Stir crazy

How to make killer stir-fry sauces

By
August 25, 2009

Everything I know about making a great stir-fry sauce I learned at my local Mongolian grill. Okay, maybe not everything, but it’s a good place to start.

You know the sauce station at the Mongolian place? The ingredients include soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger and garlic (minced and suspended in water or brine), rice-wine vinegar, rice wine, hot oil, and sesame oil. A matrix of suggested proportions invites you to create your own sauce with half a ladle of this, a full ladle of that.

Here’s the key: It’s almost impossible to make a bad sauce. Call it the Mongolian Principle. If you put in a little extra soy sauce or sesame oil, who cares? It’ll still taste good.

So if you’ve been to a Mongolian barbecue place, you’ve already created your own stir-fry sauce, and it came out fine. Guess what? You can do the same thing at home and it’ll be great. You don’t need to buy those bottled stir-fry sauces, which are inevitably too sweet and too expensive.

In fact, as inauthentic as Mongolian barbecue restaurants are, their sauce stations are little different from the way a Chinese-restaurant cook creates a sauce, by dipping a ladle into various base ingredients and mixing it up on the fly.

thai chicken and squash
Thai-Style Stir-Fried Squash with Chicken, Ginger, and Scallions

So I’m going to tell you how to shop for those base ingredients and how to combine them.

I’m going to concentrate on Chinese stir-fries. If you’re interested in stir-fry flavorings from other parts of Asia, check out the sidebar. (And if you want to learn about real Mongolian barbecue, by all means read up on the outdoor version.)

Before we get started, a quick review: When you make a stir-fry, you add the sauce at the end, after the food is fully cooked. Why? Because stir-fry sauces can burn or over-reduce quickly. So cook the food first, add the sauce, let it boil, and serve the dish immediately.

And you’ll notice that when it comes to aromatics — garlic, ginger, scallions — I’m sometimes cagey about whether these are part of the sauce or belong to the stir-fry itself. Generally I add them just before adding the sauce. That way they get a bit of contact with the hot pan, which produces a wonderful fragrance, but they don’t overcook. But nothing bad will happen if you add some grated ginger or garlic directly to the sauce.

The ingredients

Let’s walk through three levels of stir-fry-sauce ingredients, organized by order of shopping difficulty. Level One ingredients are available in all supermarkets. Level Two ingredients may require a trip to an Asian grocery. And Level Zero . . .

Level Zero

You don’t have to go around pouring sauce on everything, people! Stir-fried fresh greens seasoned only with ginger, salt, and perhaps a drizzle of sesame oil are fantastic.

Level One

Okay, but what is life without sauce? Armed with just a handful of ingredients from a Western supermarket, you can make a great one.

The key ingredients are (with my recommended brands in parentheses):

Soy sauce (Kikkoman)
Dry sherry
Cornstarch
Sugar
Chile-garlic sauce (Huy Fong)
Toasted sesame oil (Kadoya)
Chicken or vegetable stock (this is optional, but often useful)

Here’s a sauce to get you started:

2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons chile-garlic sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil

I am making this up off the top of my head, but I’m sure it will be great — remember the Mongolian Principle — and will sauce up to a pound of stir-fried protein and vegetables.

Which protein and which vegetables? It doesn’t matter. Sure, there are classic combinations — sauce X with pork, sauce Y with a particular vegetable. I will talk about a couple below. But feel free to leap in and get started, and don’t worry about what goes with what. It’s like wine matching: Nothing will explode if you drink your favorite white wine with steak, and it might even be great.

Sugar and cornstarch are optional. If you use them, especially in large quantities (more than, say, 1 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 tablespoon sugar for four servings), you’ll produce something akin to a lunch special at a Chinese-American restaurant. Sometimes this is exactly what I want.

Level Two

Moving into Asian-grocery territory, you can expand your sauce pantry significantly, enough to create a variety of different sauces. (And many Western supermarkets carry these ingredients, too.)

Dark soy sauce (Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Soy Sauce). It’s a bit sweet, and gives food (especially meat) an attractive brown color; it’s great with beef. Use it along with regular soy sauce.

Rice-wine vinegar (Kong Yen). Yes, this is sold in supermarkets, but most supermarkets carry just the Marukan brand, which I find too sweet.

Rice wine. When you find this, use it instead of dry sherry. Salted shaoxing rice wine for cooking is just fine.

Black vinegar (Kong Yen). Also known as Chinkiang vinegar, this is a flavored vinegar, lightly sweetened, with a fruity tang similar to Worcestershire sauce.

Oyster sauce (Mae Krua). Salty and loaded with umami flavor, oyster sauce is especially good with stir-fried greens. It’s made from oysters, but doesn’t taste like them.

Hoisin sauce (Koon Chun). You’ll probably recognize this as the sweet stuff you spread on pancakes with mu shu pork. It’s also good in stir-fry sauces, and because it’s thick and sweet, you don’t need to use sugar or cornstarch when using hoisin.

Hot bean paste (Lee Kum Kee). This ingredient is typical in Sichuan-style stir-fries, and it’s not as spicy as it looks. It’s great with pork, especially ground pork.

Fermented black beans. These salty soybeans are sold in plastic bags, have an unmistakable funky presence in food, and go great with chicken. Rinse before using or they will be too salty.

This entire shopping list will run you maybe $15, and the ingredients keep indefinitely.

Putting it all together

Let’s look at a couple of sauces concocted by trained professionals so you can see how easy this is.

Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty, makes a mean rendition of fish-fragrant pork slivers. This classic dish contains no fish but tastes like it must have a panoply of rare ingredients in its sauce. Actually, the sauce consists of nothing more than sugar, black vinegar, soy sauce, salt, starch, and stock.

How about Henry Hugh’s Lotus Root with Sugar Snaps, as seen in Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok? Again, the sauce includes just chicken stock, rice wine, oyster sauce, salt, and pepper. (The chapter with this recipe, on stir-frying vegetables, also offers many examples of delicious Level Zero sauceless stir-fries.)

One last bit of advice: If you want to make a lemon- or orange-flavored sauce, use a combination of freshly squeezed juice and zest.

Now go forth and improvise. As you do, keep calm. Remember the Mongolians.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 25, 2009 at 11:12 AM PDT

A couple of other things that I couldn’t figure out how to squeeze in.

1. Orange juice concentrate works really well if you want to make a sauce that tastes like Orange Chicken from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant.

2. Sesame oil is strong stuff and should be used sparingly. It’s one of the few ingredients that can ruin a stir-fry if you use too much. Start with a little bit (like a teaspoon) and add more to the finished dish if you think it needs some.

Did I leave out any of your favorite stir-fry sauce ingredients? Please let me know.

2. by Melissa Wood on Aug 25, 2009 at 11:29 AM PDT

This is great - I love stir fry so much but usually just fly by the seat of my pants when making a sauce. Works for the most part, but it’s great to have a bit of a guideline and ingredient list to start with!

3. by Hank Sawtelle on Aug 25, 2009 at 11:39 PM PDT

Nice one mamster. I’ve been doing this without really thinking about it. Chicken stock is nice, but a little water works too as a volumizer - I like a lot of sauce. I leave out the sugar and use mirin (sweetened rice wine) because the rice vinegar I use is pretty tart. I use fish sauce sometimes for umami, and ponzu instead of soy for a little citrus kick. Also, everything is better with sriracha (I like the Dynasty brand, but I prefer almost any brand to Huy Fong, which contains sodium bisulfate and tastes bitter to me). The ingredients will keep indefinitely, with the exception of sesame oil. I’ve managed to let one or two of those go rancid (a by-product of my tendency to have 2-3 open bottles of each ingredient in my cabinets at any given time). I realize that none of the above are “Chinese”, but whatevs.

4. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 26, 2009 at 8:16 AM PDT

Hey, Hank, I also use mirin sometimes. I keep my sesame oil in the fridge and buy relatively small quantities. My peanut oil also stays in the fridge; I bring them out when I start prepping and they melt enough to dispense within ten minutes or so.

Ponzu is a good idea; I’ve used it as a dipping sauce but never in a stir-fry sauce. Will do.

5. by Jessie Voigts on Aug 26, 2009 at 4:08 PM PDT

SUPER yum. we don’t eat enough asian food, since we are an hour from an asian grocery (gasp!). however, we’re heading there on friday and will stock up. i can’t WAIT!

thanks for these great tips.

6. by Holly on Sep 1, 2009 at 8:47 AM PDT

That may be the first time anyone has invoked the Mongolians as a calming mantra! LOL

7. by Jane on Sep 13, 2009 at 9:48 AM PDT

Thanks for this!

Yesterday I went out and bought some of the “level 1” and “level 2” ingredients and made my first Asian stir fry. I can’t even remember what I put in the sauce, but it was surprisingly good. I don’t always eat enough veggies, and I think this trick is definitely going to help in that endeavor.

8. by Zupan's Markets on Sep 14, 2009 at 10:55 AM PDT

You’ve made a really important point with your article--the sauce/seasonings are the most crucial and most creative part of cooking. With the right ingredients, anyone (kids included!) can have a tremendously fun time experimenting and always coming up with a tasty concoction. We love the “Mongolian Principle” for most any style of cuisine.

9. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 14, 2009 at 11:18 AM PDT

Jane, I’m delighted to hear that. One of my favorite things to do when stir-frying is to combine a small amount of meat with a large amount of vegetables. I always find it totally satisfying, and I love meat.

Zupan, I’d love to expand the idea. Can you think of other types of cooking where you can combine ingredients so freely and almost always get a good result? Thanks!

10. by PlantingOaks on Sep 30, 2009 at 5:40 PM PDT

If you like your sauce to have some heat, the easiest thing is dried red pepper flakes (the same kind you see on the table at your local pizzeria). I thought it was really strange that they worked in asian food as well as on pizza, but they’re perfect.

11. by michael p on Apr 19, 2010 at 4:55 PM PDT

Well thanks to you I just ate one of the finest meals I have ever created. Props.

12. by anonymous on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:30 AM PDT

Nice article. I’d point out that “fish-fragrant” is the literal translation of “魚香”, which actually refers to a heavy garlic sauce (which kinda smells fishy). I’m surprised there is no garlic in your “fish-fragrant” sauce then, since that is the defining ingredient...?

13. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jul 21, 2010 at 7:40 AM PDT

anonymous, the garlic is used separately as an aromatic in the recipe, not as part of the sauce. I would bet the term “fish-fragrant” isn’t supposed to signify that the sauce smells like fish, since fishiniess is generally considered a sin in Chinese cookery. Right?

14. by anonymous on Jul 21, 2010 at 3:39 PM PDT

I’m not sure that fishiness is a sin or not (I’ve had some pretty fishy things in some places). I’m also not a cooking expert but I feel like the aromatic/sauce distinction is not the most accurate paradigm for chinese cooking. I feel the flavors of a dish are created bit by bit, starting by adding things like chili bean paste or fermented black beans into the oil at the very beginning.

This is a video that demonstrates 魚香肉絲 (“fish-fragrant pork slivers” is as good a translation as any other :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aIzs-feqj0

I noted that the garlic is indeed added earlier than some of the other “sauce” ingredients like sugar. But the idea that the chef mixes up a sauce and adds it at the end is a bit inaccurate.

Similarly you can observe the cooking method in garlic eggplant (魚香茄子).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Wc7IUVT1CU&feature=related

Thanks for your response. I’ve definitely learned a few things while thinking about what you said and watching these youtube videos.

15. by Lara on Oct 5, 2010 at 1:22 AM PDT

Thanks for the suggested stirfry sauce. I used hoi sin as well and it turned out a treat.... I’m going for 2nds!! Thanks again. Very informative.

16. by anonymous on Nov 14, 2010 at 1:53 PM PST

Hi,
I think this looks fantastic. I went to Lee Kum Kee’s website to look for their Hot Bean Paste...and I couldn’t find it. Is it actually named “Hot Bean Paste”? I have an Oriental Market that covers I think just about all cooking specialities from those nations...it is pretty well stocked. The only problem, a lot of the items I can’t read the labels, but I can match pictures really well. :) I love to go in there and just browse and bring new items home to try from the different aisles for the me and the kids. If you could clarify, I’d really appreciate it.

18. by Laurie Cohen on Jan 12, 2011 at 3:11 PM PST

Since I like to create my own sauces this article told me nothing new. I was hoping for more, like lobster flavored white sauce or the tasty brown sauce that covers the chinese food I take out, or even a version of the orange sauce that is sweet and sour.

19. by LizEllen on Jan 27, 2011 at 10:54 AM PST

I usually freestyle my sauces, but it seems like they’ve been getting too heavy lately. (No more reenactment of the best peanut panang of my lifetime, please.)

Last night I used your very basic recipe above, except I didn’t have sherry and subbed 1 tablespoon of vermouth and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. I made mine with mixed veggies and chicken. As I added the sauce, I also added half of a left over bag of cabbage (the kind you add sauce to to make coleslaw).

It was excellent and light and not too saucy. Just was I was looking for. Thanks for the advice. Go Mongolia!

20. by Thi Vu on Feb 26, 2011 at 11:07 PM PST

Hello Matthew,

I am an Industrial Design student from the University of Houston working on a kitchen product project and I am researching about stir frying. My research is really broad at the moment because I am trying to find interesting areas to focus in on. Is there any interesting non-bias facts or common issues of stir frying that you can inform me of or simply point me in the right direction to look for answers about stir frying that will my design process? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank-you so very much for your help.

21. by drfugawe on Jan 12, 2012 at 6:00 AM PST

Some nice ideas here - much appreciated. My experience, Chinese stir fry sauce wise, is much the same, I’d bet, as many other cooks - the very best dish I ever made was -contrary to my usual heavy handed, free-form style- super simple, and only contained a few ingredients. I clearly remember thinking as I lovingly ate each bite, ‘surely I’ll remember this simple sauce, and how perfectly delicious it is’. And although I swear I did remember it, I’ve never had that ‘perfectly delicious’ experience again in quite the way I did back then!

To me, what this suggests is that there’s more to this than just a list of ingredients - there’s a fine balance of flavors, and the relationship of those ingredients to the changing other players in the dish - add to that the nature of variable taste of the various brands of those key ingredients (and our own changing ability to ‘taste’), and consistency becomes a complex mystery.

Sorry for this left turn, but it was all I could think of as I read your good post.

22. by anonymous on Feb 29, 2012 at 1:25 AM PST

I really appreciate the you-can’t-go-wrong/ have fun experimenting/play and enjoy and eat what tastes good to you quality of this article. Thank you! And most helpful as well.

23. by Pete on Feb 29, 2012 at 4:14 PM PST

Try some Chinese soy sauce. A little different flavor than the ubiquitous Kikkoman and a lot more authentic.

24. by anonymous on Nov 26, 2012 at 5:40 PM PST

Thank you, this is so helpful. I now know what I was doing wrong with my sauces. Can’t wait to try a stir fry tomorrow!

25. by anonymous on Dec 18, 2012 at 5:54 PM PST

Loved your article. We just had the happy coincidence of dieting and eating only veggies and a bit of brown rice. I pulled out some of my sauces and will definitely expand - came online to do some research about the sauces I have in the fridge and I’m not deterred. My husband and I agree we could eat the stir fry (whatever veg we have on hand) often.

26. by Amanda on Dec 21, 2012 at 11:16 AM PST

I am new at making my own sauces. I LOVED this article and had all of the basic ingredients on hand. My whole family loved it, including my 5 kids ages 4-15, and they are VERY picky eaters. They even ate all of their vegetables. Thanks for changing our lives with your great tips!!

27. by Diane on Sep 6, 2013 at 10:48 AM PDT

WHAT A WONDERFUL WEALTH OF INFO !!!!!!!!!!!! THANK YOU EVERYONE

28. by k. chambers on Jan 9, 2014 at 1:05 AM PST

Trouble sleeping, tooling around online and found this page. 20 minutes later I’m back with a bowl of rice, veggies, chicken, and a delicious sauce at 4 am. I went shopping yesterday and purchased most of the stuff listed. No need to ever buy a pack of asian sauce mix. Thanks!

29. by anonymous on Jan 30, 2014 at 5:07 PM PST

Thanks for helping me realize that I can “fly by the seat of my pants”! I’m. Gonna try a little lighter sauce than I usually make and mix in some bay scallops that I’ll cook separately...

30. by Arcy on Mar 31, 2014 at 3:58 PM PDT

You make me feel so good--I have a refrigerator full (and I mean full) of various Oriental bottles of sauces, spices and pastes. I mix and match at will feeling guilty all the time for not following a recipe. Now I can proceed at will and quote your advice. Most of the recipes on the internet are ghastly sweet and I would not use them--ever.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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