I probably make this sauce more than any other in the book. When I was in culinary school, we were lucky enough to spend a week learning from Yan Kit So, a wonderful cookbook writer and teacher of traditional Chinese recipes and techniques. I have always loved to cook Chinese food—I made my first dim sum feast at age fourteen. From Yan Kit So, I learned to have a better appreciation of simplicity and how good stir-fry technique can add almost as much flavor as sauce.
Since I don’t have room to spell out the entire technique in detail, I’ll remind you of the key points here: Prep your ingredients carefully and keep them separate. Use a hot wok and be ready to shake and rock it. Infuse your hot cooking oil with aromatics, but don’t let them burn. The aromatics you use will greatly influence the taste of the finished dish. Don’t assume that everything will take the same amount of time to cook. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Err on the side of thin sauces rather than thick.
This recipe is a simple base that can be easily adapted. I use it as written with delicate fresh-tasting vegetables like snow peas, bok choy, or pea shoots. When I want a bolder sauce, I boost it with a dollop of black bean paste or chile sauce. Cornstarch works well as the thickener, but I prefer potato starch because it seems less gluey and the flavor is quite indistinct. Both starches must reach the boiling point, or they will remain opaque and taste raw and starchy.
Let me clarify right up front that using a universal sauce base is not the way to make authentic stir-fried dishes, but it’s a great place to start. In my opinion, the most common mistake people make when creating their own stir-fry sauce is to add too much soy sauce. Think of soy sauce as a seasoning, not a condiment. The primary flavors in your dish should come from the aromatics and the fresh foods you are cooking. I inevitably start my stir-fries by infusing the hot oil with chopped garlic, coins of fresh ginger, and a pinch of chile flakes or a whole dried chile. Little more is needed, but there are plenty of really great Asian condiments that you can buy and add generously. An almost embarrassing amount of the real estate in my fridge is devoted to Chinese sauces and condiments. Start with the Endlessly Adaptable Stir-Fry Sauce and stir in a spoonful of whatever seems right for the night. Here are a few of my favorites.
- 1/2 Teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch
- 1/2 Cup really good chicken stock, vegetable stock, or an appropriate mock stock such as mock chicken, dried shrimp, or mushroom, or as needed
- 1/2 Teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/4 Teaspoon sugar
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper or a pinch of finely ground white pepper (if black specks seem inappropriate for the dish)
Put the starch in a small bowl and gradually stir in the remaining ingredients until smooth.
When your stir-fry ingredients are just cooked, stir the sauce again and pour it into the pan: Pull the food to one side and tilt the pan to make sure the sauce comes to a boil, thickens, and clears. If it seems too sticky, add a bit more stock or water. Toss the ingredients together with the sauce until they are glazed and serve.