8 Tips to Make Your Stir-Fry More Exciting

August  5, 2015

With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget—without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Stir-fry—the broke kitchener's weeknight standby—just got a little more interesting. 

Basil Beef Stir Fry

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You get home and you open your fridge. Your crisper holds some browning broccoli, limp carrots, and a very questionable lime. You have half of a rotisserie chicken and a half-finished bottle of white wine. Odds are, you're going to make stir-fry: the weeknight staple of budget cooks everywhere, the great user-upper of leftovers. Stir-fry isn't a sexy new dish you read about on a blog or saw in an Ottolenghi cookbook. Stir-fry is reliable, but it's ho-hum. It's what you end up making when you don't know how else to combine the weird elements of your fridge.

But what if we took stir-fry and put it on one of those makeover shows where they give advice on buying the right cut of pants and using lipstick?

Here are 8 tips for jazzing up stir-fry and making sure it doesn't always end up tasting like soy sauce-y randomness. Let's give stir-fry some dignity.

Peanutty, Soy Saucy Tofu

1. Nuts and seeds. 
 might already be regular stir-fry toppers, but it's time to expand your nutty horizons. Add in almonds, cashews, or sesame seeds for crunch and richness. If you add the nuts into your wok with all of the other ingredients, they'll soften as they absorb the sauce, which can be nice. I, on the other hand, prefer to toast the nuts/seeds separately and then sprinkle them over my finished plate, like Parmesan cheese, for optimal crunch.

2. Fresh ginger. 
Ginger will add some serious zing to your stir-fry. Keep a root in your fridge, where it will stay good for a long while. Peel it with a spoon and then grate some into your pan at the same time you add the garlic. (Pro tip: You can grate your garlic, too, for an ultra-quick cook.)

More: Looking for more ways to use your ginger? We've got plenty.

3. Put an egg on it. 
This column has already sung the praises of adding a fried egg many times. Now is not the time to take a different stance: A fried egg really will elevate your stir-fry. The creamy yolk adds richness to the whole dish, rounding out any over-salting or under-seasoning. Plus, you can fry the egg (or two) in the same pan you used to cook the stir-fry, which means no extra dishes. 

4. Marinate your protein.
If you mix up a marinade the night before and allow your meat or sliced/cubed tofu to soak overnight, your protein will be ready to go by dinnertime. To avoid soggy tofu, pre-bake the pieces in a hot oven (I use 375° F) until they're golden-brown before adding them into the stir-fry. 

Japanese Fried Tofu

5. Skip the rice.
Instead of plating your stir-fry over a bed of fluffy rice, try spooning it over a scoop of lentils, quinoa, or noodles"Do not try to bend the spoon..."

6. Vinegar. 
A common plight of the stir-fry is over-saltiness, which is often a result of a heavy reliance on soy sauce. While I love that salty umami kick as much as the next person, it can get very one-note very quickly. A splash of rice vinegar (try dark rice vinegar if you get the chance) adds a welcome punch of acid to the mix without making you feel the need to chug a glass of water.

7. Seaweed. 
Seaweed is crunchy, it's funky, and it's earthy. Give your stir-fry some welcome texture and some can't-quite-place-your-finger-on-it flavor by crumbling strips of dried seaweed over the top as a garnish. For a chewier texture, channel this salad and soak your seaweed for a few minutes in warm water before using it.

8. Fresh herbs. 
Basil is already a stir-fry stalwart, but there's no reason to stop there. Try adding in some parsley or cilantro, or be a Genius and make a paste ahead of time, store it in your freezer, and pop a cube into your pan at a moment's notice. 

Fresh Herb Stir-Fry

How do you make your stir-fry more sexy and less sigh-worthy? Tell us in the comments! 

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Marie N. April 3, 2023
How to make my stir-fry more sexy. Hmm. First, have you considered fruit? Pineapple tidbits to be exact. Second, caramelization can reap a huge difference in flavors. Pineapple tidbits and broccoli florets, both richly caramelized are excellent with beef. Three strong flavors which nicely balance each other in the same dish. Of course, don't leave out the fresh ginger & garlic in this one & garnish with scallions thinly sliced on the bias. If you prefer vegan, go for caramelized mushrooms instead of beef.
Tiki T. June 3, 2016
Fish sauce. When used sparingly will not add a fishy flavor but will round out the boring soy sauce ginger garlic seasoning, bringing it to a new level
Sloan Q. August 15, 2015
Oyster sauce. Definitely oyster sauce. Soy sauce problem solved.
Eli B. August 6, 2015
and y'all, always VELVET YOUR CHICKEN:
SeasonToTaste August 5, 2015
Wasabi peas are a crunchy addition that I love for both stir fries and salads, and they work for people with nut allergies!
Sarah J. August 5, 2015
Wow! Love that idea.
Catherine L. August 6, 2015