Stir frying is an easy cooking technique to master to get dinner ready in 30 minutes or less. Prepare the ingredients ahead of time and begin stir frying once your family is home. It’s almost impossible to mess up stir fry once you learn the basic process, and you can customize it to your taste.
Home cooks love stir frying because it is a very fast way to cook. You can get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less. Stir frying is healthy because you don’t use a lot of oil, and it’s easy to include vegetables.
Once you learn the basic process of stir frying, you will be amazed at how easily you can customize the technique and ingredients to your taste preferences.
What is stir frying?
Stir frying is a Chinese cooking technique (炒 chǎo in Mandarin, pronounced like the Italian greeting “ciao”) where you use very high heat to cook meat and vegetables in aromatics like garlic and green onion.
It is also flavorful thanks to the mix of protein, veggies, and sauce. You are not relying on a lot of fat and sugar to make your food tasty.
Although stir frying can get advanced with different styles, such as dry stir frying, wet stir frying, Northern-style, and Southern-style stir-frying, let’s focus on the basics of stir frying in this post.
My goal is to empower you to make a stir fry tonight. Add this technique to your repertoire so you always have a fall-back dinner option even if you’re out of ideas on what to cook.
When can you stir fry?
Luckily, stir frying is a cooking technique you can use all year round. While the vegetables and the meats might change depending on the season, you can stir fry anytime for lunch or dinner.
Stir frying is great in the summer because it avoids using the oven, which can heat your already hot house or apartment. It is also great in the winter because stir frying gives you a quick and hot meal to enjoy in chilly weather.
What to put in a stir fry
A neutral oil is critical for stir frying because it prevents your ingredients from sticking to the pan and draws out the fragrance from your aromatics and coats these flavors onto the vegetables later.
You can use any oil you like as long as it has a high smoking point. Some people like vegetable oil, canola oil, peanut butter, soybean oil, and even coconut oil.
TIP: I would avoid butter because it burns easily at the high heat you will use for stir frying.
Common aromatics in stir fry are garlic, green onion, ginger, and shallots. My go-to aromatic is chopped garlic. You’ll also love chopped green onion in stir fries. You can use chopped garlic and green onion together.
You can also use spices, such as cumin, and chili for aromatics, especially if you are stir frying meat like lamb.
The sauce you add to stir fry is critical for adding flavor to your stir fry, providing some liquid to steam the vegetables, and for thickening your stir fry.
My simplest sauce to use in stir frying is soy sauce with some salt if the soy sauce alone is not salty enough. You can also use the following sauces and flavorings in your stir fry and feel free to combine them to make new flavors:
- oyster sauce
- hoisin sauce
- soy sauce
- sesame oil
- wine (shaoxing wine or dry sherry)
Often you will also have a thickener to firm up your sauce. You can use tapioca starch, potato starch, cornstarch, or arrowroot.
To thicken the sauce, you can mix 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (or another type of starch) and ¼ cup of water and pour the cornstarch slurry into the stir fry at the end to thicken. Cook for 1-2 minutes until you see the sauce thickening. Remove immediately from the heat.
Equipment you need to stir fry
The traditional equipment for stir frying is a wok and a stiff spatula. I like to use a bamboo spatula or a metal fish turner if my wok is made from steel. If I have a non-stick wok, I prefer a silicone spatula with metal support inside.
TIP: Avoid floppy spatulas because it makes the food very hard to stir and turn over quickly.
I’ve tried non-stick and carbon steel woks. They have pros and cons, which I won’t dive into because it’s complex and depends on your preferences. I recommend starting with whatever pan you have today.
If you have a wok, terrific — use it. If you don’t, you can use the deepest frying pan you have. I’ve stir fried in saucepans and soup pots before when I was worried oil would splatter all over the stovetop.
NOTE: Start with what you have and you can buy a wok if you decide you like stir frying and want to invest in equipment to make it easier.
How to stir fry
This is the basic process of stir frying.
- Marinate your sliced meat if you’re cooking meat.
- Prepare all your vegetables by washing and chopping them to approximately the same size.
- If you’re stir frying eggs, beat the eggs. If you’re stir frying tofu, cut the tofu into cubes.
- Chop garlic, green onions, and other aromatics you plan to add.
- Heat oil in your wok or frying pan until it is shimmering.
- Add your aromatics to the hot oil. Keep stirring to avoid burning. Fry for 30 seconds and don’t let the garlic burn.
- Add the meat and keep stirring to evenly brown each side.
- When the meat is almost cooked but still a bit pink, add the vegetables.
- Keep stirring until all the ingredients are cooked.
- Add your sauce.
- Turn off the heat and plate your stir fry. It’s ready for garnishing and serving.
TIP: Keep stirring the food when stir frying to cook your food evenly and to avoid burning. Stir frying goes very quickly so if you are overwhelmed, move your wok or frying pan off the heat to give yourself extra time.
How to stir fry vegetables
The main reason stir fries fail is because the vegetables are too mushy or they are undercooked and unevenly cooked. To avoid this problem, you should chop leafy green vegetables, such as kale and bok choy, to approximately the same size.
If you are cooking sturdy vegetables like carrots, celery, and bell peppers/capsicum, it is critical to thinly slice these vegetables so they can be cooked through within 1 to 3 minutes while stir frying.
For vegetables that might take a while to cook such as broccoli and cauliflower, you can cut the vegetables into smaller pieces and blanch or parboil these vegetables so they are semi-cooked before adding them to the stir fry.
TIP: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, other root vegetables, and winter squashes are not ideal for beginners to cook in stir fries. I recommend avoiding these vegetables until you’re more experienced, especially as potatoes have different techniques and are typically eaten crunchy in Chinese stir fries.
How to stir fry meat
Tougher and leaner cuts of meat, such as sirloin steak and pork shoulder, are ideal for stir frying because you can slice them very thin against the grain. These cuts might become tough and chewy if grilled but when stir fried, they taste tender and flavorful. These cuts are often overlooked which makes them cheaper than neighboring cuts and therefore a better deal for your stir fry.
TIP: Cook the meat before the veggies. If you notice the meat is overcooking, and the veggies will take a while to cook in the stir fry (if you’re adding sturdy veggies like broccoli), then you should remove the meat from the pan to avoid burning. Set the cooked meat aside and add it back after the vegetables are cooked. Mix everything evenly and then add your sauce.
How to marinate meat for stir frying
Slice your meat against the grain as thinly as possible. Marinate your meat, approximately one cup of sliced meat can be marinated with 2 to 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon of oil. The cornstarch will brown your meat faster and the marinade makes your meat very tender.
TIP: I prefer to use ground meat (pork, beef, chicken) in stir fries because it requires almost no work. I don’t need to pat it dry, slice it, or marinate it. I just add the ground pork into the aromatics directly from the fridge. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of soy sauce to the raw ground meat as it cooks. No need for a thickener.
If you find your meat is getting too dry or is burning after stir frying with the aromatics, remove the meat from the pan and store it on a plate. Proceed with cooking the vegetables and then add the meat back in at the end once the veggies are cooked.
How to stir fry tofu
If you are using regular brick tofu, you can press the tofu before cutting it into cubes if you want crispier tofu. Avoid stir frying silken tofu or egg tofu because they are fragile.
NOTE: Alex likes to fry the tofu in hot oil and set it aside once it’s golden brown before he stir fries the aromatics and vegetables. This is an example of customizing the standard stir frying technique to his preferences because he likes the taste of fried tofu.
How to stir fry fish and seafood
Fish is hard to stir fry because it is so delicate. I recommend stir frying filet that is evenly chopped into squares, about 2 inches/5 cm. Add the fish at the end after the vegetables are cooked, especially flaky white fish. You can stir fry shrimp whole and add it after the aromatics.
WARNING: Avoid overcooking the seafood. It will be cooked very quickly, usually in 2 to 3 minutes.
How to stir fry rice and noodles
If you want to make stir-fried rice or noodles, use relatively dry vegetables to avoid releasing a lot of water which will make the rice or noodles soggy.
Fried rice and noodles taste wonderful with eggs. If you want to add eggs, I typically make scrambled eggs at the beginning, cooking them in hot oil while the pan is clean.
I set them aside on a plate and add the fried eggs at the end of stir frying to mix in with the rice and vegetables before adding the sauce.
Stir fry works well with…
- beef (very thinly sliced sirloin, flank, tri-tip, and other leaner, tougher, flavorful cuts)
- pork (very thinly sliced pork shoulder, loin, chop, and ground pork)
- lamb (thinly sliced leg of lamb and lamb shoulder)
- chicken (chicken breast and boneless chicken thigh cut into strips or cubes)
- shrimp (whole)
TIP: Pick 2 vegetables and 1 protein and try stir frying tonight! Add some chopped garlic as your aromatic and use soy sauce to keep it simple. You can do it!
Recipes ideas for stir fry
How to garnish a stir fry
There are many ways to garnish a stir fry for presentation and flavoring.
- chopped cilantro
- chopped green onion
- crushed peanuts
- roasted cashews
- sesame seeds
Although most stir fries have bright colors because of the variety of vegetables so there is no need to garnish unless you want to add extra flavors.
What is the difference between stir fry and sautéing?
Sautéing is a French technique of cooking meat and vegetables over high heat with oil. It is very similar to stir frying; you might even consider them to be the same thing.
I typically find sautéing is not as hot and you can use less oil, as a result sautéing may take a few minutes longer than stir frying.
What is the difference between stir frying and pan frying?
Pan frying is usually cooking vegetables or meat over medium to medium-high heat. It often doesn’t require thinly slicing meat or chopping the vegetables to the same small size because the heat is lower so the food is less likely to burn.
You are also likely to pan fry chunks of meat like a chicken breast or a steak. There is not so much stirring and mixing of meat and vegetables over high heat in pan frying.
FAQ about stir fry
When cooking stir fry do you cook meat or veggies first?
You typically cook the meat first because the vegetables usually require less time. I asked my mum and my godmother Kari. Both agreed that you should cook meat first.
My mum explained that you want the oil and aromatics to have umami flavors from the meat, and they will coat the vegetables to add savoriness to the veggies.
That said, this is a personal preference and you can experiment to develop your favorite stir-frying technique. But seriously, meat first, not veggies 🙂
How do I know when the oil is hot enough?
The oil is hot enough when it is shimmering in the wok. It will look like there are ripples in the oil. I like to start stir frying when the oil is very hot but just before it starts smoking.
This is because when the oil starts smoking, it will splatter out of the pan when you add the aromatics. However, Alex will sometimes prefer to wait until the oil starts smoking so it can be a personal preference.
If you’re not used to stir frying, you can add chopped green onions to the oil to test whether the oil is hot enough. If the green onions start to sizzle and the oil is bubbling where it touches the green onions, then your oil is hot enough.
How do you avoid splattering oil when stir frying?
If your oil is “jumping a lot”, meaning it is splattering everywhere, it might not be because your oil is too hot. It could be that your pan is too shallow or what you added to the pan has too much water.
Splattering oil is dangerous!
You can fix this by making sure your aromatics are dry and your frying pan is deep enough (if you’re not using a wok). You can also turn down the heat to see if it reduces the splattering.
NOTE: It’s OK to start stir frying with lower heat as you are learning how to do it. You can turn up the heat later once you are more experienced.
Sometimes, I will stir fry ingredients that cause the oil to splatter, and I don’t want to turn down the heat. This happens frequently with tofu because it has so much water.
When this happens, I partially cover the wok with a lid to avoid the oil splattering over the stovetop or over my clothes. Make sure you don’t completely cover the pan so that the steam can escape.
Can you make a stir fry in a frying pan?
Yes, I recommend you start stir frying in the deepest frying pan you have before buying to a wok. If you are worried about the oil splattering out of the frying pan, you can use a lid to shield yourself. But don’t completely cover the frying pan with the lid because you want the steam to escape.
Can you stir fry with olive oil?
I know people who stir fry with olive oil because they think olive oil is healthier. I’m concerned that the smoking point of olive oil is too low considering how hot your oil will get.
If you are OK with sautéing and cooking your food for longer, you can try olive oil. I wouldn’t use the expensive extra virgin olive oil for stir frying though. It seems like a waste because you won’t be able to enjoy the subtle flavors of your expensive olive oil.
NOTE: I prefer to stick to canola but you can use whatever oil you’re comfortable with as long as it doesn’t burn (i.e. use an oil with a high smoke point).
Can you stir fry with sesame oil?
You should not stir fry with sesame oil as the cooking oil, especially fragrant toasted sesame oil. Use a neutral oil for stir frying. Toasted sesame oil is good for adding flavor at the end of stir frying.
You can add it during the step when you add the sauce. Although, my godmother Kari recommends adding it after you turn off the heat, so you can see it’s another area where personal preferences can cause variation among different cooks.
The main idea is that you don’t cook with sesame oil. It is for flavor only.
How to stir fry veggies without burning them?
The number 1 reason I burn veggies when stir frying is that I do not adequately prep. When I don’t wash and chop veggies and aromatics before beginning to stir fry, I usually burn my food, especially garlic.
You want to set up your mise-en-place (meaning have your ingredients washed, chopped, and ready to go) before you even heat your wok and put oil in it.
I used to think I saved time by heating the oil and stir frying my aromatics while I prepared the vegetables.
Honestly, stir frying goes so quickly that you don’t save time doing this multitasking. You’re likely to burn your food.
Stir frying requires your full attention because the heat is so high and timing is critical to avoid overcooking or burning your food. Don’t worry though. You’re no wasting time by prepping because stir frying is so quick that you’re still likely to have your meal ready in 30 minutes or less.
The number 2 reason I burn veggies when stir frying is because I didn’t add water to vegetables that need steaming. Some green vegetables release a lot of water when you cook them, such as spinach, lettuce, and napa cabbage.
TIP: Sturdy vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and green beans, don’t release as much water. You need to add 1 to 3 tablespoons of water and cover the frying pan/wok with a lid to cook these vegetables. If you don’t steam them (and don’t have enough oil to borderline deep fry them), they will burn while still remaining raw inside.
Follow the instructions in the Easy Stir Fry Tofu, Cabbage, and Shiitake Mushrooms and Mouthwatering Stir-Fry Garlic and Ginger Green Beans with Chili Sauce recipes to learn how to stir fry vegetables without burning them.
How to stir fry meat without burning it?
Remove the meat if it looks cooked to avoid burning it or overcooking it. Set it aside. Add a tablespoon of oil to the pan and cook your veggies. Then add the meat back once the vegetables are cooked, and mix well. Then add your sauce and serve your stir fry.
Can I add water to a stir fry?
Yes, if you want to steam the vegetables. Sometimes I will add 2 tablespoons of water or broth after adding the vegetables. I put a lid on the pan and allow the ingredients to steam for 2 to 5 minutes depending on how raw the vegetables are and how much food there is. Then I remove the lid once the water is evaporated, and I continue to stir fry.
Can I reheat a stir fry?
Yes! you can put it in the microwave and reheat it for 2 to 3 minutes on high depending on how warm you want it. If you know you might need to reheat the stir fry, avoid overcooking the vegetables; leave them a bit crispy so they won’t be too mushy when you reheat.
Can I prepare a stir fry in advance?
Yes! If you don’t have the time or energy to prepare all the ingredients and stir fry together, you can buy fresh vegetables or frozen vegetables already prepared for stir fries at the supermarket.
You can also wash and chop your vegetables on the weekend during meal prep times so they are ready for stir frying during the week. I try to keep the habit of preparing my aromatics like garlic and green onion during the weekend.
Once I defrost pre-sliced beef or lamb, all the ingredients I need to make stir frying are ready. This preparation makes cooking dinner so much faster during the weekday especially if I’m busy or stressed after work.
What are your favorite stir fry recipes? Share in the comments below.