Basic technique, Side dish
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Grand Unified Stir Fry Theory (aka: Stir Fry, basic technique)

This is the basic technique I use for weeknight stir frying – meat, vegetables, or (preferably) both together as a one skillet meal.*  As I’ve mentioned before – anything that goes well with basic white rice is a recipe I use a lot.

*Right now, the kids make me cook the meat and the vegetables separately; I can’t let the vegetables contaminate the meat. Or vice versa.  I accidentally added a red pepper to the chicken stir fry this week – you should have heard the whining.

However, stir fry is another one of my culinary pathways.  “American” Chinese food was the first non-american cuisine I ate*, and the one that started to open my eyes to the fact that there was a wide world of taste out there.  Specifically, the little hole in the wall Hunan restaurant on Chardon Rd in Wickliffe (just past E 260th) that served the best Hot and Sour soup I’ve ever had.  Their Governor’s chicken was great, too.  The combination of sweet, spicy, sour and hot was a revelation to me.  Especially in that soup – I would buy it in the “bathtub” size.

*I don’t count American Italian – it’s been integrated into american home cooking too much.  Or at least my family’s American home cooking.  Spaghetti night, with Ragu and store-bought garlic bread.  Ah, memories.  Or, more specifically, Pixifood.  (h/t – Joe Posnaski, one of my favorite sports writers.  And not just because he’s from Cleveland.)

Basic Technique: Stir-Fry


  • 12″ or 14″ nonstick skillet w/ lid
*My favorite (the one I own), but expensive: All-Clad Stainless Nonstick Fry Pan, 12″
*My 14″ best buy – at the local kitchen supply store: A Best Kitchen


  • Peanut oil or Vegetable oil
  • 3/4 lbs to 1.5 lbs protien
  • 1 large onion + 1 lb vegetables
  • 1 recipe sauce (usually 1/4 to 1/2c)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger

1. Prep protein:  Cut it into 1/2″ to 3/4″ chunks and marinate in 1 tbsp soy plus 1 tbsp sherry.  Let it marinate while you do the rest of the prep

2. Prep Sauce: Mix sauce ingredients until well combined.

3. Prep vegetables: Cut into 1/4″ strips or 1/2″ by 1/2″ pieces.

3a. Prep garlic/ginger/oil mix: Mince or press garlic and ginger through a garlic press, then stir with 1 tsp of the oil.  Set aside for later.

4. Preheat Pan: Heat 1 tbsp oil in a 12″ to 14″ skillet over high heat

5. Cook the Protein: Stir fry meat until browned and cooked, 1-3 min (do this in 2 batches, if more than 3/4lb of protien), remove to bowl

6. Cook the vegetables: This step has some parts to it, depending on the type of vegetables you are cooking.  For all of them, start with:
6a. Add 2tbsp oil, reheat pan 1 minute (or until oil smokes)

6b. First batch veg: stir-fry 2-3 min
*Onions, peppers (carrots, cauliflower)

6c. Garlic/Ginger/Oil – make hole in center, add, cook until fragrant (10 sec?), stir into veg

6d. Second batch veg (steam): add, stir, add 1/3 cup water, cover and steam 2-3 min, then (if necessary) stir fry another 1-3 min until tender-crisp
*Broccoli, green beans, asparagus, butternut squash, bok choy stems or baby bok choy, swiss chard stems

6e. Third batch veg: add, stir-fry 2-3 minutes until tender-crisp
*Sliced cabbage, celery, mushrooms, haricort verts (really thin green beans), peas, sugar snap peas, summer squash or zucchini

6f. Fourth batch veg (wilt): add, stir-fry 1 min or until wilted
*Scallions, fresh herbs(basil), tender greens (baby spinach), tomatoes

7. Add Sauce and Protein: Re-add the protein to the pan, then add the sauce.  Stir until glazed and bubbling, about another 1 minute

8. Serve: Serve with basic white rice, noodles, or lettuce leaves for wrapping.

Protein choices:
Chicken – boneless, skinless breasts or thighs, cut into 3/4″ thick strips
Pork – loin or tenderloin, cut into 3/4″ thick strips
Beef – Ribeye, strip, sirloin, tenderloin (expensive), flank steak, skirt steak – cut into 3/4″ strips, against the grain for the flank and skirt steaks
Seafood – shrimp (peeled), scallops (whole)
Tofu – cut into 3/4″ chunksVegetables and their batches:
6b. First batch veg:
Onions – halved, each half cut into about 8 wedges
*Note: I almost always use an onion in the stir fry as a flavor base
Peppers – cored, cut into 1/4″ strips
Carrots – grated
Cauliflower – cut into 1″ florets6d. Second batch veg (steam):
Broccoli – cut into 1″ florets
Green beans – trimmed, optionally cut into 2″ segments on the diagonal
Asparagus – trimmed, cut into 2″ segments on the diagonal
Butternut squash, cut into 1″ cubes
Bok choy stems – leaves trimmed and reserved for 3rd batch; stems sliced 1/4″ thick
Chard stems – leaves trimmed and reserved for 3rd batch; stems sliced 1/4″ thick6e. Third batch veg:
Cabbage – shredded 1/4″ thick (easy way out – bag “cole slaw” mix)
Celery – sliced 1/4″ thick on the bias
Mushrooms – sliced thin (easy way out – prepackaged sliced)
Haricort verts (really thin green beans) – trimmed
Bean sprouts
Peas – Frozen, thawed
Sugar snap peas – stringed
Summer squash or zucchini – cut into 1/4″ thick rounds
Eggplant – peeled, cut into 3/4″ cubes
Baby bok choy – stem end trimmed, separated into individual leaves

6f. Fourth batch veg (wilt very quickly):
Scallions – sliced
Fresh herbs – (basil is a very “thai” flavor)
Tender greens (baby spinach)
Tomatoes, diced

Mark Bittman’s simple hoisin sauce: (combine)

  • 2tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 2tbsp water

Pam Anderson’s Soy-Sesame sauce: (combine all, stir until sugar dissolves)

  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1/4 c soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp sugar

Cook’s Illustrated ginger sauce: (combine all, stir until sugar dissolves)

  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp dry sherry
  • 1/4 cup minced ginger
  • 2 scallions, minced
  • 2 tbsp water

Mike’s simple sauce: (combine)

  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbsp sweetened rice wine vinegar
I have three major inspirations for this technique. First came Pam Anderson, and “How to cook without a book.” Her weeknight stir fry is the basis of this technique as I have learned it. However, her technique leaves out a lot of vegetables that I like, and that I think of as essential sides for stir fries. Broccoli, in particular, comes to mind. That’s where I turned to Cook’s Illustrated. Pam worked at CI for years, and you can tell if you compare their techniques – they are obviously siblings. Cooks (in their usual, methodical way) had just advanced the technique and refined it a bitto be more flexible. I’m using their “four batch” idea. However, their basic stir fry changed to include the “steam-stir fry” combo technique, and I prefer the way some vegetables (broccoli, green beans) come out with the stir-fry added to help soften them up a bit. Finally, there’s MarkBittman’s 10 minute stir fry – it’s this technique stripped down to bare metal. He doesn’t fuss with making sauces (just addhoisin sauce and water), aromatics (garlic), ormarinating the meat. Or with lots of different vegetables – just onions and peppers. All the variables helpthe end result come out better, in my opinion, but if you really want the “Minimalist” approach, he’s got the heart of the recipe.Differences in my inspirations – interesting, to see how they approach the same problem, of making a quick stir-fry:
Pam Anderson: Always do onions as 1st batch veg. Don’t do any 2nd batch veg- takes too long.
Cooks Illustrated: Use 3/4 lb meat so you only have to cook 1 batch of meat. Add garlic and ginger at last minute (just before protein is re-added). “Second batch steam” is adapted from some of their other stir-fry recipes. You have to pay a subscription to get to their recipes, located here.
Mark Bittman: Basically, he just does Step 3, 4, 5, 6a and 7, oh, and add 1 cup of nuts (cashew pieces) with the sauce. Skip Garlic/ginger, skip protien marinade, only do 1st batch veg mix of onions/peppers, sauce is 2tbsp hoisin mixed w/2tbsp water, mixed in the pan.Pam Anderson rightly mentions that this recipe can be very easy if you use a “quick snip” approach – you can buy pre-shredded carrots or cabbage, pre-sliced mushrooms, “stir-fry” cut chicken, etc. Cooks Illustrated’s sister magazine, Cooks Country (which I also love) had another great idea to skip the prep work – just buy all the vegetables, pre-cut, at the “salad bar” of your local grocery store.

They ALL also say the same things about the cooking technique: Don’t overcrowd the pan, especially on the protien; give it high heat, and a few minutes after adding each vegetable to make sure the pan gets hot again. And…do NOT use a wok! For American stoves (which don’t have a wok burner or ring), a 12″ to 14″, nonstick or cast iron pan is the best thing to use – you need the high heat spread over a large area. (For an aside from Alton Brown on the piece of equipment you may actually have that could be used as a wok burner, see here.*)
*Of course, it’s much more fun to watch it: try to catch his “Squid Pro Quo” episode – I can’t find it in his video sets.

The key things to remember are:
1. Prep first, then cook. You can pre-heat your pan while you prep the vegetables, but once you start, it goes quickly, so have everything ready to go.

2. You don’t need to do all four vegetable batches! If you do, you’re probably putting too much in the recipe. My standards are: Chicken, Onion, Red Peppers (batches 1 and 3), Beef, Onions, Red Peppers, Broccoli (batches 1, 2, and 3) As Bittman shows, you can do this with, basically, one batch of protien and one batch of vegetables for the most stripped down version.

3. You don’t need to do the protein! Or the vegetables! For Protein only, skip the vegetable batches – do steps 1,2,3,3a, 4, 5,6c, 7. For Veg only, skip step 5. I do this a lot, actually – as I mentioned before, the kidsare grossed out, so I prep everything, cook theprotien, clean out the pan, then cook the veg. (This is also useful if I’m cooking for someone who’s vegetarian.)So, that’s the technique. Any other vegetables I need to add to the list? Any questions? Please! Leave them in the comments. Thanks!

Resources/Adapted From:
Pam Anderson

Cooks Illustrated Magazine

Cooks Country Magazine

Mark Bittman

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Filed under: Basic technique, Side dish


Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.


  1. Sigrid Trombley says

    Not a comment about the stir fry technique Mike but related to your comment, “Specifically, the little hole in the wall Hunan restaurant on Chardon Rd in Wickliffe (just past E 260th) that served the best Hot and Sour soup I’ve ever had.” I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried to re-create this hot and sour soup as a pressure cooker recipe. I love a great hot and sour soup and am sure I’d fine your take on it interesting.

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