4 Genius Stir-Fry Tricks You (Probably) Don’t Know Yet

August  3, 2016

When you stir-fry, there is a basic promise: You can have dinner—and a slightly elevated heart rate—in under 10 minutes.

This of course is assuming you’ve cut your vegetables and aromatics and meat into modest, same-sized pieces, so they’ll cook quickly and evenly—and that you have a wok or comparable lightweight skillet you can get really hot.

If both of these are true, then in less time than it takes your rice to steam, you'll rip the heat, stir-stir-stir, and find yourself looking down at a bright, flavorful pile of dinner, with half a podcast left to go. Better still, your kitchen will barely have had a chance register a disturbance in temperature.

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There's a good reason for this. “It was the legendary Chinese cooking expert Florence Lin who first explained to me that Cantonese weather—hot and humid throughout the year—prompted the Cantonese style of stir-frying,” Grace Young wrote to me. As Lin explained it, “’In the summer months when temperatures climb to well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, no one wants to stand in front of a stove longer than necessary.’”

Photo by Bobbi Lin

You may already know all of these things from Young herself, the prolific Poet Laureate of the Wok and author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and The Breath of a Wok. But there’s still much more to learn from her, more stir-fry habits you can work into your muscle memory.

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Top Comment:
“Can't wait to try this! Just a note, though, eggplant are not vining veggies. They grow on an upright, large leaved plant that would not be out of place as a houseplant in a bright, warm room.”
— Mother D.

In this simple, lovely, 10-minuter of a summer eggplant recipe, Young teaches us four standout tricks you can apply to many stir-fry dinners:

1) You can use a tiny bit of meat to season an entire meal. A mound "the size of a golfball," writes Young—a tablespoon per person, if we’re talking about a side dish; maybe two a person if this is dinner.

Young learned this technique from her friend Peipei Chang, who would start with a small piece of pork and cut it into bits with a cleaver—which is quite cool if you’ve ever wondered what to do with an odd leftover scrap, but ground pork will work just as well.

Look at that mise! Photo by Bobbi Lin

2) Mixing cold water into the meat helps keep things tender. That way, when the meat hits the hot wok, it'll get a cushion of steam, not just searing oil.

3) While you’re at it, season the meat too. It's easy to assume that stir-fries will get all their flavor from the concentrated sauce and high ratio of surface area to inners, but if you’re already mincing ginger and scallions for other parts of the recipe, why not layer them in a bit earlier, too? This can be the difference between a good stir-fry and a soulful one.

4) You can cook with scent alone. At the very end of the stir-fry, plunk in a couple smashed whole cloves of garlic off the heat and cover the wok. Pull the cloves out for serving, so no one gets a mouthful of fire. The raw perfume of the garlic will linger, without the bite.

Ready? Let's go. Because right now, with the eggplants curling hot from their vines, dinner in ten couldn't sound better.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by Bobbi Lin

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mother Daniel
    Mother Daniel
  • Kristen Miglore
    Kristen Miglore
  • Lynda Whitney
    Lynda Whitney
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Mother D. August 7, 2016
Can't wait to try this! Just a note, though, eggplant are not vining veggies. They grow on an upright, large leaved plant that would not be out of place as a houseplant in a bright, warm room.
Kristen M. August 8, 2016
Thanks for your comment—interesting! Would you consider tomatoes not vining vegetables either? I confess I don't know much about botany or gardening yet (I live in a tiny apartment with no outdoor space), but I aspire to have a big garden like the ones I grew up with one day soon.
Lynda W. January 15, 2020
You are so cute, Kristen. But eggplants grow as sturdy bush-like plants as pepper plants do, but bigger and with gorgeous purple blooms.