Two of the keys to a great stir fry are mise en place and timing.
You want each vegetable in your stir fry to be perfectly cooked. But, since different vegetables cook at different rates, that’s easier said than done.
After over a decade of professional cooking which included years of manning a busy wok station, I’ve learned a thing or two (sometimes the hard way) about vegetable cooking times.
So, sharpen your knives and start heating up your wok, it’s time to cook.
Vegetable Cooking Times
I’ve found it’s helpful to organize stir fry ingredients into a few simple categories when you’re thinking about cooking times, and planning your meal. This means there are fewer individual details to remember, which makes life easier when you’re cooking over a hot flame.
Instead of parsing out carrots and squash, think of them collectively as “hard vegetables.”
Likewise, you can mentally group soft vegetables, leafy greens, and aromatics.
I’ll explain which ingredients fit in each category, and how long to cook them in more detail below. Fortunately, I think you’ll find these groupings are fairly intuitive based on how the ingredients look and feel.
1. Aromatics: 10-30 Seconds
Aromatics provide a lot of aroma and flavor to a stir fry.
The most important ingredients to know here are ginger, garlic, and scallion whites (GGS), the holy trinity of Chinese cooking. Similar to Mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) in French cuisine.
You can certainly use the entire scallion, greens and all in your stir fry. But more commonly, you’ll cook the white bottoms and use the green tops raw, as a garnish.
While these items only require a very little amount of cooking time, they are generally the first things added when making a stir fry. And, you don’t really have to worry about overcooking them.
The point here is to quickly infuse your cooking oil, which everything else will then be cooked in. But be careful as these ingredients, garlic in particular, can be quick to burn and turn bitter.
Here’s a quick rundown of all the “aromatic” ingredients you should expect to be working with when cooking a stir fry. Each one only requires 10-30 seconds of cooking time:
- Dried Chilis
- Fermented Black Beans
- Garlic Chives
Temperature Control: If you’re nervous about burning your aromatics, go ahead and add your next round of ingredients almost immediately after they hit the pan. This will quickly cool down the oil and the pan to help keep your aromatics from burning.
2. Hard Vegetables: 1-5 Minutes
Next comes the vegetables that require a little more time to cook.
These are the hard or firm veggies that you want to soften and make more tender before you eat them. Think carrots, broccoli, and winter squash.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most common “hard vegetable” for stir fry:
- Winter Squash
- Brussels Sprouts
- Green Beans
There’s definitely a lot of personal preference that comes into play here, which is why there’s a fairly broad cooking time range. You may prefer your carrots crunchy or even close to raw. If that’s the case you can use the shortest amount of time, or add them later with some of the faster cooking vegetables.
With items like butternut or acorn squash, you’ll generally want to cook those all the way through. So, those might take the full 5 minutes of cooking time.
It’s very important, especially with the harder vegetables, that everything is cut into bite-size or even smaller pieces. With squash, you might even consider shaving them thin on a mandoline.
This will help keep the cooking times short so you don’t risk burning or overcooking any of the other items.
3. Soft Vegetables: 1-2 Minutes
Softer vegetables are ones that you want to heat through and maybe get a little charred while maintaining some texture and crunch.
This section includes things such as bell and hot peppers, thinly sliced mushrooms, and all sorts of peas (snow, snap, and english):
- Bell Peppers
- Hot Peppers
- Snow Peas
- Snap Peas
- English Peas
Peas and peppers both benefit from short cook times because it helps keep their color vibrant and crunch intact. And having a variety of colors and textures is generally better than everything being drab and limp.
While mushrooms are fairly soft, they can straddle the line between this and the “hard vegetable” category. You can cook them very quickly to maintain some texture, or you can go for a longer cook time to develop more caramelization. Just be careful as they can release a lot of liquid which is the enemy of a good stir fry.
4. Leafy And Canned Vegetables: 1 Minute Or Less
Most of the leafy vegetables that you would use in a stir fry require very little cooking time. The goal here is to wilt and maybe get a little blistering on the leaves before they start to release tons of liquid into your stir fry.
So, toss these in at the very end of the cooking process. If you can even give them some direct contact with the hot pan you might even get a little blistered and charred goodness.
Canned vegetables also fall into this minimal cooking category. These items are generally fully cooked and already very soft. And since they are stored in liquid, it’s not usually worth trying for any char or caramelization. These just need to be heated through.
- Bok Choy
- Pea Shoots
- Bean Sprouts
- Baby Corn
- Mustard Greens
- Water Chestnuts
- Bamboo Shoots
5. No Cooking Required
Some items in a stir fry are actually better without any cooking whatsoever. You could consider these garnishes and not vegetables at all, but I think they deserve a mention here.
Fresh herbs and toasted sesame oil are a couple of the most important ones in this category. Fresh herbs can quickly brown and shrink to nothing when cooked for any amount of time. Keeping these raw will add brightness and contrast to your stir fry.
Sesame oil is the quintessential finishing oil for many stir-fries. By adding it after the cooking is done you’ll get the most out of its aroma and flavor.
- Fresh Herbs
- Hot Chilis
- Pickled Vegetables
- Sesame Oil
- Crushed Peanuts
Working With Frozen Vegetables
While fresh vegetables are great, there’s no denying the convenience that frozen vegetables bring to the table.
If you’re going to be using frozen vegetables in a stir fry, it can be very helpful to thaw them first. This does two things.
First, it will help keep your pan from cooling down too much when the vegetables are added. And maintaining a high temperature is one of the keys to a good stir fry.
Second, it helps get rid of some excess moisture. This will also keep the temperature of your pan up and can help keep things from getting too soggy.
Batch And Par Cooking
Batch cooking is simply cooking individual items or groups of items separately. Instead of adding things to your pan in order of what takes the longest to cook, you might cook your protein first, then your hard veg, then your soft veg. Emptying your pan between each item or group of items and then combining everything afterward.
This is a way to avoid overcrowding your pan and ensure each item is cooked to your desired doneness.
Many professional kitchens utilize par cooking as a way to keep cooking times down. This is a method where items that may take longer to cook are partially cooked ahead of time.
This could mean blanching broccoli or roasting squash so that it’s most if not all the way cooked before it’s added to your stir fry.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Kind Of Oil Should I Use For My Stir Fry?
The best oils for stir fry are those with a high smoke point. Grapeseed, peanut, and canola oil are a few great options. These will allow you to cook at the high temperatures necessary for a stir fry, without burning.
What’s The Best Kind Of Pan For Stir Fry?
A wok is the best pan for stir fry cooking. A good wok is designed to get very hot and easily toss ingredients for fast and even cooking. If you don’t have a wok, a frying pan or skillet can be used as well.
Can I Use A Lid To Speed Up The Cooking Time?
Using a lid while stir-frying will trap moisture and can cause your vegetables to steam rather than fry. This will often lead to softer and more limp vegetables and is generally not recommended for stir-frying.