The Versatile Stir-Fry

  • By Jess Dang
  • January 31, 2012

Last week I welcomed the year of the dragon over a table brimming with fragrant stir-fries, which of course is now the inspiration behind this cooking formula how-to. Like the child of most Chinese immigrants, I grew up on stir-fries. Regardless of whatever else was going on in our chaotic household, a stir-fry of some sort was always guaranteed to make it onto the dinner table. The most amazing part about this consistency was that we never got bored of it. Why? Well, because a stir-fry can be any thing you want it to be, so the possibilities and combinations were endless and repeats didn’t happen very often. Stir-frying is just a basic cooking formula for bringing vegetables and proteins to life = Wok + Vegetables and / or Protein + Sauce. Once you understand how, you can stir-fry whatever is in your fridge.

Beyond its versatility, stir-frying also provides these advantages:

  • Because ingredients are chopped into bite-size pieces, cooking time is super fast
  • Chopped-up ingredients also means increased surface area for increased flavor contact
  • Ingredients can be easily prepped ahead of time
  • They make your house smell oh-so-good


To get started, you’re going to need a wok. You are welcome to buy any wok you wish. You can find one in Chinatown, at an Asian grocer, at Target or on Amazon – lots of options. Mine is a <$15 non-stick one from 99 Ranch, which I’ve had for over 5 years and plan on keeping for another 20 years.


  1. For the ingredients that need to be chopped (e.g., red peppers, celery, broccoli, onions, etc.), chop them to be about the same size. It just evens out the cooking.
  2. If you are including meat in your stir-fry, it’s best to cook the meat separately. I usually cook it first, remove it from the wok, and set it aside. This ensures that the meat is cooked through on its own.
  3. Vegetables should be added one type at a time based on what will take longest to cook. If you dumped everything in one go, you’d have some undercooked items and / or overcooked items. Sequencing them allows for everything to be cooked perfectly. This will take some test and learn, but here we offer a list of the most common stir-fry vegetables and the order in which they should be added, plus estimated time differences to wait in between items (Note: this does depend largely on how you chop the ingredients too, so do take this list as a rough guide):
    • First: Onions, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots (if more coarsely chopped)
    • +2 minutes: Carrots (more thinly chopped), baby bok choy
    • +4 minutes: Sugar snap peas, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms
    • +6 Minutes: Celery, Snow peas, spinach, lettuce, bean sprouts, cabbage, Chinese chives, anything already pre-cooked (e.g., canned bamboo shoots)
  4. Your sauce will require corn starch. This is the standard thickening agent used, and it must be incorporated to cold liquids or it will lump immediately.

Ingredients (for 4)

  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Corn starch
  • ~1 lb of desired protein (e.g., chicken, beef, ground meat, firm tofu, fish, shrimp, etc.), sliced into strips or cubes if needed
  • 4 to 6 cups of vegetables – as many types as you wish, but I usually range 2 to 4 – and based on Tip #1, chopped into similar sizes
  • 2 tbs of oil (peanut, canola, olive are all excellent choices)
  • Aromatics: 2 tbs. of minced garlic, shallots or green onions – sliced thinly, grated ginger
Ingredients for the Versatile Stir-Fry | Cook Smarts by Jess Dang

Options for vegetarians or carnivore


Ingredients for the Sauce

And now for the sauce. The sauce you choose will help determine the flavor profile of your stir-fry. We will offer you the most basic sauce and some options on how you can switch it up. It’s likely you have all of this stuff in your pantry already. If you don’t have soy sauce, it can be purchased at any grocery store.

  • 2 tbs soy sauce
  • 1 tsp vinegar (rice, red or white wine)
  • 1/2 tbs. preferred sweetener (e.g., brown sugar, honey, Stevia)
  • 2 tsp. corn starch
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Some salt and pepper
  • Optional: grated ginger (most Chinese households always have ginger handy; if you don’t, leave it out)
Ingredients for the Versatile Stir-Fry | Cook Smarts by Jess Dang

To switch it up, consider:

  • For more of a pucker, consider adding the juice of half a lime or lemon
  • For a lighter taste (or less sodium), substitute water for the chicken broth
  • For a sweeter taste, substitute orange juice for the chicken broth
  • For hotness, add a squeeze of hot sauce or chopped chilis
  • For even richer savoriness, add 1 tsp of fish sauce

How To

  1. If you are using meat, it’s good to season it beforehand. If you have time the night before, adding some salt and pepper is always good. If not, just do so now as a first step. If you are using tofu, I cut it into 1/2 inch cubes and toss it with some soy sauce and vegetable oil and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes in the oven. This adds flavor and keeps the tofu firmer. Again it can be done the night before or while you’re prepping other vegetables. If you’re lazy, this is definitely a step that can be skipped.
  2. Get your vegetables prepped (i.e., chopped into similar size pieces). Again, this can also be done the night before, or even a few days ahead of time.
  3. Mix all the ingredients for your sauce together in a medium bowl. Remember Tip #4 – liquids should be cold to prevent the corn starch from lumping. Skip steps 4 through 7 if you are not cooking meat.
  4. Heat up your wok over high heat. While the wok is heating up, if you are making meat, toss in some corn starch (about 1/2 tbs per pound of meat) and mix. Coating the meat with corn starch helps facilitate greater sauce adhesion (that’s a good thing)
  5. Add about 1/2 tbs of oil to the wok. If you are using aromatics, add about 1/2 of them in now. Enjoy the smell for about 10 seconds and then add meat. Let the meat sit and sear for about two to three minutes before tossing it around with a heat-safe spatula / wooden spoon.
  6. Continue to “stir-fry” (yes, this is where the term comes from – you are frying by stirring the ingredient around) until the meat is cooked through. If you’re not sure, slice into a piece to check. Set the meat aside in a separate bowl.
  7. If the wok needs to be cleaned, let it cool, and give it a quick rinse before returning it to the burner.
  8. Heat up your wok [again] over high heat. Add another 1/2 tbs of oil and remaining aromatics. Cook for about 10 seconds before adding the first batch of vegetables (remember to use the sequencing list above as a good guide) and toss in the wok with your heat-safe spatula / wooden spoon. When it’s time to add the second batch, push the first batch of vegetables up the sides of the pans (like you’re creating a donut hole in the bottom of the pan), so that the next batch gets more contact with the heat. Repeat until all vegetables are cooked through.
  9. Add your protein in, and move all the ingredients up to the sides of the wok wall again, so that the sauce has maximum contact with the hottest part of the wok. Your corn starch may have settled to the bottom of your bowl, so give it a few stirs before pouring it into your wok “donut.”
  10. Let the sauce sit until you start to see it bubble and thicken. Now toss it through so that it coats all the ingredients in your stir-fry.
  11. You can season with some more salt and pepper if necessary. Eat piping hot with a bowl of rice or quinoa for extra protein.

Make a stir-fry with what you have in your fridge. Take a photo and share it on our Facebook page! We want to see what creative combination you come up with.


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