Secrets of the stir fry

How to prepare perfect stir-fried dishes

By Janey Macleod

Vegetables being stir-fried

Photo: © Mike Lewis. All rights reserved

Stir-frying is surely an ideal way of preparing a vegetarian main course. It is inherently fast, and the recipes tend to be straightforward and easy-to-follow. Because of the speed of the process, it does a good job of preserving the colors and textures of the ingredients while sealing in their flavors and nutrients. And the end-product is lower in fat than conventionally fried or sautéed dishes.

But while the basic concepts of stir-frying are simple, some people never seem to get good results. I've received emails from readers complaining that their stir fries are undercooked, overcooked, unevenly-cooked, or downright soggy. So in order to help these and other people get perfect results, I've put together a simple set of stir-fry guidelines.

Start with the wok

Although you can produce acceptable stir fries in a heavy skillet, to do the job properly you really need a wok. With its characteristic steeply sloping sides, a wok is the ideal shape for preventing loss of heat at the edges and for distributing the heat among the ingredients. Its shape also helps reduce the risk of oil splattering, and it prevents the contents from spilling over the sides as you stir or toss them.

If you don't already own a wok, you should seriously think about buying one. They're not expensive, and, if used properly, will give years of service. A wok can also do double duty as a regular frypan or even a deep fryer. (See the panel on the right for my recommended woks.)

If you cook on an electric range, choose a wok with a flat bottom, as this will stay in close contact with the heating element. A round-bottom wok with a ring is a better choice if you're using gas. The wok should ideally have wooden handles that won't get hot during cooking - either a single long handle or two rings that you can grasp.

You can also buy electric woks. Of course, these are more expensive, but they have the advantage of freeing up space on the range during heavy cooking sessions.

The right oil

The choice of oil can make a big difference to the success of a stir fry. Essentially, you need an oil with a high "smoke point", that is, one that you can heat to a high temperature without it burning or discoloring.

My own preference is for peanut oil. This has the added benefit of being fairly bland, which means it won't detract from the natural flavors of the ingredients (at least, that's true of the refined peanut oil most commonly used in the West; in Asia, you're more likely to use unrefined oil which has a distinctive nutty taste).

Olive oil is another good choice. But you'll get acceptable results with Canola (rapeseed), safflower or corn oil. But don't try to stir-fry in butter or margarine - they simply can't survive the high temperatures involved.

The preparation

With stir-frying, it's especially important to collect all the ingredients together and to do as much of the preparation as possible before you start cooking. Stir-frying is fast, and once you've started, you won't have time to peel the onions or delve in the cupboard for the soy sauce. Be sure that all the vegetables are cleaned, peeled and chopped at the outset, and that any other items you need are close at hand.

Add the ingredients

Once you've finished the prep, you can begin the actual frying. First, place the empty wok on a medium-high heat for a few moments so that it gets good and hot.

Next add the oil. But don't simply drop a dollop onto the base of the wok. It's better to pour it gently down the sides, and then to tilt and rotate the wok so that the oil evenly covers the sides and the base.

After adding the oil, wait a moment or two for it to heat up before you add anything else.

If your recipe calls for any particularly aromatic ingredients, such as ginger, garlic or chili, add these next. Stir for a few seconds so that they mix in with the oil and impart their flavor to it.

Then gradually add the other ingredients, starting with the items that require the longest cooking time. I usually add onions first as these really need to be well done. Denser vegetables like carrots and celery should also go into the wok early on. You can then move on to any softer items, such as asparagus, zucchini (courgettes) and bell peppers. Delicate leafy vegetables, including bok choy and spinach, should be added near the end of the cooking time. If I'm using mushrooms, I usually add these late in the process too.

Finally, add any sauces or flavorings (for example, soy sauce) that the recipe requires.

By the way, I'm focusing on vegetables in this article, but a good vegetarian stir fry will also include a protein source, such as tofu, almonds, cashews or pre-cooked legumes. You should never add raw (dry) lentils or beans to a stir fry, but you can add these items if you cook them properly in advance (but green beans or sprouts can be added raw).

Vegan pad thai

Photo: © Mike Lewis. All rights reserved

Going to work

As the ingredients are cooking, use a wooden spatula to toss and stir them. The aim is to get every part of the stir fry into contact with the base at least some of the time so that it absorbs as much heat as possible.

Keep it moist

Apart from an occasional dash of soy sauce or something similar, you don't normally add liquids to a stir fry. But you might occasionally need to add a small quantity of water to prevent scorching. This is especially true if the ingredients have a relatively low moisture content - it's rarely necessary when you are using onions, mushrooms or tomatoes, for example.

If you do need to add water, keep the quantity to a minimum. While you're not actually stirring, cover the ingredients with the wok's lid (or a separate saucepan lid) to prevent evaporation.


When the stir fry is ready, serve it immediately - it will deteriorate rapidly if you leave it to stand.

One final piece of advice: Don't be afraid to experiment. All kinds of ingredients lend themselves to stir-frying, and, if you follow the guidelines in this article, you'll soon be producing dishes that your family and guests will love.

January 2007

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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