7 minutes reading time (1488 words)

Mastering the Stir-Fry


Here’s a woman who inspires me: Grace Young, who is THE absolute grand dame of the stir-fry. She’s been called the Stir-Fry Guru and the Poet Laureate of the Wok. I think of her as ne plus ultra, a major-award winning cookbook writer and food journalist who is THE one to teach and inspire us all to become sit-fry masters.

The Why of Stir-Fry

Why stir-fry? Because it is one of THE great healthy, fresh, quick-cooking techniques to get colorful, tasty, comforting foods on the table even on a weeknight. In other words, invaluable! I easily stir-fry one or two times a week. I shop and get my gorgeous fresh ingredients. I prep as instructed (see below). I pull up my sleeves and, quickly, employing my ultra stir-fry skills, create a glorious, sure-to-please meal in minutes. You can, too.

Grace’s book: Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge

A stir fry can be lots of things. You can, as I used to, clean out your fridge, chop and throw everything in the pan. But:  there are stir-fry skills to master that bring the technique to a whole nother level.

Grace’s book Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories won the 2011 James Beard Foundation Award for International Cooking. Grace is the authority and the muse who guides us in learning about the tender and delicious art of the stir-fry. When I read her book I was inspired to up my game.

Learning the system

It turns out there’s a system to stir-frying. When you learn this, you begin thinking about stir-frying in a different way, and you are on your way to becoming a master.

First of all, let’s define it. A Stir-Fry is a mixture of vegetables and a protein (meat, chicken, tofu, edamame…). A couple of cook notes on vegetarian options here: look for artisanal extra-firm tofu in the refrigerator case that isn’t packed in lots of water. They are often higher quality, and don’t require pressing to expel all the soaking liquid (a time saver!). Edamame, a fine protein choice, should be thrown in at the end so you don’t overcook.

Ok, let’s go!

Here are the steps to masterful stir-frying:

  1. Cut, measure, and marinate your ingredients. For example, I’m going to do a stir fry using up as many of my vegetables as I can. Cut everything up, set it out in bowls or on a cutting board. Marinate the protein. You can do both of these things in advance, so when you come home everything is ready.

    I should probably put this message in neon lights: The trick to masterful stir frying is being ready! Resulting in a perfectly crispy, instead of a soggy, stir fry.

  2. Measure out liquid ingredients. I’ll make a stir fry sauce and double it, so I have in my refrigerator. A no brainer.

  3. Line up your ingredients in the order you are going to use them. You know what stir try is like? Formula 1 racing! You snooze, you lose!

    Another thing I do that’s not in the book: I alert my husband that I am beginning to stir fry. You have to be in here in 4 minutes! 30 seconds late and it’s cooling down! Stir fry and rissotto wait for no one. There’s no going back. Once ready, you’ve got to serve it up.

Grace’s ancestral wok is currently on display in the exhibit, “Chow” at the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD)in Brooklyn, NY.

  1. Preheat your wok. There are a lot of woks out there. Grace uses a 14” carbon steel wok. I have a stainless steel wok I’m in love with that I’ve had forever.

    You never want to stir fry in a cold wok. It’s like barbecuing. You never want to barbeque unless you heat it up. Why? Because it’s very hard to heat oil in a cold pan. The ONLY way you’re going to get your oil to the right temperature is in a warm pan. You want your stir-fry to leap and dance! The best way to test: flick a little tiny bead of water onto the pan. If it vaporizes on contact, you’re ready! Your engines are revved. THEN you are going to add your oil. See box below.

  1. Add the oil. Swirl your oil in a thin stream so it’s going down the edges first. Lift up your pan and rotate around so you get an even distribution. Do not puddle! I don’t want to see any puddles in your wok!

Oils for stir-frying

Peanut - A classic.

Grapeseed Oil - My go-to stir-fry oil.

Rice Bran Oil - I also use. It has the highest smoke point.

Avocado Oil - Considered one of the best high smoke point oils to use.

I’m a big believer in high quality oils, and recommend buying in glass or metal rather than plastic bottles.

  1. Add aromatics. Aromatics are things like ginger, garlic, shallot, onions, and scallions. You could use this gorgeous sautė tool from Earlywood — the perfect stir fry tool. You’re going to push your aromatics to the side.
  1. Add protein. Now. Here’s the big secret to the perfect protein in your wok. It doesn’t matter what you’re using, you have to make sure that your protein is spread in a single, even layer. You don’t want things on top of each other, because it will steam your food. You want it in one layer for ONE MINUTE (I set my timer). Don’t touch it! You want to sear it. You want the perfect degree of crisp.


    If you’re stir frying for a crowd you’ve gotta work in batches. If you overcrowd your skillet, you’re going to lower the temperature, resulting in a greasy, limp stir fry. :(

    After that one minute, you’re allowed to move the protein around and incorporate the aromatics. Remove the wok from the heat and transfer the mixture to a bowl. Put wok back on the stove. Don’t wash it. Add a little more oil.

  1. Add vegetables. Be sure they are DRY. Otherwise they will steam. You don’t have to worry about having them in an even layer. Just add and start moving them around.

    Grace says, “Throughout the stir-frying process you should hear a constant sizzling sound. If there is no sizzle it indicates the wok was not sufficiently heated, or that the wok’s heat has been reduced by too many ingredients or wet vegetables. If this happens, your stir-fry has become a braise.” Uh-oh. Formula 1 racing, folks. You’ve got one shot.

    Keep it sizzling!

  1. Add liquid ingredients and seasonings. When the vegetables are three-quarters done, your going to return the protein and aromatic mixture (with any juices that have accumulated) to the wok. Then swirl in the liquid ingredients along the sides of the wok so they drip down. If you just dump it in the middle, you’re bringing down the heat (no, no, no.)

It's all about maintaining the heat.

Sprinkle on any dry ingredients… stir, stir… and then you serve! While it’s piping hot.

You REALLY want to pay attention to not overcooking your vegetables. Even vegetables do what’s called carry-over cooking—they’re still going to cook while you’re getting them served. I would say stop cooking when you are halfway to three-quarters done. Just be sure to stop ahead of time. Most of us are too slow!

Start your master class now! Here’s Grace showing us the do’s and don’ts in “You’re Doing It All Wrong—How to Stir-Fry.” 


You might also enjoy Grace’s lovely and inspiring video, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” about exploring her culinary heritage with her parents.
What food memories are you making with your children and grandchildren? 

To master the Stir-Fry, get Grace’s gorgeous book.


Grace has a lovely spring stir-fry recipe on Food 52, but she encourages us to experiment seasonally, and according to what you have. “Stir-fries aren’t just for Asian ingredients. Once you understand the technique, you’ll discover the remarkable versatility of stir-frying. With the start of spring, shop at your local farmers’ market and buy what’s in season. The high heat and speed of stir-frying accentuate the natural flavor and texture of freshly harvested vegetables. As the produce changes with the seasons, use zucchini in place of the asparagus or skip the sugar snaps and add snow peas or more cherry tomatoes. You can even play with the flavors with the addition of a few tablespoons of chopped dill, basil, or cilantro in the last minute of cooking.”

grace young chicken and broccoli stir-fry

This Chicken and Broccoli Stir-Fry is a great basic for your repertoire that will CONVINCE you to cook at home. The dark meat’s slightly higher fat content makes for a flavorful, moist dish. The sauce is thickened with kudzu root, far more desirable than the cornstarch found in most carry-out fare. Plus, the sauce blend of tamari, lime juice, ginger, and maple syrup is so delicious that you’ll be able to take that Chinese restaurant off speed dial.


Thank you, Grace!

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