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Put down that takeout menu: stir-fry basics for home cooks

Stir-fry technique has many people intimidated. But if you can slice and stir, you can stir fry.
Image: Close up of stir-fried Thai chicken in bowl plus chopsticks
Making sure your ingredients are all cut to a similar size will ensure they are properly cooked at the same time. RapidEye / Getty Images

For every home cook happily tossing together a stir fry at home, there are a dozen would-be stir fryers wanting to make chicken-broccoli-sugar-snap-pea stir fry, and then sheepishly reaching for the takeout menu.

Stir-fry technique has many people intimidated. But if you can slice and stir, you can stir fry.

So, let’s break it down, review the basics, and get everyone on their way to stir-fry success.


  1. Read the recipe all the way through. The ingredients, the steps, everything. Getting a sense of the order of events so you know what’s coming will make you more confident as you cook.
  2. Prep ALL the ingredients before you start cooking. Stir-frying goes quickly, so make sure your ingredients are all cut and ready to roll. You don’t want to realize suddenly that you still need to mince the garlic that’s supposed to be sautéing along with the broccoli.
  3. Make sure your ingredients are of similar size. Most stir fries involve fairly small-cut ingredients added in stages, sometimes in batches, so everything ends up properly cooked at the same time. When chopping broccoli for instance, or cubing chicken, try and make all the pieces roughly the same size.
  4. Feel free to swap or substitute ingredients. If you want broccoli instead of sugar snap peas, great! Again, just make sure the vegetables you sub in are cut comparably and have a similar density, therefore a similar cooking time. Or adjust the time as needed: Sliced carrots will need more cooking time than spinach, for instance, so add a few minutes to the cooking time, or add them earlier in the recipe. Cubed pork can be used in place of chicken, tofu can be swapped in for shrimp — most stir fries are flexible.
  5. A skillet may be better than a small wok. The bowl-shaped pans sold as woks are not always the best answer for a home cook. Because there is a lot of sloped side area to a wok, there isn’t much flat bottom sitting directly on the heat. I like using a very large skillet, so the food in the pan is less crowded and gets a better distribution of heat. If you do want a wok, get a big one!
  6. Make sure the pan is hot. You need high heat to get the best flavor from the ingredients in a stir fry. And you need the pan to be hot before the ingredients hit it, so they have a chance to sear a bit, locking in color and flavor.
  7. Cook in layers and batches. The secret to great stir-fries (and lots of other cooking methods, like frying and sautéing) is to not crowd the pan, and to leave the food alone between stirs. Giving individual pieces of food a chance to come in direct contact with the hot pan on a continuous basis is the difference between nicely browned pieces and a pile of steamed food. That’s why many stir-fry recipes call for cooking ingredients separately or in batches. And because stir-fry food is cut small, cooking goes quickly. So doing it in stages and batches and then combining it all at the end adds only a handful of extra minutes.
  8. Add the sauce at the end. Only once your ingredients are cooked do you want to add any liquid. Otherwise, you wouldn’t really be stir frying, but braising or poaching. A bit of cornstarch mixed into the sauce will allow it to thicken as it simmers.
  9. Make some rice. It’s nice to have something to soak up that sauce. Choose any kind of rice you like: white, brown, jasmine, basmati, whichever. Noodles, especially Asian noodles, are another nice base for stir fries.


Here are a handful of condiments called for in many Asian recipes. Once you get to know them, you can play with them like mad.

  • Soy Sauce. Indispensable in Asian cooking (and interesting in non-Asian recipes as well). It packs a rich, salty taste, and is brewed from soybeans and wheat. You can choose regular or less-sodium soy sauce, and if there are gluten intolerances in your family, go for tamari, which is similar but without wheat.
  • Sesame Oil. Made from toasted sesame seeds, this oil has a nutlike and aromatic flavor. It’s often added at the end of cooking to preserve its wonderful flavor. It’s strong, so use in small amounts. Chili sesame oil is a nice way to add that sesame flavor and some heat at the same time. Keep it in the fridge to keep it from getting rancid.
  • Hoisin Sauce. A thick, somewhat intense sauce made from ground soybeans and some kind of starch, seasoned with red chilies and garlic. Vinegar, Chinese five-spice and sugar are also commonly added.
  • Chili Garlic Sauce. Versatile, spicy and garlicky, as the name suggests. It’s got a slightly rough texture, and a dose of tanginess from vinegar.
  • Oyster Sauce. Made from oyster extracts combined with sugar, soy sauce, salt and thickeners. This thick, dark brown sauce is a staple in Chinese family-style cooking. Another way to add saltiness and umami (savoriness) to stir fries.
  • Fish Sauce, or nam pla in Thai. A basic ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines, particularly Thai and Vietnamese. It has a pungent odor, but when used in cooking, the flavor is much milder. The aroma comes from the liquid given off by anchovies that have been salted or fermented. This is the kind of thing you might want to keep to yourself until your kids have eaten and enjoyed fish sauce in a recipe.

Two items to keep in the fridge:

  • Ginger. Fresh ginger is one of the greatest ingredients in stir fries. Spicy, bracing, uplifting. It’s an easy way to add bang-for-your-buck flavor.
  • Garlic. Usually finely minced, sometimes thinly sliced.

The base of garlic and ginger heated together in oil is a sign of a terrific stir fry in the making.

Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press.

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