How to Make a Fantastic Vegan Stir Fry

By Erik Marcus

Learning how to make a killer stir-fry can change everything in terms of your vegan cooking abilities. No other cooking skill will carry you farther.

Stir-fries have so many virtues. They’re quite possibly the easiest way to load up your diet with delicious and healthful vegetables. Stir fries need only a tiny amount of cooking oil, so unless you add a rich sauce your meal will generally be quite low in fat—and therefore calories as well. Even a novice cook can quickly learn how to make a terrific stir-fry. You’ll probably get the hang of preparing this dish by our second or third attempt.

Stir fries are usually served over rice or Asian-style noodles. If you’re using brown rice you’ll typically start it before you begin chopping your vegetables. Or, if you’re using white rice, you’ll start it when your stir fry is just underway, since white rice takes under fifteen minutes to cook. For maximum convenience, you can also purchase frozen rice in microwavable bags that’s ready in three minutes. If you end up making stir fries regularly, a rice cooker is a wise investment since you’ll have one fewer distraction while you prepare your meal.

An easy way to jazz up your stir fry is to use an exotic variety of rice. If you’ve never tried purple rice before, it’s a wonderful change of pace, and it brings new flavors and textures.

Required Kitchen Equipment:

Stir-fries require only a few basic pieces of equipment:

  • A quality seven or eight inch chef’s knife. The best moderately-priced chef’s knife on the market is a Victorinox with a Fibrox handle.
  • A large cutting board.
  • Some bowls to keep your chopped vegetables separate.
  • A wok or large skillet.

While you can make a great stir fry in a large skillet, woks do the job better. Woks enable you to keep their bottom surface very hot, which quickly sears your freshly-chopped vegetables. As these vegetables finish searing, you’ll push them up onto the walls of the wok where they will continue to cook at reduced heat. You’ll then add next batch of vegetables for searing against the wok’s bottom.

A traditional wok has a round bottom, and these woks only work well on gas stoves that have a stand placed atop the burner. That’s obviously cumbersome and inconvenient many kitchens. A flat-bottomed wok is therefore better suited for many people. But perhaps the best way to stir fry is to purchase an electric round-bottom wok with a nonstick ceramic polymer surface. Stir fries are one of the best meals in the vegan universe, so if you prepare them several times a week an electric wok can be a worthwhile investment.

Steps to Make a Fantastic Vegan Stir Fry

Apart from cooking your rice or noodles, making a stir fry can be broken down into these steps:

  • Buying vegetables
  • Choosing a protein-rich topping
  • Making a sauce (optional)
  • Cutting up the vegetables
  • Cooking your stir fry.
  • Adding seasonings
vegetable stir-fry
A basic stir-fry over noodles served at an outdoor vegan restaurant in Chiang Rai, Thailand. It cost about a dollar.

Buying Vegetables

Prepare your stir fry with a wide assortment of vegetables and you’ll enjoy more colors, textures, and flavors. I have two rules I try to follow each time I stir fry. First, I try to include as many colors of the rainbow as I can. And second, I always include a rich green leafy vegetable (like kale, spinach, bok choy, or collard greens.)

To further ramp up your stir fry’s nutrition, you might also strive to include:

  • A cruciferous vegetable (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts)
  • A root vegetable (carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes)

Choosing a Protein-Rich Topping

Three traditional protein-rich toppings are tofu, tempeh, or chopped nuts or seeds. You don’t have to add one of these toppings, but if you do your meal will gain staying power, and you won’t be hungry an hour after eating. Plus, these toppings can make a measurable difference in your daily protein intake.

I generally use tofu as my stir fry topping, since it’s cheap, full of protein, and a perfect complement to vegetables. I like to cut my tofu into 2 centimeter thick slices, then cook in oil for at low-medium about four minutes on each side. I’ll usually cook the tofu and then put it aside before I start cooking the vegetables. You can also prepare tempeh this way, but because it’s denser than tofu you’ll cut it more finely—usually a bit more than a half centimeter in thickness.

If you’re going with chopped nuts or seeds as your topping consider peanuts, almonds, cashews, hemp, sunflower, and sesame. You can roast these items in your wok or skillet with a few drops of oil and a dash of tamari beforehand, then put them aside when you begin making your stir fry.

Making a Sauce (Optional)

You might also wish to make a sauce for your stir fry. The classic, unbeatable choice is a basic peanut sauce made from coconut milk, peanut butter, garlic, and ginger. And here are some other ideas for delicious sauces:

  • Lemon juice and garlic
  • Coconut milk with chili paste
  • Vegan teriyaki sauce
  • Maple syrup with ginger

Make your sauce before you begin chopping vegetables, so it’ll be ready to go the moment your stir fry is finished.

Cutting up Vegetables

Here’s a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. The raw vegetables shown below were chopped at the ideal size for a stir fry. Photo courtesy of Joanne Molinaro.

Vegetables Cut for Stir-Fry

The point of stir frying is to sear the vegetables with high heat. If you chop the vegetables at the right size, they’ll be seared on the outside and tender on the inside. But chop the vegetables too coarsely—especially dense vegetables like potatoes—and they won’t get sufficiently cooked through. Chop them too finely and the insides will be mushy.

Bok-choy is one of the most popular vegetables for stir fries, and you should treat the white bottoms and the leafy green tops as if they’re separate vegetables. When chopping bok-choy, separate the white bottoms from the green tops, and add the white bottoms to your stir fry about mid-way through, and the green tops at the very end.

You’ll want to chop substantially more vegetables, measured by volume, than you intend to serve, since your vegetables will shrink down at least 30 percent during cooking—and your greens will shrink down more than 80 percent.

Key Ingredients for A Delicious Vegan Stir Fry

Before I begin stir frying I’ll often saute some minced ginger and garlic in a bit of oil for a minute or two, and then set it aside in a little dish to add back before serving.

Cooking time for different vegetables varies dramatically, so it’s essential to add them to your stir fry in the right order. Here’s a list of popular vegetables, in roughly the order you should add them to your stir fry.

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, radishes
  • Winter squash
  • Onions
  • Peeled broccoli stalks
  • Summer squash
  • Peppers
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli or cauliflower florets, broccoli rabe
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Chopped greens like kale or collards
  • Sprouts (sunflower or mung bean are especially good)
  • Chopped cilantro

As the term stir fry implies, the name of the game is to keep things moving. This is especially true of the vegetables you’ve just added to the bottom of your wok, where the heat is highest. By constantly searing raw surfaces at high heat, you’ll achieve just the right amount of cooking for each vegetable in your stir fry.

Adding Seasonings

If you’re not adding a sauce, as your stir fry finishes cooking you might want to squirt in some tamari for seasoning. I’ll also commonly add a dash of sesame oil for added flavor. Nutritional yeast can also be a delicious topping. If I’ve set aside some sautéed garlic and ginger, I’ll also stir that in right before serving.

You may also want to jazz things up by throwing in some spices right before serving. Spice mixes like cajun powder, curry powder, or an Italian herb mix are all terrific. A little cayenne pepper can add plenty of zing. And if you’ve already sauteed some minced garlic or ginger, be sure to stir that in before serving. Give things a taste before you take your wok off the stove, and add more seasonings if your stir fry is too bland.

Gaining Stir Fry Mastery

Stir fries just might be the easiest way to make ultra-healthful meals that are loaded with vegetables. The variations permitted by different toppings, seasonings, sauces, rices, and choices of vegetables offer an unlimited range of possibilities.

The best way to improve your stir fry skills is to pay a lot of attention when eating your creations. Sample each vegetable separately, and ask yourself if each was perfectly cooked. And don’t fall into in a rut making the same set of vegetables every time. You’ll be surprised how much a rarely-eaten vegetable will enliven a stir fry, and totally change the character of your meal.

And don’t forget to always go for striking color contrasts. Vividly colored vegetables like purple cabbage, red radishes, and orange carrots will elevate the appearance and flavor of your stir fry.

For further reading: Learn everything you need to know about eating vegan and cooking vegan.

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