You've Been Cooking Stir-Fry Wrong Your Entire Life

If you think the first step to making stir-fry is to head to a food market in Chinatown, you're already on the wrong track. According to chef and cookbook author Grace Young, the ingredients come only second to the technique (via Food & Wine). In fact, one of Young's favorite recipes is her basic chicken fricassee stir-fry held together with chicken, asparagus, and carrots — no sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, or any of the so-called typical stir-fry staples. "If you understand the principles of stir-fry, you can make a fabulous stir-fry with ordinary ingredients," Young informed home cooks in her instructional video.

The secret to cooking stir-fry properly is right in the name. Stir-fry is a rough translation of the Cantonese word "chau," which is used to describe a constant motion similar to tumbling. In Young's words, cooking food chau-style means flipping and rotating small chunks of food in oil in a hot wok.

Stir-fry is all about heat and movement

Even if you're not using a wok, stir-fry is made all at one temperature, so it's important to get it right from the beginning. Set your stove to high, and let your wok fully heat up. You'll know it's ready if you test it with a drop of water. Once it's hot enough that the water evaporates within one to two seconds, swirl in cooking oil, and add protein. Let this sit undisturbed in the wok for one minute before beginning the stir-fry process.

Instead of stir-frying everything at once, Young instructed in her video to add each ingredient one at a time, all while stirring and tossing continuously with a metal spatula. First, the protein, then the vegetables along with a little more oil, the seasoning, and the broth. After adding the broth, you can finally let the ingredients relax a bit. Cover the wok to allow the broth to thicken, and then there's one final stir-fry to incorporate the scallions and fresh herbs.

The technique may be specific, but the better you get at it, the easier it is to experiment with ingredients and play with flavors. As long as you don't overcrowd your wok and keep the ingredients moving, you can't go wrong with a good stir-fry.