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).
Once you learn the technique, all the components—protein, vegetables, and seasonings—are interchangeable. That means you can substitute ingredients more freely than with any other type of cooking. You can also vary the proportions in stir-fries. I usually figure a pound of meat for 4 servings, which puts an emphasis on vegetables. To cut back on the animal protein even more, drop the meat to 8 ounces and increase the amount of vegetables proportionally. And to adjust the protein up, just add more chicken or whatever and increase the seasonings and liquids—but don’t cut back on the vegetables!
I thought for a while about which recipes I should share with people who want to step up their stir-fry game, and finally settled on the three below (from Dinner for Everyone). The premise of that book is to offer three different options for cooking an iconic dish, depending on what you're up for: there's the easy way, the vegan way, and the all-out, no shortcuts, impress the hell out of your guests way. Cooking your way through all three makes for a pretty great crash course, and the stir-fries are a prime example.
The easy version (Stir-Fried Chicken With Celery and Leeks) is like a stir-frying archetype; once you learn the basic technique, you can swap ingredients in and out pretty much endlessly. The vegan version (Stir-Fried Snow Peas and Tofu Skins) introduces yuba (aka tofu skins), an incredible ingredient that you'll become obsessed with if you aren't already. And the no-holds-barred recipe (Orange Beef) basically teaches you how to cook like you're in a Chinese restaurant (spoiler alert: there's frying involved).
Hope this helps. Happy stir-frying. Have a wonderful weekend.
What distinguishes this stir-fry from the same-old same-old is the crisp-silky combination of celery and leeks. Usually we might be inclined to pick just one or the other, but the mix of the two is really nice.
In this vegan stir-fry, the tofu skins act as “noodles.” They end up doing double duty as a full-flavored protein and starch, to great effect.
For Orange Beef we use a technique called “velveting,” a tenderizing step that entails marinating the meat in a cornstarch slurry and then frying it. This completely transforms a flavorful (but chewy) cut of beef, and pushes this recipe into full-on Chinese restaurant territory.
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