Whereas slow cooking allows flavors to develop and harmonize over an extended period, stir-frying is fierce, quick and hot. As a result, the individual ingredients of stir-fry sauces can appear bold and one-dimensional, but when combined the effect is often mesmerizing. To counter the lack of wok time, use some of the ingredients first in a marinade, and make sure prep is complete before firing up the gas.
The key to authentic Asian stir-fry is to incorporate and balance sweet, spice, salt and sour notes. Sugar or honey provides the sweetness, chili flakes or Szechuan peppercorns the spice, soy sauce the saltiness and either rice vinegar or lime juice the sourness. Once the right blend is achieved, add chicken stock to build volume and cornstarch to give a smooth, velvety texture. Stir-fry progresses quickly, however, so the cornstarch and water need to be mixed beforehand to make a smooth emulsion. Whatever the sauce being used, garlic, ginger and scallions constitute the standard aromatics for Asian stir-fry. Experiment with slicing techniques to maximize surface area, since the goal is to brown, not steam, the aromatics.
Apart from the fresh ingredients, cooks will need a handful of trusty stalwarts in the pantry. Soy sauce is essential, but bear in mind that light soy sauce is saltier than dark. Since soy sauce is such a vital component, it is worth looking for an authentic brand from a dedicated Asian grocery. The sauce should carry the aroma of fermentation and have the texture of balsamic vinegar. Cheap brands, by comparison, can be thin and synthetic.
Oyster sauce is similarly sweet and salty, a blend of oyster essence, cornstarch, sugar and salt. Vegetarian versions substitute mushroom extract for oyster. The sauce’s role is to contribute umami, or mouthfeel, to dishes such as noodles or vegetables, particularly chow mein. Cheaper brands, though, feign texture with MSG.
Fish sauce, a clear but pungent anchovy extract, is common in Thai, Vietnamese and Cantonese stir-fry. Its saltiness makes it a potential substitute for soy sauce, but some find the aroma repugnant. Hoisin sauce, on the other hand, contributes sweet, tangy and salty flavors. Made from fermented soybeans, red chili and garlic, the sauce is also used as a glaze for ribs and duck.
Black bean sauce and garlic sauce come in a thicker paste. Stir into chicken, pork or beef stir-fry dishes for texture. Chili oil, by contrast, comes as a clear oil infused with whole red chili peppers.
Arguably the simplest sauce is the Vietnamese blend of chicken stock, fish sauce and sugar. Although a versatile, all-around stir-fry sauce that goes well with meat, fish and vegetables, it starts off with a simple combination of garlic, ginger and scallions sauteed in sesame oil; and finishes with sugar, rice vinegar, soy sauce, cornstarch and chicken stock. For a simple sweet and sour sauce, substitute ketchup for sugar and whisk together with soy sauce and rice vinegar or lime juice. Adding chili flakes or chili oil will create a hot and sour sauce, a feature of Szechuan cuisine.
Thai stir-fry tends to favor a thicker sauce. A perfect accompaniment to thick noodles, this sauce requires lime juice, soy sauce, coconut milk, chili flakes and sugar. Fish sauce is key, but just a tablespoonful will do as the flavor is potent. For a satay sauce, hold off on the acid flavors and combine peanut butter, chili sauce, water and soy sauce.