As Barbara Tropp wrote in The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, stir-frying is largely a matter of using all of your senses to achieve the most from your vegetables: picking the color of the vegetables and determining when your vegetables have been lightly coated with the oil in the pan; sensing the smell of the aromatics, the scallions, garlic, and ginger, as they cook in the heated oil; tasting and touching to see if the vegetables are seasoned and cooked to perfection; and finally, listening to the pop of the hot oil that tells you when it’s time to get the vegetables into the wok.
Preserving the texture and bright flavors of each of the vegetables in your stir fry is somewhat of an art. Mushy vegetables do not work. Meat cooks quickly and effortlessly with the right heat and some spices, and the sauce is a function of a good recipe, but it’s the process by which the vegetables are cooked than can elevate a basic stir-fry dish into something memorable.
YOUR STOVE/ PAN CHOICE: If your stove is gas, a round-bottom wok is a perfect pan for
stir-fry. A flat-bottom wok or cast iron skillet is a good choice for an electric stovetop, although the low sides of the skillet limit the amount of vegetables you can add at one time. The purpose is to keep the high heat uniform throughout the entire pan as the vegetables are moved around.
HIGH HEAT IS ESSENTIAL: Unless the temperature is high enough your vegetables will cook through and become soft and limp without having that delicious outside sear. The high temperature also helps flavors adhere to the food. Heat your wok or heavy skillet on high until a bead of water evaporates on contact. Then add a bit of oil to glaze the pan. The heat can be reduced to medium high at this point to prevent smoking. Once the high-heat searing has occurred the temperature can be reduced further, if necessary, to cook ingredients that need more time, to thicken sauces, and to taste and adjust seasonings. If extra oil is needed to prevent sticking, drizzle a bit of it on the outside of of the skillet or wok; don’t place it directly on the vegetables.
THE FINISHED BEAUTY OF YOUR DISH:
And don’t forget to imagine what the color of your dish will look like on completion. Black rice with beef will disappear. Don’t overcook purple cabbage because it, too, will turn black. Lots of tamari or soy sauce will discolor yellow peppers or squash. Of paramount concern when adding a sauce is maintaining brightness–beauty does matter with food, especially stir fry.
CUTS TO MAKE ON VEGETABLES: After I select the vegetables I want to add, I think about the cuts I want to make on each, cooking combinations, and times.
First, I cut each of my vegetables in uniformly-sized pieces. Be fairly precise. I usually stir-fry my peppers and pungent onions in the same batch, so I keep their sizes and shapes about the same. Slivers and small slices are the hallmark of a stir-fry because they cook quickly.
I use everything, including stems. Broccoli is a fairly popular vegetable choice. I first make a cut separating stem from the head. Next, I cut the florets into the desired size (these I leave a little larger because I want them bright green and fairly crunchy). Cut the stems lengthwise into sticks (pictured next to the broccoli florets) and cook separately, or with the onion pepper mix since they have a similar shape and cooking time.
OIL I USE: Either high-heat organic sunflower (Spectrum Brand) or rice bran oil. Coconut oil is not as high a heat oil as the sunflower or rice bran, and I don’t use peanut oil. Sesame oil is not a for cooking but to add flavor to a dish, hence the small bottles. It should be kept refrigerated to avoid spoilage.
SEQUENCING: Stir-frying in batches is easiest way for me to insure proper cook time. Restaurant cooks often blanch vegetables to the reduce cooking time and are making the same dish over and over, so they accomplish the additions in one fluid process, including the sauce. Not me. I always do the meat first to insure it is cooked completely without being overdone. Don’t overcrowd your pan with meat (especially beef) if you are cooking large quantities, or you will not achieve a good sear–split the meat into several batches.
My order: Assemble my sauce and spice ingredients; cook the meat with seasonings and set aside; then stir-fry the aromatics to which the vegetables (excluding tender greens) are added, often combining similarly-sized ones or those that have the same cook time, and set aside. I then add the meat back to the wok to rewarm with the other vegetables and aromatics and the sauce is incorporated and adjusted. Finally the greens or leafy vegetables and bok choy are added at the end to keep from getting soggy and disappearing. My stir-fry is removed from the heat as soon as warmed through and I serve immediately on warmed plates or in bowls.