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 a short time to prep and a very small amount of time actually 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 stir chicken stir fry.
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. But in a home kitchen this cooking method does not involve any sort of frenzied technique or high flame pyrotechnics, regardless of what you may see in restaurants or on television. Good home stir fries are actually not stirred constantly; they are calmly, methodically created 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.
• Do I need a wok in order to stir-fry? The answer is no, but it does help. You can also use a flat-bottom 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 with some recipes.
• What kind of wok do I buy? We'll talk about woks more later this week, but the quick answer is: A 14" flat-bottomed carbon steel wok. Non-stick woks are less than useless for high-heat stir-frying; they are downright dangerous. Non-stick coating is not supposed to be heated to a very high temperature, but all wok cooking happens at a high temperature. Instead, buy a carbon steel wok (they're quite inexpensive) and season it. It will end up even more nonstick than the Teflon sort. (We'll show you how to do this later this week.)
• 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, 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.
• More info here: How To Buy & Season a Wok
Grace talking about how important it is to use fresh, seasonal, flavorful ingredients in stir-fry dishes.
The Basic Method of Stir-Fry
1. Cut Up the Ingredients
Most of the work of a stir-fry happens before you even step up to the stove. Grace explained that it's important that all the ingredients be cut into 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 emphasized 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, explained Grace.
2. Marinate the Meat
Marinating the meat is the second step in a richly flavorful stir-fry, but don't let the word "marinade" confuse you. This is not a long process. With stir fries, the marinade is more about seasoning than tenderizing the meat, so 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. Hot Wok, Right 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.
The key for a new stir-fry cook is to use your timer, which helps makes sure you don't go too fast or too slow. But your ultimate guide should be the color and texture of the ingredients in your wok.
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.
6. Pull Wok off the Heat and Add 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 wok smokes wildly the moment you add the oil 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.)
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
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1/4-inch thick bite-sized slices
1 cup sugar snap peas, strings removed
1 cup cubed red bell pepper
1/2 cup whole roasted cashews
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
For the marinade
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce, divided
1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry, divided
3/4 teaspoon salt
For the sauce
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons grapeseed, canola, or peanut or vegetable oil
A 14-inch flat-bottom carbon steel wok or 12-inch stainless steel sauté pan
A fish spatula or other thin, flexible spatula for stir-frying
Cut Up the Ingredients: It is very important that all the ingredients are cut as directed in the ingredient list. 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.
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.)
Make the Sauce: In a small separate bowl, whisk together the broth, remaining 1 teaspoon of soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of rice wine.
Prepare Your Wok Space: Set the bowls of chicken, aromatics, and sauce near your stove. Set the vegetables and cashews next to the stove as well. Also, have a very small bowl of water next to the stove.
Heat the Wok: Turn on a stove burner, as high as it will go. Set a 14-inch wok over this high heat burner. To determine when the wok is hot enough, start flicking droplets of water from the small bowl into the pan after 30 seconds. 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.
Pull Wok off the Heat and Add 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 wok smokes wildly the moment you add the oil 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.)
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.
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).
Set a Timer for 4 Minutes: This will help you time the remaining steps in cooking the stir-fry.
Let the Chicken Sear for 1 Minute: Cook the chicken undisturbed for 1 minute, letting it begin to sear.
Stir-Fry the Chicken for 1 Minute: Then stir-fry for 1 more minute, stirring constantly and mixing with aromatics, or until the chicken is lightly browned but not yet entirely cooked through.
Add the Vegetables: Swirl the remaining tablespoon of oil into the wok. Add the sugar snap peas, bell pepper, and cashews.
Add Salt then Stir-Fry for 1 Minute: Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt over the vegetables and chicken. Stir-fry for one minute, or until the sugar snap peas are bright green.
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) and stir-fry for 1 more minute, or until the chicken is just cooked through.
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.
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 to clean it.
More From Grace Young
Visit Grace's Website
• Grace Young.com
Find Grace's Books
• Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories
• The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore
• The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing
Want to Learn More About Wok Cooking?
• Join Wok Wednesdays, a group of enthusiastic cooks working their way through Grace's book, Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge
(Images: Faith Durand. Recipe courtesy Grace Young.)