There may be no cooking skill more valuable than learning to make vegan stir-fries. They’re quite possibly the easiest way to load up your diet with delicious and healthful vegetables. Stir-fries require only a tiny amount of cooking oil, so unless you add a rich sauce your meal will generally be quite low in fat—and therefore calories as well. Even a novice cook can quickly learn how to make a great stir-fry, and you’ll probably feel like you’re getting the hang of preparing this dish after just two or three attempts.
Stir-fried vegetables are usually served over rice or Asian-style noodles. If you’re using brown rice you’ll typically start it before you begin chopping your vegetables. Or, if you’re using white rice, you’ll start it when your stir-fry is about halfway finished, since white rice takes under fifteen minutes to cook. For maximum convenience, you can also purchase frozen rice in microwavable bags that cooks in under 3 minutes. If you find yourself cooking stir-fries regularly, a rice cooker is a wise investment since you’ll have one less pot to pay attention to while you prepare your meal.
One easy way to jazz up your stir-fry is to use an exotic variety of rice: black or purple rices from Thailand are delicious, and Lundberg’s trademarked Wehani heirloom rice has much more flavor than regular brown rice.
You need only a few basic pieces of equipment to make a stir-fry:
- A quality seven or eight inch chef’s knife. The best moderately-priced chef’s knife on the market is a Victorinox with a Fibrox handle.
- A large cutting board.
- Some bowls to keep your chopped vegetables separate.
- A wok or large skillet.
While you can make a great stir-fry in a large skillet, it’s much better to use a wok if you have one available. With a wok, the bottom part is kept very hot, to quickly sear your freshly-chopped vegetables. As these vegetables finish searing, you’ll push them up onto the walls of the wok where they will continue to cook at reduced heat, as the next batch of vegetables is seared on the wok’s bottom.
A traditional wok has a round bottom, and these woks only work well on gas stoves that have a stand placed atop the burner. That’s obviously cumbersome, and not workable for many kitchens. A flat-bottomed wok will therefore be better suited for many people. But perhaps the best way to stir-fry is to buy an electric round-bottom wok with a nonstick ceramic polymer surface. Stir-fries are one of the best meals in the vegan universe, so if you find yourself cooking them nearly every day an electric wok can be a worthwhile investment.
Apart from cooking your rice or noodles, making a stir-fry can be broken down into these steps:
- Buying vegetables
- Choosing a protein-rich topping
- Making a sauce (optional)
- Cutting up the vegetables
- Cooking your stir-fry.
- Adding seasonings
When your stir-fry features a wide assortment of vegetables, it means you’ll have more colors, textures, and flavors. Two rules I try to follow each time I stir-fry is that I try to include as many colors of the rainbow as I can, and I always include a rich green leafy vegetable.
To further ramp up your stir-fry’s nutrition, you might also strive to include:
- A cruciferous vegetable (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts)
- A root vegetable (carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes)
- A leafy vegetable (kale, spinach, bok choy, collards)
Choosing a Protein-Rich Topping
Three traditional protein-rich toppings are tofu, tempeh, or chopped nuts or seeds. You don’t have to add one of these toppings, but if you do your meal will gain staying power, and you won’t be hungry an hour after eating. Plus, these toppings can make a measurable difference in your daily protein intake.
I generally use tofu as my stir-fry topping, since it’s cheap, full of protein, and a perfect complement to vegetables. I like to cut my tofu into 2 centimeter wide slices, then cook in oil for at low-medium about four minutes on each side. I’ll usually cook the tofu and then put it aside before I start cooking the vegetables. You can also prepare tempeh this way, but because it’s denser than tofu you’ll cut it more finely—usually a bit more than a half centimeter in thickness.
If you’re going with chopped nuts or seeds as your topping consider peanuts, almonds, cashews, hemp, sunflower, and sesame. You can roast these items in your wok or skillet with a few drops of oil and a dash of tamari beforehand, then put them aside when you begin making your stir-fry.
Making a Sauce (Optional)
You might also wish to make a sauce for your stir-fry. The classic, unbeatable choice is a basic peanut sauce made from coconut milk, peanut butter, garlic, and ginger. And here are some other ideas for delicious sauces:
- Lemon juice and garlic
- Coconut milk with chili paste
- Vegan teriyaki sauce
- Maple syrup with ginger
Make your sauce before you begin chopping vegetables, so it’ll be ready to go the moment your stir-fry is finished.
Cutting up Vegetables
Here’s a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. The raw vegetables shown below were chopped at the ideal size for a stir-fry.
The point of stir-frying is to sear the vegetables with high heat. If you chop the vegetables at the right size, they’ll be seared on the outside and tender on the inside. But chop the vegetables too coarsely—especially dense vegetables like potatoes—and they won’t be sufficiently cooked through. Chop them too finely and the insides will be mushy.
Since bok-choy is one of the best vegetables for stir-fries, it’s worth mentioning here that it’s worth treating the white bottoms and the leafy green tops as if they’re separate vegetables. When chopping bok-choy, separate the white bottoms from the green tops, and add the white bottoms to your stir-fry about mid-way through, and the green tops at the very end.
You’ll want to chop substantially more vegetables, measured by volume, than you intend to serve, since your vegetables will shrink down at least 30 percent during cooking—and your greens will shrink down more than 90 percent.
Cooking Your Stir-Fry
Before I begin stir-frying I’ll often saute some minced ginger and garlic in a bit of oil for a minute or two, and then set it aside in a little dish.
Cooking time for different vegetables varies dramatically, so it’s essential to add them to your stir-fry in the right order. Here’s a list of popular vegetables, in roughly the order you should add them to your stir-fry.
- Sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, radishes
- Winter squash
- Peeled broccoli stalks
- Summer squash
- Broccoli or cauliflower florets, broccoli rabe
- Sugar snap peas
- Chopped greens like kale or collards
- Sprouts (sunflower or mung bean are especially good)
- Chopped cilantro
As the term stir-fry implies, the name of the game is to keep things moving. This is especially true of the vegetables you’ve just added to the bottom of your wok, where the heat is highest. By constantly searing fresh surfaces at high heat, you’ll achieve just the right amount of cooking for each vegetable in your stir-fry.
If you’re not adding a sauce, as your stir-fry finishes cooking you might want to squirt in some tamari for seasoning. I’ll also commonly add a dash of sesame oil for added flavor. Nutritional yeast can also be a delicious topping. If I’ve set aside some sautéed garlic and ginger, I’ll also stir that in right before serving.
You may also want to jazz things up by throwing in some spices right before serving. Spice mixes like cajun powder, curry powder, or an Italian herb mix are all terrific. A little cayenne pepper can add plenty of zing. And if you’ve already minced and sauteed some garlic or ginger, be sure to stir that in before serving. Give things a taste before you take your wok off the stove, and add more seasonings if your stir-fry is too bland.
Gaining Stir-Fry Mastery
Stir-fries just might be the easiest way to make ultra-healthful meals that are loaded with vegetables. The variations permitted by different toppings, seasonings, sauces, rices, and choice of vegetables offer an unlimited range of possibilities.
The best way to improve your stir-fry skills is to pay a lot of attention when eating your creations. Sample each vegetable separately, and ask yourself if each was perfectly cooked. And don’t fall into in a rut making the same set of vegetables every time. You’ll be surprised how much a rarely-eaten vegetable will enliven a stir-fry, and totally change the character of your meal.
And always go for some unusual colors. Purple cabbage, red radishes, and carrots will elevate the appearance and flavor of your stir-fry.