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A Hamster's Guide to Stir Frying

Stir frying is one of the simplest, quickest, most gratifying forms of cooking I know. The range of foods that can be prepared with this style is far more extensive than virtually any other form of cooking, requires little effort, takes up a tiny amount of time, provides nutritionally-balanced one-dish meals and mostly saved me from starving on ramen throughout college. Please refer to the table of contents below for quick links:

Table of Contents

1. A Basic Stir Fry (How to Go About It)
2. The Wok
3. The Meat
i. Slicing

ii.. Tenderizing

iii. The Authentic Chinese Take-Away Crunch

4. Fish
i. Pre-Frying

5. Marinading
i. General Purpose Marinade

ii. Soy-Based Marinade

iii. Ginger Marinade

6. Saucing
i. Black Bean Sauce

ii. Basic Vinegar Sauce

iii. Sweet & Sour Sauce

A Basic Stir Fry (How to Go About It)

The basic requirements for a stir fry are:

1. Thin slices of meat (beef, chicken, lamb, etc. -- see below for Fish) and/or pieces of vegetables (cut/sliced bite-sized)
2. Salt to taste
3. 1-2 tbsp of cooking oil
4. A pan large enough to hold the ingredients
5. A spatula, a soup ladle or a pair of long chopsticks (seriously, I always forget this part, and it's nuts to dash to the other side of the kitchen for a spatula while my beef browns)

1. Heat the oil in the pan. Turn up your stove to its highest setting. You will want to use the hottest griddle on your stove for this. If your cooker hood or kitchen has a ventilation fan, it's a good idea to switch that on.
2. Slide in the meat. (Throwing results in oil spatters and pain.) If you are not stir frying meat, skip directly to 5.
3. Start stirring the meat with the spatula. You may need to scrape the pan if the meat initially sticks.
4. When your meat is semi-cooked (ie. browned on the outside), add in the vegetables and seasoning. Tip: If you're having trouble scraping the pan at this point, or the bottom of the pan is browning too quickly, add 2-3 tbsps of water. This will also make a "sauce".
5. When the meat has cooked to your liking, and the vegetables have just turned started to turn colour (green vegetables should be "bright forest green", carrots should be "Mac & Cheese orange" and red peppers ideally "devillishly red"), take it off the heat and serve immediately.

Hints, Tips and Other Things:

The Wok

Contrary to popular belief, you don't actually need a wok to stir fry. Any pan large enough to hold your ingredients that gives you enough room to stir them easily will do. In fact, one of the best things I've found to stir fry in is a normal, medium-sized, stainless steel saucepan. The deep pan prevents oil from spattering all over the stove, there's enough room for me to stir it with a spatula, and the heat is pretty much concentrated on the food.

A wok is a wonderful, versatile thing. But if you're cooking for one (or two), it can get pesky to clean. You also do not require non-stick pans to stir fry. Many non-stick pans corrode with time, flaking nasty black bits onto food. Even expensive non-stick pans guaranteed to last gajillions of years can scrape under the right circumstances, and if you plan to stir fry often, that's a lot of scraping. Good stainless steel pans are the way to go here. They don't need any more soaking and elbow grease than regular pans either, and will resist any amount of steel wool you can throw at them.

The Meat

Slicing meat thin allows it to cook fast while browning it completely. It also makes the food easily accessible to chopsticks. Good, lean cuts of meat with just the barest hint of natural fat are great for cooking in this style. Meats such as beef and chicken are the best ingredients for a stir fry as they can be sliced thinly and seared really quickly. The caramelized fat these meats leave on the pan also make a wonderful base for sauces later on.


Slice meat while semi-frozen -- there's less blood and fat to contend with, it's easier to trim your meat if you need to, and you can get thinner, cleaner slices. One average fillet of meat can usually last two stir fries depending on the amount of vegetables you balance it with.


To tenderize your meat, add 1 tsp of sugar (preferably Chinese rock sugar, but any old sugar will do) per bowl of meat and marinade for at least 5 minutes.

The Authentic Chinese Take-Away Crunch

To get that authentic, ohmygod-this-doesn't-feel-like-meat Chinese hole-in-the-wall takeaway bite, add 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda per bowl of meat. Leave for under 5 minutes. Anything beyond 5 minutes results in meat that feels really creepy.

This method is guaranteed to make even the toughest, cheapest, skankiest cuts of meat edible. Now you know why Chinese hole-in-the-wall takeaways are cheap.


Choose fillets (with skin on) from a white fish, such as sole, grouper or snapper, with firm, moderately coarse flesh. Salmon also works, although it is preferable to chunk fillets of salmon rather than slice them, as they flake very easily. I wouldn't advise stir frying cod (particularly Norwegian cod), as the flesh breaks up with too much handling. Furthermore, it seems like such a waste to stir fry this delicate, oily fish.

Take care to remove any leftover bones and scales from your fillet before slicing. A moderate-sized fish fillet can, like a fillet of beef or chicken, last about two serves of stir fries (for one to two persons) depending on the amount of vegetables you cook with it. Once again, it's easier to slice fish fillets semi-frozen, as this minimizes wastage and allows for thinner slices. If your knife fu is extremely terrible, like mine, semi-frozen fish meat really helps make up for poor knife-gripping techniques.

Fish requires pre-frying before it's fried with the other ingredients and the sauce. This allows the fish meat to hold its shape and gives the flesh a smoother, firmer texture. It also helps prevent strong-tasting fishes, such as salmon and other oily fishes, from being too "fishy" after cooking.

Pre-Frying ~ Per 1 Bowl of Sliced Meat

Pre-Frying is a technique used not just for stir frying, but also to prepare fish and fish carcasses before stewing, souping and currying. It brings out the flavour of the meat while removing overpoweringly fishy smells -- essential in Chinese cooking, where strong-smelling meats tend to be ill-favoured (one reason why dairy and lamb does not make a huge appearance in Chinese cuisine). Fish requires specific ingredients to mask its scent, such as strong aromatics like young ginger, onions and pepper. Cooking wines are also used for this purpose, as are rich sauces such as salted black bean paste.

The idea here is to just seal the meat before it is manipulated further. You can fry the fish meat without any additional seasonings or flouring, if you so wish. The egg is an optional binder that will help crisp the meat -- again, something that can be omitted if you like.

1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

OR any other marinade (see below for examples)

1 egg white (optional and save the egg yolk! have an omelet for breakfast.)
1/2 tbsp cornstarch
Oil for shallow frying -- you'll need about 2-4 tbsps

1. Beat the egg white and cornstarch until mixed.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the seasonings and the fish. Take care not to break up the fish slices.
3. Add the egg mixture. Coat well.
4. Heat the oil in the pan. To test if the oil is hot enough, put a small piece of spring onion or onion, or stick a wooden chopstick into the oil. Small bubbles will form around the edges of these items when the oil is right.
5. Slide in the meat. Stir to prevent the slices from clumping but be careful not to break up the meat.
6. The fish will sear very quickly. We're aiming to get the meat lightly browned but preferably not fully cooked, with the batter hardened and no longer watery or soft.
7. Take the fish off the heat and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. You do not need to wait for the fish to cool in order to cook it again.

When you're ready to use your fish, add it in after adding the vegetables in the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry, at 4.

Marinading ~ Per 1 Bowl of Sliced Meat

Try to marinade your meat for at least 5 minutes to half an hour. If you'd like a slightly thickened sauce, add 1-2 tsp of cornstarch on top of any of the marinades below. You may also add 1 tbsp of cooking oil to the marinade to prevent any meat (except fish) from clumping during frying.

(General Purpose Marinade)

1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tbsp cooking wine

(Soy-Based Marinade)

1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1-2 tbsps soy sauce
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tbsp cooking wine

(Ginger Marinade) - Ideal for Beef & Fish; See Saucing for Thickening Methods

1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1 inch young ginger (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 stalk spring onion (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp cooking wine


The simplest method of making a sauce for your stir fry is to add 2-3 tbsps of water when your meat is browning (leaving bits of fat on the bottom of the pan). When the water begins to bubble, take it off the head. If you added cornstarch to the marinade (see above) the sauce will automatically thicken while you watch.

Sauce Thickening Tip: If you did not add cornstarch to the marinade, you can still thicken the sauce by mixing 1 tsp cornstarch to 2 tbsp of cold water. Add water to the browning meat, as in the above, and when the water begins to boil, pour in the cornstarch mixture. Take the pan off the heat. The sauce will thicken upon standing.

The following basic sauces are fairly common ways to serve stir fries that can be upgraded at will. To help speed up the cooking process, you can mix together all the ingredients for the sauces in a bowl and keep them beside the stove while you cook, so when you do need to add the sauce, it's a simple matter of tossing it all in.

(Black Bean Sauce)

A (Vegetables):

1 bell pepper (diced)
1/2 carrot (sliced into thin rounds - optional)
1 handful french beans (optional)
1 inch ginger (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 small onion (diced)
1 chilli or more (deseeded and sliced into thin diagonal strips - optional)
1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
2 tbsp oil

B (Sauce):

2 tbsp salted black bean paste
1 tbsp cooking wine
1/2 tsp pepper (optional)
1/2 tsp sugar (optional)
2 stalks spring onion (sliced into thin diagonal strips)

1. Fry the onion, ginger, chili and garlic until aromatic.
2. Follow the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry from 2 - 4.
3. Add in all the ingredients under B except the spring onions. Stir until all the vegetables and the meat is cooked.
4. Take off heat and quickly stir in the spring onions until they have just turned bright green.
5. Serve hot.

Variations: Use hoisin sauce or hot bean paste (to ban jian -- Iron Chef Chen Kenichi's favourite ingredient) instead of black bean paste. Hoisin sauce is savoury and tart. Hot bean paste is fiery and salty.

(Basic Vinegar Sauce)

2 tbsp white rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 inch ginger (sliced into thin diagonal strips)
1 clove garlic (chopped fine)
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Recommended Vegetables (use a handful of any one in any combination): french beans, sweet peas, bell peppers (diced), tomatoes (diced), spring onions (sliced into thin diagonal strips)

1. Fry the ginger and garlic until aromatic.
2. Follow the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry from 2 - 4.
3. Add all the ingredients. Stir until all the vegetables and the meat is cooked.
4. Serve hot.


(Sweet & Sour Sauce)

A (Vegetables):

1 tomato (diced)
1 bell pepper (diced)
1 cup tinned pineapple or any fresh citruses (diced)
1 onion (diced)

B (Sauce):

All the ingredients from the Basic Vinegar Sauce (above) and:

2 tbsp sugar syrup from the tin (replaces the sugar in the Basic Vinegar Sauce above)
1 tbsp tomato sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce

1. Fry the ginger, garlic and onion until aromatic.
2. Follow the instructions for the Basic Stir Fry from 2 - 4.
3. Add in all the ingredients under B, including the ingredients for the Basic Vinegar Sauce. Stir until all the vegetables and the meat is cooked.
4. Serve hot.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 13th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)
Blummin fantastic post... *Searches for way to save it*... am doing alot of stir fry at the moment, due to it being an easy way to do meals involving alot of veg and not too much carbs... I shall try a few things that you list, most greatfully infact, cos I tend to be lazy and buy a sauce, which I am sure adds to the calories for little extra taste.

How do you feel about the whole "aging the wok" thing? A few people have told me that I must season the wok through use and unthorough cleaning, in order to get a perfect stirfry? Personally I use a deep flat bottomed frying pan, that is far from non-stick these days, but I clean it well between uses and do all kinds of cooking in it, chilli, spag bol aswell as asian style food.
Jan. 13th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
*bows* Thank you, petal. :)

Pre-made sauces are tempting things. Even I'm not entirely immune to them. But it is surprising what simple things can add flavours that go a long way. The natural juices and fats of meat are great flavours that need only a bit of salting to pull through. Lemon juice is an excellent salt substitute, as is parley and coriander. Chives, garlic, onions and spring onions, their leaves, their flowers and their young seeds/pods (if you're still growing them?) are all very tasty stir fry flavourings.

Now, I don't disagree with aging a wok, but I don't think it's really necessary either. Especially for a person new to the business of stir frying, normal pots and pans are adequate for normal home-style cooking. The loss of flavour isn't terrible. I actually think it makes homemade food taste homemade, and from this, more homely. :)

I think there is a place for well-aged woks, particularly heirloom ones that have seen decades of cooking. It's just that many modern kitchens are no longer equipped to really take advantage of the flavour these woks can offer. An ideal stir fry requires very high heat from a powerful gas or woodfire stove to sear and caramelize the food in seconds. Frankly, many Asians go to restaurants these days for their total wok-fried experience. Home stoves just aren't built for that kind of torture any more. And if you do use any particular pan long enough, you are aging it anyway. I think your well-used frying pan qualifies!
Jan. 19th, 2008 06:52 am (UTC)
Cut-n-paste to WordPad in Rich Text Format(.rft) worked, format even stayed good. Which made it easy to print.
Jan. 13th, 2008 09:44 pm (UTC)
you are so thorough!

... and I would just like to say that I don't know how to cook Chinese food. I will make anything but Chinese. I blame it on my mother's inability to teach me. XD
Jan. 14th, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
I had to worry after the fact if I was too thorough here. I swear I started out writing a simple "How to", and it's turned into a leaflet. :) So I'm glad you're not overwhelmed!

You've mentioned your "inability to cook Chinese food" before, and you know, I still suspect that once you get down to it, you'll recognize like these six jillion flavours you've been seeing the bottles and spices for over the years and suddenly realize which items match. That's how it happened with me. My mother didn't actually take my hand and show me how to stir fry either. I just starved one day after school, got to chopping some garlic, throwing in some bak choy, and mostly tried to follow what I remembered her doing in the kitchen. When I got lost, I just took teaspoons of stuff and put it in my mouth. It was a matter of, "Oh, so this is that taste!"

My first experiment didn't turn out very cool though. The veggies were seriously dry. Like, wrinkled. But it got better after that. Like...like...um. Why is my brain trying to use an analogy that goes, "It's like the first time you watch porn..."
Jan. 15th, 2008 01:41 pm (UTC)
Cooking with my mother is impossible in that I invariably get thrown out of our small kitchen because I'm in the way. lol!

There are a few things that I could probably figure out, but some of what my mom makes would totally baffle me.

... and I nearly died laughing at the porn comment. You're adorable.
Jan. 16th, 2008 04:33 am (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2008 02:19 am (UTC)
Thanks!! :-)
Jan. 14th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
You're welcome! :)
I hope you make something tasty with it!
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:10 am (UTC)
This post made me so hungry!!! I'ma gonna bookmark this for future reference.
I've been living on stir fry, too, but I'm nowhere as knowledgeable as you about what to do. I just add oil, chuck things into the pan, and salt and hope for the best. Thankfully, you can't mess up stir fry too badly. :D
Jan. 14th, 2008 09:26 am (UTC)
Thanks! Far as I know, stir frying is adding oil, chucking things in a pan, adding salt and hoping for the best. I had to think about what I was doing to write this post, which was so weird. Amazing what you don't realize you're doing until you list it out. But yeah, thankfully, stir fries are not easy to mess up! :)
Jan. 19th, 2008 06:47 am (UTC)
Dammit, now I'm hungry and shall have to adjourn to the kitchen. After I print these directions. Almost all my tricks use low heat with nonstick, and I currently don't own any stainless, I wonder how well cast iron works...
Jan. 20th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Cast iron is brilliant! Delightfully hardy and resistant to scratching, especially from steel wool (for those dried bits of sauce and fat).
Jan. 19th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
Hi - what a great post. I especially liked the marinades and sauces (both of which I am utterly ignorant about)
Jan. 20th, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)
Hello! Marinades and sauces are things I like, particularly marinades that turn into a sauce when water is added. It makes my ability to feed myself far easier. :)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )