Secrets of Stir-fry

Learning to Cook

There’s a phrase among doctors that goes, “See one, do one, teach one.”  It means that some things can be learned simply by observation, and that having done one you’re qualified to teach the procedure.  Doctors sometimes laugh when they hear this, likely because they’ve learned by sad experience that everything not’s that simple.  Like cooking.

Because I’m fascinated by the Asian use of meat—as a condiment rather than the main course—I wanted to include a stir-fry recipe in our evolving cookbook.  Stir-fry can also use less edible portions of plants, like the stalk.  Stir-fry is also a good way to use the produce loitering in your fridge.

Did I mention I’ve never cooked stir-fry?  I didn’t even like it.  But any recipe that is plant based, sparing of meat, quick to cook, and affordable, deserves a second look.  I started by Googling the term, “secrets of stir-fry.”  After that I compared stir-fry recipes.  Bottom line:  Stir-fry is bite-sized pieces of vegetables with a little meat, cooked quickly in a hot pan.  Period.  Oh, and eat it while it’s hot, before it gets soggy.

Secrets of Stir-fry

After a day of research and a half-day of cooking, here’s what I learned:

  1. There are four steps:  a) prepare ingredients, b) cook meat and remove, c) cook vegetables, and d) add sauce and meat to vegetables and finish cooking.  Actually, if you like stir-fry over whole grain rice, you better start the rice first.
  2. Need a wok?  No. A frying pan is actually easier to keep at the hot stir-fry temperatures.  The main advantage I see in the wok is the high sides keep your stovetop cleaner when the splattering starts.
  3. Which meat?  Chicken is most used with stir-fry, but you can use anything for protein, including peanuts and cashews.  Actually, the nuts save the meat-cooking step.  The chicken is often marinated while the vegetables are being prepared; they say it keeps the meat from getting tough during frying.
  4. Best oil?  Among the healthy oils (like peanut oil, coconut oil, olive oil, or organic canola oil) they all work.  I stir-fried four batches of chicken using the oils above and asked the beautiful (and discriminating) wife which she preferred.  They tasted all the same.  Don’t use butter—the pan’s too hot.
  5. Which vegetables?  Whatever.  About everything works, including the aromatics (celery, carrot, onion) the cruciferous family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cabbage), asparagus, bell peppers (any color), bok choy, or snap beans.  There’s a stir-fry secret here: cheap, less-desired plant stalks are made edible.  You can also add bean sprouts, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots.  One recipe even uses watermelon rind.  Limit yourself to four or so; cut vegetables into bite-size pieces but slice carrots thinly as they take longer to cook.  Put onions and hard veggies in to cook first, and add leafy vegetables like bok choy last.
  6. How to season?  Most recipes start with a little soy sauce (though any Asian sauce will work) and may include ginger and/or garlic, plus something hot (red peppers, chile powder, or cayenne).  Green onions are also used.  You can make great stir-fry with these plus salt and black pepper.  Some recipes include cumin, coriander, and curry or just turmeric. 

Skip’s Chicken Pineapple Stir-fry

It takes a lot of nerve to put your name on a recipe that billions of people have cooked in thousands of ways—but I did.  Makes me smile.  This recipe is for four people:


½ C chicken stock

2 T soy sauce

1 T red wine vinegar (or whatever you have)

1 T agave nectar (or some form of sugar)

1 T cornstarch (to thicken)

2  Boneless chicken breasts (about 1 lb.)

Peanut oil (or any healthy oil)

1 C white onion

1 C celery

½ C carrots, sliced thin

½ C bell pepper

½ C green onions

1-2 C pineapple (optional)

1 tsp garlic, grated

1 tsp fresh ginger, grated

½ tsp red pepper flakes (or any hot spice)

Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Prepare the sauce by combining chicken stock, soy sauce, vinegar, agave nectar, and cornstarch.  Set aside.
  2. Cut chicken breast into equal size cubes or strips, and marinate if desired.  A marinate can be made using soy sauce, vinegar, agave nectar and cornstarch in the quantities above, plus ¼ cup cooking oil.  Note: If chicken is not to be marinated, prepare the vegetables first.
  3. Prepare the vegetables and pineapple by chopping into ½” to ¾” pieces, and slicing carrots.  Other vegetables can be substituted as needed.  When washing vegetables, dry them before cutting to reduce spattering when cooking. 
  4. Heat a pan until a drop of water sizzles, then add 2 T cooking oil.  Caution:  Be sure water is gone before adding oil as it will cause spattering of hot oil. Continue heating until cooking oil shimmers.  Add meat and cook until browned on each side.  Remove meat but leave liquid in pan.
  5. Add more cooking oil and heat until shimmering.  Add vegetables in sequence, beginning with onions and other hard vegetables and finishing with softer vegetables (which need less cooking).  Do not add pineapple.
  6. While vegetables are cooking, add minced ginger and garlic, and red pepper flakes.  If these are used in powdered form, simply add to the sauce in step #1, but use a little less.
  7. Add in order: the sauce from step #1, pineapple, and meat.  Stir to coat.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Cook until done al dente, you don’t want it mushy.  Remove and serve over rice, say the dinner prayer, and enjoy.

Please comment:  Share your best stir-fry recipe or tip.  Stir-fry is another good way to add vegetables to your diet.

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Reader Comments (11)

Haha! Your recipe made me laugh. "Say the dinner prayer" - nice one.

Stir-fry is one of my go-to recipes. I make it ALL the time! I just throw in all sorts of vegetables and call it good. Sometimes I even add potato! I know that sounds a little weird, but I think it tastes great, no matter how unconventional. If I have a leftover potato or two, I'll just boil it up quick, and then throw it in at the end.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRik

I just made the broccoli salad recipe from your blog and it is outstanding. I agree less sugar would be fine. And I have made your bread--also outstanding. So, I know I will soon make this yummy looking dish.

Once again, thanks for all your help in the positive changes we're making. It helps so much to have some understanding as to "why".

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolly

I like to use sesame oil, shrimp, dandelion greens, and anything else that I need to use up.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I love stir fry. You can even use frozen veggies if you are short on time (or knives). It is so simple and so easily adapted.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

The wok is specifically meant for high temperatures, provided it's the right material and seasoned correctly. A traditional seasoned wok made of thin steel will heat very quickly. The curvature creates a large surface area for cooking the thinly sliced meat, and also allows the liquids to pool fairly deeply at the bottom for cooking the veggies. Heavier woks with Teflon coatings eliminate many of the useful qualities of traditional woks, since Teflon shouldn't even be heated to the high temperatures used in stir-frying. I suppose what you use is all a matter of preference and training. Western folks more used to flat frying pans may be more comfortable with what they know, but in Asia there's hardly another option.

Also, in my couple years in Cambodia, where stir fries are a daily staple, people didn't remove the meat before cooking the veggies. With a wok, you can cook the meat most of the way through, add the liquids, then move the meat up the sides a bit where it's not as hot and toss in the veggies to cook just until barely tender, and toss it all together. Once the meat and veggies are chopped and prepared the actual cooking only takes a couple minutes.

(That was a longer comment than I had expected to write. I guess the topic struck a chord with me!)

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom

This looks really tasty - I am going to try this!

I have tried many stir fry's over the years at home and never feel like they turn out that well. Maybe I didn't have the secrets!

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I like to also use quinoa instead of rice because quinoa is so high in protein I can leave the meat out and just have a veggie stir fry.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Ann, we're going to try that, using quinoa. That would make stir-fry even easier. I'll add some cashews also. Best to you.

February 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I made this for the family last night, minus the pineapple. My 3 year old loved "eating the rainbow" and my husband and I really enjoyed it.

We used cooked beans instead of meat and I added spinach. Next time I'll use quinoa instead of rice.

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

I made your recipe last night. Used zuchini, cabbage, along with your carrots and celery and added about 1/2 T of oyster sauce. I absolutely loved it! Great recipe!!

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTara

Sesame oil makes stir fry smell and taste more "Asian" to me. I only have a small bottle and it was kinda expensive compared to the other cooking oils I have, so I just add a few drops to whatever cooking oil I'm using.
We like making a stir fry with cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic, whatever veggies we have on hand, but we especially like broccoli stems. I peel them with a vegetable peeler and slice thinly. I also add a small amount of cooked spaghetti noodles and season with ground ginger and soy sauce. My kids, who usually turn their noses up at cabbage, gobble up stir fry.

May 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShayla

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