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Back to School: A Cook’s Illustrated Stir Fry Primer

27 Jun

I make a stir fry dinner about once a week, mainly because it is one of the easiest meals you can put together in a short amount of time. While any stir fry can come out tasting okay, you want yours to taste great every time you make one so it seems different and special. While it’s true that a stir fry often stems from trying to use up the leftovers in the refrigerator, you can also put some planning and strategy into what you use and how you make it. In the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, they have a wonderful article on steps you can take and follow to make a great stir fry every time.

A good stir fry usually starts with three basic components – some type of protein, vegetables and some type of sauce. Of course, you can vary this to fit any type of taste, but ideally you want to try to mix up texture and color as much as you can to create a vibrant, enticing plate. Another thing to remember is that while having lots of color can make the plate look nice, having too much can really clutter things up for you. If you can limit the types of produce you use to three at the most it will help avoid this and advance the flavor of your dish.

For proteins, you want to keep the quantity to around 1 pound of whatever you choose and select tender cuts that will soften up faster with this type of cooking. Sirloin tip steaks, boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin or shrimp are just some ideal examples that you can use. To make things even easier for yourself, try freezing your protein before cutting it so you can slice easier and get more uniform cuts. Generally about 30 minutes of freezing should suffice. You also want to make sure you take some time to pre-treat the protein you are using. it can really help to tenderize the protein and give it more flavor.Try soaking the protein for 15 minutes in 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in 2 tablespoons of water. Don’t go longer than the 15 minutes or it will start to break down the protein too much and be sure you rinse the protein off before you start marinating it.

You want to marinate the protein in some type of salty liquid. This will help to brine the meat and boost the flavor. Just make sure you drain it well before you cook so you can make sure the meat will brown nicely and not steam in any excess liquid. Soaking the meat for 15 minutes in just 2 tablespoons of soy sauce or fish sauce can make a big difference. For shrimp, salty marinades can be a bit overwhelming. Cook’s Illustrated recommends using a simple mix of 3 tablespoons of oil, 6 cloves of minced garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt for 30 minutes to get great flavor from the shrimp.

For vegetables, again you want to stick to about a 1 pound limit of whatever combination you choose. Some vegetables, like broccoli, carrots, snap peas or cauliflower, need longer cooking times, about 3 to 7 minutes. Softer vegetables like mushrooms, onions, snow peas, peppers or asparagus need only about 1 to 3 minutes of cooking time. Smaller, more tender vegetables such as frozen peas, scallion greens, water chestnuts, tomatoes, bean sprouts or greens like spinach only need 30 to 60 seconds. Try to cut everything to a uniform size so that it all cooks evenly.

Lastly, you want to have some type of sauce to cook it all in. The sauces you buy in the jars in the store may work fine for some people, but I find them to be very sweet and loaded with salt. You can very easily make your own sauce in a minute or two with a few ingredients. A classic sauce, which I used in the chicken stir fry recipe below, has chicken broth, dry sherry, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, cornstarch and sesame oil.

I followed this simple recipe for a great chicken stir fry, but you can follow the same pattern for beef, fish or even tofu.

Easy Chicken Stir Fry

Sauce:

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup dry sherry

3 tablespoons hoisin or oyster sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Chicken:

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons soy sauce

6-8 teaspoons vegetable oil

1/3 pound broccoli, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/3 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch slices

1 small onion, sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/3 cup frozen peas

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon ginger, grated

For the sauce, whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Heat a large, nonstick skillet over high heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of oil and heat until just smoking. Add half of the chicken slices, breaking up any clumps, until browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a bowl and cover it to keep it warm. Repeat the process with another 1 1/2 teaspoons of oil and the remainder of the chicken. Remove the chicken to the bowl and cover to keep warm.

Add another 2 teaspoons of oil to the pan. Add the broccoli and cook until seared, about 3 to 5 minutes.Remove the broccoli from the skillet and add the carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until seared, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the carrots and add the onion and bell pepper, stirring occasionally, until seared, about 1 to 3 minutes.Remove the onions and peppers from the skillet and add the frozen peas to the skillet and heat until seared, about 30 to seconds.Add the broccoli, peppers and onion back to the skillet and toss.

Clear the center of the pan and add the garlic, ginger and 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil. Mash the mixture until fragrant, about 15 to 30 seconds, then mix it into the vegetables. Return the chicken to the pan. Whisk the sauce to re-combine, then add it to the skillet and toss constantly until the liquid is thickened, about 30 seconds. Pour the stir fry into a serving bowl and serve with white rice or fried rice.

There are a few other tips you may want to follow when making a stir fry. First, as I have said before, while it is nice to have a wok, I don’t think they are very effective for cooking at home. unless you have a professional stove with the right kind of burners, a round-bottomed wok won’t work nearly as well as a large skillet when it comes to browning. Second, don’t put too much in the pan all at once. A crowded skillet won’t give you the searing that you want for a stir fry; it is just going to steam everything. Take the time to cook everything in batches and you will be well rewarded with nice browning. Third, try not to stir everything too much. I know it’s called a stir fry and everything tells you that you should be stirring constantly, but the thing is that most stoves don’t give you the kind of heat you get at an Asian restaurant’s stove or flat top so by moving things around all the time you don’t allow them to brown well. Give them a chance to cook and stir infrequently. Finally, remember that you don’t have to cook everything fully during the searing process. You want to remove items just before they are done. Everything is going to finish cooking in the end when you add it back into the pan with the sauce.

Of course you can do things in many combinations or try different sauces instead of this classic sauce if you want something different. You can vary things up each time by using different seasonal vegetables as well to make things different or top the final product with scallion greens, toasted seeds or nuts or whatever herbs or oils you may find appropriate or like. The combinations are endless here, so you can have a  lot of fun with it.

That’s all I have for today. Check back next time for some new recipes I have tried recently, including a very simple Italian bread salad and a great bay scallops I used recently. Until then, enjoy the rest of your day and enjoy your meal!

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