Culinate

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.