end the vegetables were still pretty raw. He also used an Asian bottled salad dressing as the sauce. We still refer to it as the time he made me a “hot salad.” We laugh about it to this day, though his cooking skills have improved since then!
So what types of cooking oils do you recommend for stir-frying? Are there any to avoid?
This is really important because using the correct type of oil is essential to any high-heat cooking. You need to use an oil with a high smoke point (this is the point at which the oil begins to smoke) and flash point (the point at which the oil catches fire).
Grapeseed oil, avocado oil and coconut oil are three good choices. There is also a great product by La Tourangelle called Wok Oil—it’s a safflower oil infused with Thai basil and lemongrass. It’s also great to use in a vinaigrette so don’t get thrown off by the name.
As far as what not to use: extra virgin olive oil—the smoke point is way too low, as low as 240 degrees. You’ll wind up with a smoky kitchen before your pan is hot enough to properly cook your dish.
Just a quick note about sesame oil—it’s used as a flavoring ingredient and in smaller quantities. It’s not an oil you’d use to start the cooking process.
Is there an order to what goes into the pan when?
The oil goes into the pan first and, when it is hot, you add in your aromatics (garlic, ginger, lemongrass, etc.) followed by protein. If you have a lot of protein, you should cook it in batches to ensure you don’t cool down the pan too much. Also, remove the protein once it’s cooked through so that you don’t overcook it while you stir-fry the rest of your ingredients.
Next, add in any dense vegetables that have a longer cooking time (carrots, for example) followed by vegetables with a shorter cooking time, like bok choy. Lastly, add in your sauce, deglaze with some stock if needed and then add your protein back into the pan.
How do you know when the pan or wok is hot enough to get started?
I use the handle of my wooden spoon (wooden spoons hold residual water in them). When I put it into the oil and bubbles form immediately around the handle, I know it is hot. This is much safer than throwing in a droplet of water. Also, it is okay for the oil to smoke just a little so you know it is ready.
Do you need to toss everything in the pan or is it okay to stir?
You don’t need to toss. In fact, often in stir-frying a wok spatula is used to move the ingredients around rather than tossing them and splashing hot oil and food everywhere. If you don’t have a wok spatula, use a good heat-resistant spatula with a flat end and a long handle so your arm and hands have more distance from the pan for safety.
Any other tips to help readers get better results at home?
Besides starting with a hot pan and good, high-heat oil, stay organized. Practice your knife skills and prep all your ingredients in uniformly sized, small pieces and have everything ready to go before you even turn on the heat.
Also, make a bold, flavorful sauce to add to your stir-fry. You don’t want to end up with a bland dish after all that work.
What are your favorite flavor combinations for stir-fries?
I enjoy using aromatics like ginger, garlic and shallots, and I always use soy sauce and fish sauce. Lately I have been adding ThaiFusions Sweet Onion Chili Jam—I’m a little addicted to that right now! It adds a nice flavor and a bit of sweetness. My husband and kids like a little more heat so often I add a little sriracha.
Thanks so much, Christy! If you want to practice your stir-fry skills in our cooking classes with expert chefs like Christy, check out our calendar to find classes near you.