How To Stir-Fry Chicken and Cashews

How To Stir-Fry Chicken and Cashews

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Emma Christensen
Jan 21, 2016
(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Do you stir-fry at home? Is this easy, healthy method of cooking in your weeknight repertoire? It should be — a simple chicken stir-fry takes only a little work to prep and even less time at the stove. But perhaps stir-frying is intimidating to you. Do you wonder whether you need special equipment or a high-powered stove? We're here to tell you that no, you don't need anything special to stir-fry at home; it's one of the most home cook-friendly techniques.

Last week, we stepped into the New York City kitchen of Grace Young, stir-fry expert and author of multiple books on authentic Chinese cooking, including Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge. Grace demonstrated for us (and you!) everything you need to know to make several favorite stir-fry dishes, starting with this delicious, easy chicken stir-fry.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

What Is Stir-Frying?

What is stir-frying? "It's really more of a tumble-fry than a stir-fry," says Grace. A stir-fry is a simple dish of meat or vegetables (and often both) that is cooked quickly in a wok over high heat.

In a home kitchen, this cooking method does not involve any sort of frenzied flipping technique or high-flame pyrotechnics, regardless of what you may see in restaurants or on television. Good homemade stir-fries are actually not stirred constantly; they are carried out calmly and methodically by letting the food cook on the sides and bottom of a well-heated wok, then "tumbling it over" to help it finish cooking.

A side by side comparison of a wok with a sauté pan. The pan can be substituted for a wok, but you lose some of the high-sided cooking surface.
(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Stir-Fry FAQ

  • Do I need a wok in order to stir-fry? The answer is no, but it does help. You can also use a flat-bottomed sauté pan, but you miss out on using the sides of the pan as cooking surfaces. You may also have trouble with ingredients falling out of the pan if it gets full or the recipe requires a lot of flipping.
  • What kind of wok do I buy? The quick answer is that you should look for a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon steel wok; you can read more about it here.
  • Can I buy a nonstick wok? No, avoid non-stick woks for high-heat stir-frying. Nonstick coating is not supposed to be heated to a very high temperature, but all wok cooking happens at a high temperature — this means that stir-frying in a nonstick wok could damage your nonstick pan and also be potentially dangerous. Instead, buy a carbon steel wok (they're quite inexpensive) and season it. It will end up even more nonstick than the Teflon sort.
  • Does my stove get hot enough to stir-fry? I don't have a wok burner. Yes, your stove (no matter what kind you have — electric or gas, professional or not) will get hot enough to stir-fry. We will show you in the recipe below how Grace just heats her normal gas stove to a high temperature and leaves it there all through cooking. It doesn't need to be putting out enormous BTUs; it just needs to be hot enough to cook your food, and this method is adapted to work well on the average American stove.

Read More: How To Buy & Season a Wok

Grace talking about how important it is to use fresh, seasonal, flavorful ingredients in stir-fry dishes.
(Image credit: Faith Durand)

The Basic Steps for Stir-Frying

  1. Cut up the ingredients before cooking: Most of the work of a stir-fry happens before you even step up to the stove. Grace explains that it's important that all the ingredients be cut into uniform, bite-sized pieces. This ensures that ingredients cook quickly and evenly while maintaining their crisp-tender texture over the high heat. She also emphasizes how important it is to get fresh and seasonal ingredients. They are not cooked for very long, so their true flavor will come through. And finally, it is extremely important not to crowd the wok. Never try to cook more than a pound of chicken, lamb, or pork at a time in a 14-inch wok, and no more than 3/4 pound of beef, explains Grace.
  2. Marinate the meat, but only briefly: Marinating the meat is one step in a richly flavorful stir-fry, but don't let the word "marinate" confuse you — this is not a long process, and it doesn't typically involve very much liquid. With stir-fries, the marinade is more about seasoning than tenderizing the meat, so you only need enough to coat the meat, and you don't need to let them sit together for very long. As Grace says, "The minute you mix the meat with the marinade, it's ready to cook."
  3. Get your wok hot and watch your timing: With the ingredients prepped ahead, stir-fries are a simple matter of a hot wok and timing. A chicken stir-fry like this one takes about four minutes: two minutes to sear the chicken, one minute to add and stir-fry the vegetables, and then one more minute with the sauce.
  4. Use your kitchen timer to help pace your cooking: If you're a new stir-fry cook, help set your cooking pace by using a kitchen timer. This helps make sure you don't go too fast or too slow. This said, your ultimate guide should be the color and texture of the ingredients in your wok.

The Results

The result of this method (and this recipe) is an incredibly aromatic, delicious chicken stir-fry with tender chicken that tastes of soy and garlic, and bright, fresh vegetables that haven't lost their snap. The ingredients and technique are simple, but together they make something wonderfully more than the sum of their parts. Master this method, and you'll be able to feed yourself (and others) on practically a moment's notice.

Grace demonstrating how clean the wok is after a full stir-fry. The seasoned carbon steel releases the food very well; it takes no more than a quick wipe and rinse.
(Image credit: Faith Durand)
The wok ready and waiting at the stove. This inexpensive carbon steel wok has turned slippery and non-stick from months of use.

How To Stir-Fry Chicken

Serves 4 as a main course with rice

Recipe from Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge

What You Need

Ingredients

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1/4-inch-thick bite-sized slices

Vegetables
1 cup sugar snap peas, strings removed
1 cup cubed red bell pepper
1/2 cup whole roasted cashews

Aromatics
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Marinade
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt

Stir-fry sauce
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon soy sauce

To cook:
2 tablespoons grapeseed, canola, or peanut or vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

Equipment

14-inch flat-bottomed carbon steel wok, or 12-inch stainless steel sauté pan
Wok spatula, fish spatula, or another spatula with a thin metal blade

Instructions

  1. Prepare the ingredients: It is very important that all the ingredients are cut as directed in the ingredient list and ready to go before you put the wok on the stove. The most important key to making a good stir-fry is cutting each ingredient to a uniform size, as specified above. Cut the vegetables and set them aside in a bowl. Cut the aromatics as directed and set them aside as well.
  2. Marinate the chicken: Combine the chicken, garlic, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of the rice wine, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a medium bowl. (Ingredient Note: Dry sherry is a very good substitute for rice wine, as good rice wine is harder to find in the United States.) Stir to coat the chicken evenly and until you can no longer see any dry cornstarch. Add 1 teaspoon of oil to the chicken and stir to combine. This extra oil prevents the chicken from sticking to the pan.
  3. Make the stir-fry sauce: In a small separate bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup chicken broth, 2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry, and 1 teaspoon soy sauce.
  4. Prepare your wok space: Set the bowls of chicken, vegetables and cashews, aromatics, and sauce near your stove. Also, have a very small bowl of water next to the stove.
  5. Heat the wok: Turn on a stove burner as high as it will go and set a wok on top. To determine when the wok is hot enough, start flicking droplets of water into the pan. As soon as a bead of water evaporates within 1 to 2 seconds of contact, the wok is heated and ready for stir-frying. Do not overheat the wok; if overheated, remove the wok, let it cool, and start over.
  6. Pull the wok off the heat and swirl in the oil: Pull the wok off the heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. Pick up the pan and carefully swirl it to coat the bottom and sides. (If the oil smokes wildly the moment you add it, you've overheated the wok. Remove the wok from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. When it's cool enough to handle carefully, remove the oil with paper towels, wash the wok, and start again.)
  7. Add the aromatics to the wok: Put the wok back on the heat. Add the ginger and red pepper flakes, and stir them for 10 seconds or until fragrant.
  8. Add the chicken to the wok: Push the ginger mixture up the sides of the wok. Carefully add the chicken and spread evenly in one layer in the wok. It should sizzle on contact (if not, this means the pan wasn't hot enough).
  9. Let the chicken sear for 1 minute: Start your timer so you can pace your cooking. Cook the chicken undisturbed for 1 minute, letting it sear.
  10. Stir-fry the chicken for 1 minute: Stir-fry the chicken for 1 more minute, stirring constantly and mixing with aromatics. Continue until the chicken is lightly browned but not quite entirely cooked through.
  11. Add the vegetables: Swirl the remaining tablespoon of oil into the wok down the side. Add the sugar snap peas, bell pepper, and cashews.
  12. Stir-fry for 1 minute: Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt over top. Stir-fry for one minute, or until the sugar snap peas are bright green.
  13. Add the sauce and stir-fry for 1 minute: Pour the sauce mixture around and down the sides of the pan instead of directly into the center (to prevent cooling the pan and lowering the cooking temperature). Stir-fry for 1 more minute, or until the chicken is just cooked through.
  14. Serve immediately: Transfer the stir-fry to a serving plate and serve immediately, while hot.

Additional Notes

  • Substituting beef or pork: Substitute up to 3/4 pound of beef or 1 pound of pork or lamb for the chicken. So these meats don't overcook, remove them from the wok while you stir-fry the vegetables and then add them back in with the sauce.
  • Substituting other vegetables: Substitute up to 2 cups other vegetables in this recipe.
  • Mincing ginger: It's best to mince ginger for stir-frying with a knife instead of on the microplane. Ginger minced on the microplane becomes too wet and spatters when you add it to the hot oil in the wok.
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