100 Techniques

Technique #20: Make Superior Stir-Fries Without a Wok

Make the ultimate quick dinner with no special tools.

Published Oct. 12, 2023.

This is Technique #20 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

Each technique is broken into three sections: why it works, key steps, and recipes that use it. Learn these recipe building blocks and you'll be set up for a lifetime of cooking success.

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Stir-fries are the ultimate quick dinner. They cook in a sizzling-hot flash and offer nearly endless opportunity for a colorful melange of vegetable and protein options.

However, some stir-fries end up soggy with underdone (or, conversely, burnt) vegetables and steamed meat that never browns.

If we had to choose between a nonstick skillet and a wok for making stir fries, we would opt for a wok. But we also know many home cooks have nonstick skillets and might not want to invest in a new pan. It's still possible to make great stir fries in a nonstick skillet.

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Mise en Place Matters

A large nonstick skillet's flat surface allows for more of the food to come in direct contact with the high heat, which ensures the food browns more evenly and efficiently.

But if you’re using a skillet, aren’t you just sautéing? No, because proper ingredient prep and staggered cooking also come into play.

Even a skillet set over high heat won’t get hot enough to quickly stir-fry either large amounts or large pieces of food. So it’s important to cut the ingredients into bite-size pieces and to cook relatively small amounts of food at one time. And because stir-fries cook so fast, it’s essential to have all your ingredients prepped—also known as mise en place—before you start cooking.

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Cook (Quickly) in Stages

Heat the oil until just smoking before beginning to stir-fry (the exception is shrimp, which need medium-low heat). If necessary, cook the protein in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, which will cause the protein to steam rather than sear. Adding other ingredients in stages ensures they all finish cooking at the same time. 

With ingredients that burn easily, it’s better to cook them separately and then combine them at the end. (We often add aromatics last, clearing a space in the center of the skillet and pressing them into the pan so they quickly soften and become fragrant before stirring them into the other ingredients.) And despite the name, don’t stir constantly. Leaving it alone will let your stir-fry brown and caramelize.

Watch our technique in action in this beef stir-fry recipe video.

Step by Step: How to Stir Fry without a Wok

Follow these key steps for a quick, flavorful stir-fry using little more than a nonstick skillet and a wooden spoon.

Step 1: Prep Ahead

Prep all ingredients ahead of time and set next to stove, since cooking will go quickly.

Step 2: Marinate

Cut meat into small pieces. Marinate meat briefly to enhance flavor.

Step 3: Cook Meat in Batches

Cook meat over high heat in batches to avoid overcrowding skillet. Transfer to bowl as each batch is done.

Step 4: Cook Vegetables

Add vegetables to skillet and cook until browned, stirring occasionally.

Step 5: Add Aromatics

Push vegetables to sides of skillet. Add aromatics to center and cook, mashing mixture into skillet, until fragrant. Stir aromatics into vegetables.

Step 6: Add Sauce

Return meat to skillet and toss to combine. Add sauce and cook, stirring constantly, until everything is evenly coated and sauce is thickened.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Use your newfound stir-fry knowledge with any of these recipes.


Stir-Fried Thai-Style Beef with Chiles and Shallots

We wanted to offer up a fresh and full-bodied stir-fry inspired by Thai cuisine with ingredients that were already in the pantry.
Get the Recipe

Teriyaki Stir-Fried Beef with Green Beans and Shiitakes

Stir-frying uses high heat to develop deep flavor quickly. Our technique ensures tender beef and perfectly cooked vegetables.
Get the Recipe

Gōngbǎo Jīdīng (Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken)

Spicy chiles and tingly Sichuan peppercorns team up with lightly sauced chicken and peanuts in a stir-fry that's literally sensational.
Get the Recipe

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