I got an email the other day from someone looking to “step up [his] stir-fry game” and asking if I’d be willing to do a newsletter on the topic. I’m more than willing, for two reasons. 1) Stir-frying is probably my favorite way to cook. 2) It’s actually kind of perfect for summer, because the whole idea is to cook everything hot and fast, thus minimizing your time standing at the stove. (It’s also worth mentioning that a blazing hot cast-iron pan on a gas or charcoal grill is possibly the most ideal venue for a stir-fry, because you have high flames and don’t have to deal with any indoor smoke. Anyway, think about it).
Before I get to the recipes, some basic guidelines: Stir-frying is like sautéing, except you keep things moving over high heat, and often work in batches to make sure each component is properly tender and browned.
Forget what you’ve seen watching chefs stir-fry in restaurants or on TV; home stoves get nowhere near as hot as those in a restaurant. For starters, use a 12-inch skillet, not a wok. Otherwise the food will crowd the pan, the temperature will drop, and the food will end up steaming rather than browning. I know woks are cool and tempting to use, but the large pit burners in Chinese restaurants are build to accommodate their rounded bottoms. Obviously, home stoves are flat-topped, so a flat-bottomed skillet will get you the best heat distribution.
To compensate for the relative lack of fire power, it’s usually best to cook the vegetables and meat or other protein separately with some seasonings, transferring each batch out of the pan before doing the next. Then you return everything to the pan and make a sauce. The process still usually takes less than 15 minutes of active cooking—just enough time to cook a pot of rice.
Since everything moves fast once the stuff hits the skillet, stir-frying is maybe the only cooking method where I’d recommend prepping your ingredients in advance (known as mise en place).
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