The Art of the Stir Fry


Ah, the stir fry. Terrifying to the inexperienced, and a life saver to those in the know.

Why are stir fries terrifying? Here are some of the reasons I hear repeatedly:

  • I never know what veggies to choose
  • My veggies end up mushy
  • I don’t have the fancy sauces needed
  • The sauces seem so complicated

For those who have pushed past the intimidation factor, these are the reasons they love stir fries:

  • Stir fries come together so quickly
  • I can use whatever veggies I have on hand
  • Stir fries are really budget friendly
  • Stir fry sauces are so easy to throw together

Hmmm, I see a very interesting pattern here. The reasons to fear, and love, stir fries contradict each other.

The Truth About Stir Fries

Let’s break down each idea and clarify a few thing:

  1. Veggies to Use: Quite frankly any veggies can be used. I don’t think I have ever come across a vegetable that could not go in a stir fry. Just pick 2 or three that you have on hand.
  2. Proteins to Use: Any protein can be used. By the same token, stir fries do not need to have proteins at all.
  3. What About the Sauce: Sauces do not need to be complicated. A basic sauce only has 4 or 5 ingredients, most of which are in most people’s pantry.

Ewww, Mushy Veggies

One of the biggest issues people have with making stir fries is the fear of ending up with mushy veggies. This is totally understandable as it can happen very quickly.

Whenever I talk to people about cooking stir fries, I ask them how long they figure it should take. Their answer usually provides a great deal of insight about where things go wrong. The answer is usually 2 or 3 times longer than it should be.

They forget that stir frying involves cooking small pieces of food at a very high heat. This cuts the cooking time down dramatically.

They key to avoiding mushy veggies is knowing when to add them. Many will just throw them all in at the same time. If this is done, some veggies will be perfectly cooked while others will turn to mush. To avoid this:

  • Add the longest cooking vegetable first and let them cook about half way done.
  • Then add the next longest cooking vegetable. Now you have two veggies cooking.
  • Now add the shortest cooking time veggies last.

Another very important tip is to make sure that all your vegetables are cut up BEFORE you start stir frying.

What About Meat or Fish?

Meat or fish are a great addition to any stir fry. But when do you add them so that they do not end up dry and overcooked?

Whenever I include meat or fish, I always throw it in the wok first. I partially cook it and then remove it. This will create a nicely seared outside.

If meat or fish is cooked first and left in the wok while the veggies cook, it will end up overcooked.

Once all of the veggies are cooked, I then add the meat or fish to finish cooking.

Oohh Sauce!

The video above shows a clip from a recent livestream video we did.

Stir fry sauce is the other main issue stopping people from making stir fries. It really is not that complicated. But some people like to make it seem so.

The key to a good stir fry sauce is: Sweet + Salty/Savoury + Sour + Flavour + Thickener

Thickener Note: Thickeners are used to help thicken the sauce and make it coat the veggies or meat. If you do not use a thickener, the sauce will remain watery. Both flour or cornstarch are great thickeners. I prefer to use cornstarch because it makes the sauce nice and shiny.

So what does that look like in practice?

  • Sweet = Brown sugar, white sugar, honey, juice, etc.
  • Salty/Savoury = Soy Sauce
  • Sour = Vinegar
  • Flavour = Herbs, spices, flavoured oils
  • Thickener = Cornstarch or flour

The sauce isle of the grocery store will have a huge number of other sauces. Hoisin and oyster sauce are very popular. They include both the sweet, salty and thickening portion of the equation. Many people will include these as part of their overall sauce.

If you are just starting out making stir fries, I suggest starting simple. To be honest, I still just keep it simple. Here are some basic sauce recipes to get you started.

Basic Sauce

Goes great with any mix of vegetables and protein

  • 1/2 Cup (125 ml) Water or Stock
  • 1 Tablespoon Brown Sugar (Sweet)
  • 3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce (Salty/Savoury)
  • 1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar (Sour)
  • 3 – 4 Cloves Garlic (Flavour)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoon Cornstarch (Thickener)

Orange Ginger Sauce

Particularly yummy with pork or chicken

  • 1/2 Cup (125 ml) Orange Juice (Sweet + Flavour)
  • 3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce (Salty/Savoury)
  • 1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar (Sour)
  • 1 Inch Chopped fresh Ginger, or 1/2 Teaspoon dried Ginger (Flavour)
  • 1 – 2 Cloves Garlic (Flavour)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoon Cornstarch (Thickener)

Sesame Sauce

Great all round sauce

  • 1/2 Cup (125 ml) Water or Stock
  • 1 Tablespoon Brown Sugar (Sweet)
  • 3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce (Salty/Savoury)
  • 1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar (Sour)
  • 1 1/2 Teaspoon Sesame Oil (Flavour)
  • 3 – 4 Cloves Garlic (Flavour)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoon Cornstarch (Thickener)


  • Soy sauce can be extremely high in sodium. Choose a lower sodium sauce if you want to watch your sodium intake.
  • If you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease, check the ingredients of the soy sauce. There are gluten free versions available.
  • If you like a spicy sauce, feel free to add hot spices to any sauce.
  • Play with the ingredients until you find your perfect recipe.
  • Although these recipes use Rice Vinegar, other vinegars work well also. Try white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar etc.

Do you have a favourite stir fry sauce?

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