Stir fries are fun, easy to do, and very tasty: you throw your meat, vegetables, and spices together in your wok (or pan) and mix it all together until it's done. Voila! However, when you stir fry in this manner, what you usually end up with is a mish-mash of cooked food, all blended together into something that looks like paste. If you use a sauce such as soy sauce or hot sauce, the entire paste takes on the color of the sauce. There's no denying that it's a tasty paste, but it's tougher to discern the individual flavor of each portion. When you're having a stir fry with beef, vegetables, and rice, you want to taste the beef, taste the vegetables, and taste the rice. The tastes blend together in your mouth, but they shouldn't have to blend together in the wok before you actually eat them.
In order to produce a tasty, restaurant-style stir fry, it is necessary to follow a few simple preparatory steps. None of these steps are difficult. They do require a bit more effort, and an additional pan as well as your wok. But the end result is worth the effort.
- Prepare your meat. Whether you're using beef, chicken, or pork, you can preserve the taste of your meat by preparing it in advance. (Tofu absorbs the flavor of whatever food it's cooked with, and should be prepared with your vegetables.) Cut the meat across the grain into thin slices to allow for thorough cooking. Prepare a small bowl and put together your marinade. Common ingredients in marinade include rice vinegar or rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, water, and corn starch. Marinate your meat for 30 minutes.
- While the meat is marinating, chop up your vegetables and get them ready for frying. I like to separate tough vegetables (such as carrots, broccoli, and potatoes) from softer vegetables (including flavorful vegetables such as celery, onions, and peppers) into separate bowls. Mushrooms will be cooked last, so after you prepare your mushrooms, keep them separate.
- Heat up your wok. Oriental chefs who seek the legendary wok hei usually heat their range as high as possible! I even like to pre-heat my cast iron wok in the oven at 500 degrees before putting it on top of the stovetop burner, in the same that you would pre-heat a cast iron pan before searing a steak. Cooking with a very hot wok means you must prepare your food in advance, because you'll need to add it all to the wok very quickly in order to prevent it from burning, while still seeking that "seared but not burned" taste.
- Prepare your rice or noodles in a separate pot. (Fried rice is often prepared the day before and stored in the refrigerator – if you do this, then you can simply keep your container ready, and add your rice or noodles to the stir fry after adding the meat.) The rice or noodles will be served and flavored separately (however you prepare your rice, either plain or flavored), and the stir fry added on top when it is done. Time your rice or noodles so that they will have about five minutes left to cook before they are done. At this point, you'll be ready to stir fry. The stir fry will be finished at just around the time your rice or noodles are done.
When your wok is as hot as you want it to be, get ready to stir fry!
- First, sear your meat! Lay the slices of meat in the wok for about 30 to 40 seconds, and then stir them to cook them on every side. After 1 to 2 minutes, the meat will change color. This is a sign that it is nearly cooked. Take out the meat and place it in a bowl, to be added back in a few minutes.
- Add a bit of oil to your wok, about 2 tablespoons. When the oil is hot, add your flavorings – garlic, ginger, onions, etc. – and stir fry them briefly until they give off a good aroma.
- Add your vegetables and stir fry them quickly. Add salt, sugar, or other spices onto the vegetables at this time. If eggs are included in your stir fry (eggs are a traditional part of many fried rice dishes), you can crack your eggs and stir them in at this time, stirring it all until the eggs are scrambled and mixed in with the vegetables.
- When the vegetables have changed color and are properly seared, add your meat and stir it all in.
- If you're using previously prepared fried rice or noodles, you can add it at this time and stir it all together.
- When the meat and vegetables are all stirred together, heated, and cooked, add heavy sauces such as fish sauce, hoisin sauce, or whatever thick flavoring you want.
- Finally, after stirring in your heavy sauces, add your mushrooms. It should take only a couple of minutes of stirring for the mushrooms to be cooked.
The entire time from searing your meat to finishing the stir fry with meat, vegetables, and sauce will be no more than a few minutes! It takes practice to have everything finished in time, so keep practicing. To summarize, the proper order for producing a stir fry is: 1) Sear meat and remove from wok. 2) Add oil and spices. 3) Stir fry vegetables. 4) Add meat. 5) Add sauce. 6) Add mushrooms.
Serve your stir fry on top of your rice or noodles.