Chicken and vegetable stir-fry should be a staple of every home cook's weekly meal plan — it's quick-cooking, flavorful, and can be better than takeout with just a few key ingredients and one brilliant step. If you've spent anytime at the stove trying to stir-fry without a wok and found that your chicken and vegetables sauté rather that stir-fry, then this recipe is for you.
With expert advice from Grace Young and a deep dive into the pure magic that is velveting chicken for stir-fry, this is literally everything you need to know to make a better weeknight stir-fry without a wok.
Understanding Stir-Frying with Grace Young
Before we dive into how to stir-fry without a wok, we really need to understand the mechanics of traditional stir-frying. Stir-frying means to cook small pieces of food in a little oil in a wok. Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge, describes the technique as more of a "gentle tumbling" than the high-frying, constant-motion version we see on movies and television. Woks are the perfect pan for stir-frying, as their natural nonstick surface can withstand high heat and its high sides allow food to cook even when tumbling up the sides away from the hot oil.
While we think every kitchen should have a wok, we also understand that many don't. And Young has suggestions for what to use instead.
The Best Pan for Stir-Frying Without a Wok
"Anytime you're thinking about stir-frying, you should be reaching for a wok," says Young. "But a 12-inch straight-sided skillet will work, too. You'll need more oil to keep the chicken and vegetables from sticking. Whatever you do, though, don't reach for nonstick. Most nonstick skillets can't take the high heat required for stir-frying and you'll damage the pan if you try."
So for this recipe, grab you largest skillet, skip the nonstick, and you're ready to go.
For Your Information
- This recipe calls for one pound each chicken breast and broccoli.
- You'll also need cornstarch, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and one large egg white.
- A large, straight-sided stainless steel skillet is best for this method.
The Secret to Better Stir-Fry Chicken: Velveting
If the tender, succulent chicken that comes in many takeout dishes has eluded you at home, velveting is the answer. Velveting is a combination of coating meat in a mixture of cornstarch, egg white, and rice vinegar before briefly poaching in boiling water, although Young notes that many Chinese restaurants use oil. This tenderizes the chicken while coating it in a protective layer that keeps it from becoming tough and dry in the pan. Velveting is especially beneficial for stir-frying without a wok, because it ensures that the chicken cooks faster within the smaller cooking area of a skillet.
3 Key Steps for Stir-Frying Without a Wok
- Parboil hearty vegetables like broccoli and carrots. You'll have some water boiling for velveting the meat, so take advantage of it for tenderizing vegetables that would otherwise take a long time to stir-fry in a skillet.
- Take the time to velvet your chicken. If you do this step first, stick the coated chicken in the fridge and then measure and prepare everything else. Your water will be boiling and ready for cooking the chicken right as the 30-minute timer for the chicken is up, and this step will cut its time in the skillet in half.
- Have everything ready to go before you heat the pan. The cooking time once your chicken is velveted and your broccoli is parboiled is less than five minutes. You won't have time to pull the sauce together while the meat cooks, so be ready before you start.
Serving Your Stir-Fry
When you're done stir-frying the chicken and broccoli, you'll have a pan full of vibrant bright-green broccoli and chicken so tender and full of fragrant garlic and ginger. You can serve this stir-fry just as it is, warm from the pan, or over rice, soba noodles, or even pasta.
How To Make Chicken and Vegetable Stir-Fry in Any Pan
What You Need
For velveting the chicken (optional, but strongly recommended):
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 large egg white
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
For the stir-fry sauce:
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
For the stir-fry:
1 pound broccoli florets
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Measuring cup and spoons
Knife and cutting board
Large, straight-sided skillet
Velvet the chicken:
- Whisk the velveting mixture together in a medium bowl. Place the vinegar, egg white, cornstarch, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium bowl and whisk to combine — you want to really make sure the egg white is loosened up before adding the chicken.
- Add the chicken and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Refrigerate uncovered for 30 minutes.
- Make the stir-fry sauce and prepare the vegetables for stir-frying. Meanwhile, place all the stir-fry sauce ingredients in a measuring cup with a spout (it will make your life easier later) and whisk until combined and the cornstarch is dissolved. Chop the broccoli into bite-sized pieces and grate the ginger if you haven't already.
- Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil.
- Blanch the broccoli first. Add the broccoli to the boiling water and boil for 2 minutes — this will save you lots of hot stir-frying time later. Transfer the broccoli with a slotted spoon to a colander. Don't worry if bits of broccoli remain in the water. Once drained, transfer the broccoli to a medium bowl and keep the colander handy.
- Boil the chicken for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat as needed for the blanching water to maintain a simmer. Add the chicken carefully, stir to separate, and boil for 3 minutes until the chicken is opaque and just cooked through.
- Drain the chicken. Transfer the chicken with the slotted spoon to the colander to drain very well before stir-frying.
Make the stir-fry:
- Heat the oil. Heat a large, straight-sided skillet over high heat for 2 minutes. Drizzle in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil; it should shimmer immediately.
- Cook the chicken for 1 minute. Working quickly, add the chicken to the hot oil and stir-fry with a stiff spatula for 1 minute — you don't want to get any color on the chicken, so keep the pan and your spatula moving.
- Add the broccoli and cook for 1 minute. Add the broccoli, followed by the ginger and salt, and stir-fry for 1 minute, stirring and shaking the pan constantly.
- Add the stir-fry sauce and cook for 1 minute more. Re-whisk, then pour in the stir-fry sauce. Remove the pan from the heat and stir-fry until the sauce thickens slightly and coats the chicken and broccoli, about 1 minute more. Serve immediately.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.