Secrets of Skinny Stir-Frying

Learn how to make great stir-fried dishes and dress them up without blowing your diet.
Secrets of Skinny

Seared meat, crisp, colorful vegetables and a garlicky Asian sauce. Mmm ... the quintessential stir-fry. But if you buy one from your local Chinese restaurant, it's bound to be swimming in oil. You can reap the same great flavor at home without all the fat by relying on some slim cooking techniques. Nutritionist and food writer Robin Vitetta-Miller shares her secrets for scrumptious, healthy stir-fries.

The Right Equipment
Whether you use a wok or your trusty skillet is up to you. But, bear this in mind: "A skillet is just as good as a wok if it's 12 inches or larger," says Vitetta-Miller. Why? The food you're stir-frying needs to come in constant contact with a very hot pan. So you must avoid overcrowding. If your pans are small, consider stir-frying in batches and then reheating the entire meal.

The Meat, Poultry or Tofu
Always cook your meat or poultry first. This way you impart the flavor of the beef, pork or chicken into the pan. Cook tofu first too. Although it won't lend flavor to the pan, it will cook better on its own – seared and browned – than it would tossed in with the raw veggies.

The Vegetables
A key to good stir-frying is careful slicing. "All veggies should be cut into uniform-sized pieces," explains Vitetta-Miller, so that they'll cook in approximately the same amount of time. Smart picks include carrots, zucchini, celery, string beans, broccoli, snap peas and bok choy. Softer veggies such as tomatoes and eggplant tend to get mushy.

If you'd rather skip the slicing altogether, check out some of the frozen stir-fry vegetable mixes at your grocery store. (Vitetta-Miller highly recommends Birds Eye's Pepper Stir-Fry.) You don't even have to bother thawing them.

The Heat
Temperature regulation is crucial to expert stir-frying. To assess the temperature of your pan, Vitetta-Miller suggests drizzling a few drops of water into it. If the water just sits there, the pan is not hot enough; if it evaporates right away, it is too hot. If the pan is the right temperature, she says, "the water will bounce and dance."

The Oil
A small amount of very flavorful oil can impart a tremendous amount of flavor without a lot of calories. Tasty varieties include toasted sesame, roasted peanut and hot chili oil.

The Technique

  • Once you've got everything sliced and diced, and your pan is hot, add a little oil.

  • Warm the oil and then add fresh minced garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for 30 seconds.

  • Quickly add your uncooked meat, poultry or tofu so that the garlic does not burn. Add a dash of soy sauce, season to taste and stir-fry, moving the food constantly, until it's cooked through.

  • Remove the meat or tofu from the pan with a slotted spoon, says Vitetta-Miller, so that the oil and juices remain in the pan to add flavor to your vegetables.

  • Add your veggies, again stir-frying with constant movement. "You want them crisp-tender but not soft," says Vitetta-Miller, so cook them for about 3 to 5 minutes.

  • Add your meat, poultry or tofu back to the pan, mix in a few spoonfuls of the sauce, and warm through.

Vitetta-Miller's Homemade Sauces
All sauces serve four people using 1 pound of meat, chicken or tofu and approximately 4 cups of chopped vegetables. Vitetta-Miller also suggests stocking your fridge with some of the wonderful bottled sauces available at your grocery store. Her favorites include hoisin, black bean and peanut-sate.

Sweet & Sour
1/3 cup apricot preserves or orange marmalade
1 tbsp low sodium soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients together and season to taste.

Creamy Curry
1/2 cup nonfat sour cream
1 tsp curry powder
1 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients together and season with salt and pepper to taste. Thin out with chicken broth, if you desire.

Wild Mushroom
1/2 oz dried porcini or shitake mushrooms
1/2 cup hot water
salt and pepper

Soak mushrooms in water for 15 minutes. Drain, reserve the liquid and set aside. Dice the mushrooms, place them in a small bowl, add the reserved liquid back in and season with salt and pepper to taste. (Note: If you prefer a thicker sauce, dissolve 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in 1/4 cup of cold water; add to the mushroom sauce and mix well.)

Looking for more stir-frying tips and techniques? Check out the ideas in our Cooking Guide's Stir-Frying section.