The problem with stir-frying is the common perception that it's this simple, quick way of throwing together a good dinner. I don't really know what to make, and I'm running late getting home from work, so I guess I'll just whip up some stir-fry is the thought process that leads, inexorably, to the 5,973,221st internet message board post or beseeching food-writer email wondering why is my stir fry sad, hot garbage?
Because, the thing is, stir-frying is emphatically not an easy, quick, user-friendly way to prepare a good dinner. It's an easy, quick, user-friendly way to prepare a shitty dinner—soggy vegetables and chewy meat and gloopy, saccharine sauce—and a laborious, work-intensive, nerve-racking way to prepare a good dinner. It's many involved steps of preparation in advance of like four minutes of hot, fast, harrowing, tricky cooking. It's tedious and patience-draining before it's scary and smoky and spectacular, like waiting in line for an hour for the privilege of riding a motorcycle through a flaming hula hoop.
Which might make you wonder, not unreasonably, why people do it. They do it because, when it's done well, stir-frying produces outrageously pleasing food that simply cannot be produced any other way. Perfect stir-frying vivifies the flavors and aromas and colors of its ingredients; they're simultaneously fresh and emphatically cooked, both distinct and harmonious. Good stir-fry is amazing, and amazing like nothing else.
With that in mind, hey, let's stir-fry some beef.
First, of course, you must acquire beef. A pound of it will serve four people. This needn't be a particularly fancy cut—absolutely do not spend ribeye money on stir-fry beef—but you'll want to stay away from the intensely fibrous cuts like flank and shank and so on, unless you're particularly in the mood for lots of chewing and resentment. Skirt steak makes a nice cut of beef for this sort of thing: It's tasty, fairly inexpensive as beef goes, and, thanks to its long, flat, rectangular shape, can be cut into strips pretty easily.
Stick your hunk of cow in the freezer for about 40 minutes when you get home; this will firm it up a bit, which makes slicing it into thin strips much easier. Maybe you will scoff at this needless-seeming step; maybe you will puff out your chest and your jaw and make noises about how, hell, you don't need no dadgum freezer to cut a piece o' goldang beef into thin strips, you just need a big sharp knife, some big strong forearms, and a backbone, dagnabbit. Sure, and all you need to visit the Louvre is a sturdy rowboat and a dependable pair of walking shoes—but plane tickets and traveler's checks make it a shitload easier. Freeze the friggin' beef, OK?
After you've given it some time to cool out in the freezer, prepare the beef for cooking. This means slicing it, across the grain, very thinly. We're not going for tissue-thin carpaccio-gauge beef, here—you don't need to be able to read through it—but thinner is better, within reason. If the prospect of whipping out a ruler for this doesn't strike you as acutely ridiculous, you might be Alton Brown and/or a robot, but also, an eighth of an inch is an ideal thickness, if you can manage it.
Now. This next bit isn't strictly necessary—in the sense that it makes the process more complicated and makes it take longer, and I am giving you the option of not doing it in a transparent grab at your goodwill—so none of this will be boldfaced. Chinese restaurants and fancy home cooks do something called "velveting" to stir-fry meat before they cook it; this is similar to marinating, except geared more toward texture than flavor. If you do it, you'll be glad you did; if you don't, that's probably OK too, in the sense that I am not eating any of your food, whether you velvet it or not.
In short, velveting usually involves coating the raw, sliced meat in a mixture containing cornstarch (and sometimes a small quantity of baking soda), and letting it rest in this mixture for a while before cooking it. There are, like, chemical or alchemical or astrophysical reasons why this produces a tender, velvety texture in meat, but whatever those might be, the point is, doing this gives the meat a tender, velvety texture. Fascinating, isn't it? No, you're right, it isn't.
Anyway, if that sounds like a sweet-ass deal to you, you might decide to velvet your beef before you proceed from here. Good idea! We'll do this in the simplest possible way, to minimize the annoyance. Whisk a tablespoon of cornstarch together with an egg white, a splash of water, and a modest pinch of salt, then pour this over your sliced beef in a big bowl—there should be just enough of this mixture to coat all the beef—and toss it all together with your hands, until it's coated. Slimy! Gross! Salmonella and E.coli, mating before your eyes! Wash your hands. Leave the bowl alone for 10 or 15 minutes. There. You have velveted some beef. You have velveted the hell out of it.
While your beef is velveting (or not velveting, if you skipped that part), prepare vegetation. This is a lotta fuggin' knifework. I'm sorry. It can't be helped.
You can decide for yourself what you want your stir-fry's main vegetable ingredient to be; in truth, it doesn't really make all that big a difference from a cooking standpoint, so long as it comes in—or can be cut into—small, roughly uniform pieces. Baby bok choi is nice; just slice each one in half, vertically. Snow peas are great because you can leave them whole and they're crunchy and beautiful. Chinese broccoli, carrots, friggin' celery, whatever—all that stuff is good. Use what you like. If you can't make up your mind, I'm going to recommend a bunch of scallions, cut into segments the length of your pinkie finger. These are so goddamn good; they'll sweeten as they cook and will taste incredible.
In addition to whatever you choose as your main vegetable, chop up some other stuff, too. Mince a few cloves of garlic; slice half of a big yellow onion into thin strips; peel a one-inch hunk of ginger and cut it into julienne strips; chop a bunch of dried cayenne peppers into one-inch segments; wash a bunch of cilantro and cut the stems—the stems, not the leaves!—into, oh, maybe two-inch lengths (set the leaves aside).
So you chopped and chopped and chopped, then opened a window, frisbeed your knife into the street in white-hot fury, screamed fuck youuuuuuuuu at it, sobbed into your hands for a while, retrieved your knife from the poor FedEx man's back, chopped some more, and now you are done chopping. Put all your vegetable ingredients in separate little bowls, no more than an arm's length from the stovetop. This is important: Once you start cooking, you're going to be working quickly with very high heat, and won't want to turn your back on it to hunt around for stuff.
Now, whip up a small amount of sauce for your stir-fry, which I promise will be a thing you can eat at some point. There are all kinds of stir-fry sauces. Oyster sauce, rice wine, and a pinch of sugar, whisked together, will be fine; if you don't want to track down oyster sauce and rice wine, a combination of good soy sauce, a drizzle of white or rice wine vinegar, and a modest squeeze from the ol' honey bear will be fine, too. You're only going to use a tiny bit of your sauce, so it doesn't need to be an elaborate production. Put a little cup or bowl of this stuff next to the stovetop, too.
OK! Let's do some goddamn cooking, finally, for chrissakes! Heat maybe two cups of peanut oil in your biggest wok or flat-bottomed wok until it's shimmering and hot and your wooden spoon bubbles like mad when you dip it in there. Cook your beef, stirring it gently every few seconds, for maybe two minutes, until it's cooked and browned. (If you're using more than a pound of beef, you'll need to do this in batches to make sure the beef fries in the oil, and not on top of it.) Remove the beef from the wok with a slotted spoon and set it aside on a plate.
(Note: From this point on, unless you have a really huge wok and a really powerful stovetop that can produce screamingly high heat, it's a good idea to work in smaller batches. Trying to stir-fry too much vegetation at once will cool the wok down and cause the vegetables to steam in their own moisture rather than frying, so instead of being brightly colored and crunchy and vividly flavorful when you eat them, they'll be wan and grey and bland and soggy. Cook for one or two people at a time; the extra labor is worth it.)
Pour out almost all of the oil that you used to fry the beef (pour it into an empty glass bottle and let it cool before you cap it and toss it in the garbage), leaving just a couple tablespoons' worth in the wok. Get it very hot; don't let it start smoking, but you need furious heat, here.
Everything is going to happen very quickly, now. It will be harrowing and exhilarating and you will yell I'm freakin' out, man!, but it will be OK. Deep breath. Let's go.
Cook the onion and scallion and dried peppers for a couple minutes, stirring and tossing so they brown here and there but don't burn. It's so hot in the wok! And those scary searing noises—the vegetables sound like they're in pain! Remain calm. Focus. They're going to be fine.
Now, add the garlic and ginger and cilantro stems; these are delicate, and it's so hot in there, so toss and toss and toss to prevent them from burning. Cook them for just maybe 30 seconds or so, just until they're hot and fragrant. Don't let them burn! Oh god are they burning, what do I do, am I burning them.They're OK. Keep them moving.
Add a portion of the cooked beef to the pan; drizzle just a tiiiiiny bit of the sauce in there, too. Like two tablespoons' worth, tops. Juuuust enough to coat the beef and vegetation when you toss it all together. Toss and toss and toss; the beef will heat up and the sauce will get sticky right away. Drizzle the tiniest bit of sesame oil onto the food; two more tosses, and that's it.
Get that food the hell out of there, directly onto a bed of rice, and serve it immediately. Repeat with the next batch. When you are done, excuse yourself, step outside, and punch a stranger directly in the fucking face.
It's time to eat.
So, yeah. That was not some quick, easy-peasy, Drunk Uncle Food. Not remotely. It was complicated and fast-paced and mildly terrifying, and it felt like sprinting across a high-wire over a lava pit and your nerves are shot and your kitchen probably has smoke in it now. The reward is, if you bore down and got through it, you've got some vividly colorful, shockingly fragrant and flavorful, outrageously satisfying food in front of you, and maybe an adrenaline- and endorphin-charged feeling of invincibility and accomplishment.
Sit. Exhale. Eat. Drink a beer. You were marvelous.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. Image by Sam Woolley.