It had to be done, I told myself, as I added supermarket pot stickers to the broccoli stir-fry. So it might as well be done by me. There were cherry tomatoes in the stir-fry too, which greatly improved the sauce. This proud moment marked a maturation of my stir-fry game, as I had reached the point where I know the rules well enough to improvise.
Stir-fry can get you in trouble. It seems like a simple thing, until the eggplant is chewy and the broccoli is mushy and it doesn’t taste like it does at the Chinese restaurant, but some hippy concoction of balsamic vinegar and burnt soy sauce.
Many stir-fry mistakes start at the intention to make it in the first place. Why are we doing this? If it’s to clean out the fridge on a Friday night, because the next day is farmers market, that’s not enough.
Executed properly, a stir-fry can be a celebration of fresh produce, not a waypoint between the back of the fridge and the compost pile. It should be a stage for the bright colors and crisp textures of the season.
But like any stage, too many actors can get in each other’s way. Don’t be too busy with your stir-fry. Even if each and every veggie is the freshest specimen under the sun, you don’t want to use them all. A proper stir-fry involves restraint. Choose one or two veggies and let them be the main event. A star, balanced with a co-star and perhaps a supporting protein or two, bound together by a sauce that tastes like a stir-fry is supposed to, aka how it tastes in a Chinese restaurant.
Here are some other easy stir-fry mistakes, based on my extensive personal research.
Not hot enough
High heat is necessary for imbuing the contents of the wok with a smokey glow called wok hei, which translates to “breath of the wok.”
Not wok enough
Use the heaviest wok you can, as a light wok will lose its heat when stuff is added.
Not blanched enough
The veggies should be cooked in advance in boiling water. You don’t want to worry about getting this or that vegetable perfectly cooked in the pan all at the same time. The stir-fry simply adds flavor and wok breath.
Cooking too much at a time
An overfilled wok means the veggies don’t all get the time they need against the hot wok, in the hot oil. Meanwhile, adding too much stuff can cool down the wok, killing that wok hei buzz.
Cooking in sesame oil
Sesame oil — toasted sesame oil, I should emphasize — is for flavoring, not for cooking. Fry with a heat tolerant oil like safflower, peanut or frying blend. Believe it or not, extra virgin olive oil works fine too.
Not enough oil
In these times of calorie-counting, it can be tempting to pull back on the fry oil. But then your wok won’t get hei, and that’s no fun.
Adding sauce early
It should be added toward the end of cooking to coat the food, but not cook with the food.
That dumpling stir-fry
It started as just a broccoli stir-fry. I added cherry tomatoes to the sauce, so their sharp, savory flavor could mix with the soy sauce, oyster sauce and sesame oil, jacking the umami. But I wanted a bit more. Not too much more, because I like to keep my stir-fry on the simple side. I settled on pot stickers. Because I can.
Pot sticker stir-fry with tomato and broccoli
Because putting dumplings in stir-fry is not a mistake.
For the sauce
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 cup water
A clove of garlic, grated
Combine all of the ingredients except the tofu and mix thoroughly. Add the tofu, stir it in, and let sit for at least an hour.
For the stir fry
3 tablespoons frying oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 cup minced onions
1 lb fresh cherry tomatoes
1 lb broccoli, trimmed into 2-inch florets
10 frozen pot stickers (Asian dumplings), thawed
Boil a pot of water in which to blanch the broccoli and tomatoes. Give the broccoli a minute, and then add the cherry tomatoes. Give it another minute, and then remove the broccoli and tomatoes and plunge them in an ice bath. This will stop the cooking and keep the veggies crispy and bright colored. When they are cool, drain them.
Heat the oil on high in a wok or heavy bottomed pan. Add the garlic, ginger and onions. Let them fry for a minute or two in the sizzling oil. Add the tomatoes and let it cook into a sauce for about five minutes, stirring often.
Add the dumplings and arrange so as many as possible are touching the wok. Then add the broccoli atop the dumplings. After letting it heat up for about a minute (or until you smell almost burning), stir-fry the broccoli and dumplings all around the wok. Add the sauce, stir-fry again to coat, and serve.
Ari LeVaux writes from Montana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.