HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Any tips for stir-frying beef (and other meats)?

I can't quite seem to master the meat component of home stir fry. I'm pretty good at the concepts of stir frying and can deliver great veggie dishes, shrimp, ground meats, etc.

It's the slices of meat, in particular beef, that don't seem to work as well. Mostly, there's a toughness issue. There's also a side challenge of making the meat not seem boiled. And then there's the market selections that have too much fat for a quick cook situation.

It seems most Chinese stiry fry has soft, easy to chew meat - and it's most likely not made from the finest beef. Japanese stir fry, on another hand, can seemingly have bits of beef that almost have a fire grilled quality before being stirred into noodles, etc. In both cases, the meat is part of the whole dish, rather than a component that needs extra chewing. Know what I mean?

So is there a technique issue I'm missing, such as pounding with a hammer? Or certain cuts that should be bought? Or a combo of things?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Do you cook your meat separately from the veggies? That's one thing I do. Usually, recipes call for cooking the veggies first, then remove them. Reheat the wok, add more oil, cook the meat on high heat. Lower the heat a tad, add the veggies, and stir briefly over heat. This is where you add sauces, seasonings, etc.

    1. i always coat the sliced meat (any cut will do) in a little cornstarch and fry it in a couple tablespoons of oil. i also add a couple of slices of ginger and garlic while i do this. then, i remove the meat to drain on some paper towels. add garlic to the pan and add more oil if necessary and stir fry the vegetables until just tender. add the meat back into the pan and then add your sauce ingredients except for the cornstarch slurry which i would add last. stir-frying should always be done at the highest heat, so make sure you do all the prep before turning the heat on.

      1. I believe Chinese restuarants marinate the beef in cornstarch to tenderize it. And there's also a technique called oil blanching where you blanch the beef in oil as opposed to stir-frying it, lending a more tender texture.

        Also, Chinese frequently use flanksteak, cut across the grain, for stir-fries. Cutting across the grain is crucial to get the right consistency.

        1. Very thin slices, very high heat, very little time in the wok!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            I have always found it was better to quickly sear the meat and remove from wok, then cook the vegetables.......return meats to wok, add seasonings and serve.

            I would also suggest you marinate first in a combination of soy sauce, sherry and cornstarch.....the sherry is the key.

            You did not mention, but what cuts/types of meats are you using for your stir fry? Are you purchasing pre-packaged pre-sliced from the supermarket?........Pay close attention to how you are slicing your meats......make sure you slice across the grain and on a bias.... Flank and Hanger Steaks are very good for stir frys......London Broil is not.

          2. I think you are over the cooking the beef. It is best not to directly add raw beef to hot oil without some kind of coating to protect the meat. I like to use peanut oil because of its high smoke point.

            Try this:

            Mix a small amount of Chinese Shao Xing Wine, (use regular Sherry if you don't have it) soy sauce and corn starch to make a little slurry. Then marinate your beef in this for at least 30 minutes. (You can also add other ingredients to this slurry/marinade as you like: garlic, ginger...or scallions or hot chillies etc.)

            Quickly stir fry the beef first over high high heat with a bit of oil. Be sure to remove the beef before it is cooked through! Remove from the heat and set aside. (Drain if you like or you can add the juices back later.)

            Then clean the wok or frying pan and stir fry your vegies. Add a bit of chicken stock and salt to taste. Add the mostly cooked beef as the vegie mixture comes to a boil and stir for a few seconds. The cornstarch slurry mixture will help thicken the sauce. As soon as it all boils remove from heat. Sprinkle a few drops of sesame oil on top for aroma and serve!

            Chinese most often use flank steak for stir fry beef dishes. More expensive cuts like sirloin work great as well.

            Alternatively, you can skip the marinade and try coating the sliced raw beef slices in egg white. This helps provide a protective coating as well.

            Another tip: if you are slicing your vegies, slice the meat. If you are cutting you vegies into slivers or strips, then do so as well with the beef.

            1. Three things:

              1. Marinate (or coat) in cornstarch

              2. High heat

              3. Slice thin.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit

                to make slicing the meat thin easier, put in the freezer for a bit(20-30 mins) and it becomes much easier to slice thinly across the grain. I like to marinate in some sherry and black soy then drain and shake lightly in cornstarch before stir frying. Hot wok-cold oil is the mantra for a proer stir fry. do the meat first, about 3/4 done then wipe out the wok and heat, stir fry the vegs and add back the meat and sauce ingredients.then cook just til hot.

              2. A stir fry rule is: cook the protein first, remove it from the oil, set aside, and stir it in the rest of the stir fry again at the end. As others have said, I suspect that your problem is low heat. Perhaps you are adding wet beef or too much beef and the juices comes out in the oil, lowering the temperature and causing the meat to boil and toughen? Most restaurants actually deep fry the meat for a few moments before stir frying it to seal in the juices. I shallow fry it on high heat after a very light coating in corn starch until the beef is almost fully cooked. Then I remove it from the pan. If water has come out of the beef, I use new fresh oil for the following steps for frying the aromatics and veggies. Towards the end of the stir fry, I throw it back in the pan with everything else and let it fully cook. I actually do this with chicken and seafood, too. It is a good way to replicate that restaurant style stir fry.

                1. High heat is crucial. For home cooks, a wok is horrible to stir-fry meats -- home ranges don't get hot enough. A chinese restaurant has double-ringed gas jets that produce many times the heat of even the best home ranges. Using a wok with a rounded bottom where most if not all of the surface is elevated off of the heat just doesn't work. The solution: your castiron skillet, preheated on the range until it is really hot. Not only does this get hotter, but it retains the heat better.

                  1. My basic marinade for stir fry is a little soy, cornstarch, and the secret ingredient -- a small pinch of baking soda. The baking soda tenderizes the meat and makes a real difference if you let it sit for 15-20 minutes. You must be careful not to put too much baking soda or you will get a funny after taste. I probably use less than 1/8 tsp.

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: bw2082

                      Thanks to everyone thus far. Several people mentioned cornstarch, but I'm still not clear on the reason. Wiki-like sites mention it as a binder, so I thought it was more used to adhere flavors, rather than aid in the cooking process of the meat.

                      Baking soda, on the other hand, has been referenced as a tenderizer. That seems logical.

                      Beyond that, maybe oil is the key?

                      I'm a slow cook/smoker guy so my trained insitinct is to cook tough meats slowly and on low heat in order to break them down at the cellular level. I know that certain acidic/biochemical marinades accomplish this to a degree as well - but as mentioned, one runs into the wet/boiled meat problem if not done right.

                      Is tenderizing of tough meats via pounding not a usual technique? Just curious. I'd have thought, due to using tougher, cheaper meats, that ethnic cheap eats places would discover ways of making such meats seem silky.

                      Know what I mean?

                      1. re: tastyjon

                        Marinating the meats in a cornstarch mixture, sometimes with egg whites for texture, and soy, sherry, vinegar or other enhancements for flavor, is a process called velveting. I'm not sure about all of the science, but in practice it tenderizes, breaks down some of the fibers which sieze and get tough, and add some sort of protective coating that prevents burning.

                        1. re: nosh

                          Velveting is a critical step. I would ask anyone who doesn't do it to try it both ways. Until I learned this step I couldn't understand why my home attempts failed compared to restaurant stir fries.

                        2. re: tastyjon

                          Using cornstarch provides a coating for the meat when it hits the hot oil, thus helping to reduce the chance of it being cooked tough. Use of cornstarch alone is not enhancing the flavor. Pounding meat helps to break down the fibers, helps flatten the piece to make for quicker cooking and is not confined to only cheap cuts of meat. Some cuts of meat (brisket, stewing beef) require a long slow cooking process to render it tender. As has been mentioned, slicing the meat thinly and against the grain is also important in stir frying. I disagree that most restaurants deep the fry the meat first to seal in the juices - the simple marinade coating and taking care to not over-cook the beef in that first stir fry does the trick for me. Also, a wok works very well at home if you have a Viking or Garland gas range that generates up to 15,000 BTU. Otherwise, with most home gas ranges in the 8000 to 11,000 BTU, using a flat fry pan gives the best result. It is important to make sure your wok or fry pan is not too full of meat or vegies as that defeats the whole purpose. I think oil is another key and using peanut oil gives you about the highest smoke point of any oil. What kind of oil are using?

                          1. re: scoopG

                            I should add that while deep-frying meat (called Guo You - literally "passing through the oil") is a feature of Chinese cooking, the pieces are coated in egg white or cornstarch and fried at a rather low temperature to separate the pieces of meat (or chicken or fish) and cook them through OR at a high temp to make them crisp on the outside while keeping them tender inside. It is not done for every dish. tastyjon try this basic marinade recipe:

                            1/2 pound of flank steak (sliced or cut into strips)
                            1/2 tsp of salt or soy sauce
                            2 tsp of Xiao Shing Rice Wine or a medium dry Sherry
                            3 tbl of cornstarch

                            If you can find Xiao Shing Rice Wine make sure it is at least 15% alcohol content and has no salt. In NYC this is sold in liquor stores in Chinatown. There is a cheap Xiao Shing Wine that has very little alcohol and a high salt content that used to be sold in the food supply stores in Chinatown but is rarely seen now.

                            1. re: scoopG

                              Thanks - how long does one marinade to achieve the best results?

                              1. re: tastyjon

                                tastyjon - no more than 30 minutes!

                          2. re: tastyjon

                            Coincidentally, I made a sesame chicken dish last week that I've never made before. The recipe calls for mixing 2 egg whites with cornstarch and then coating the chicken cubes with this mixture and then sauteeing in a bit of oil. I've never used cornstarch as a coating so I had no idea what to expect.

                            Anyway, although I was using chicken and not beef, I could not believe how tender and moist the chicken was. In fact, whenever I sautee chicken strips or cubes, they always end up rubbery and firm. This was completely different and just so much better.

                            Until I read this thread today, I had no idea what to attribute this to, other than the fact that I just thought that I didn't overcook it. But now it makes sense, so I will certainly use the cornstarch method for beef as well.

                            1. re: valerie

                              The cornstarch coating works wonder to pork too!

                              Even for stir-frying fish fillets or shrimps, I put corn starch as coating (w/ or w/o egg white), and the meat usually end up very "velvety" and never dry. But for fish and shrimps, I will not cut them too thin, as they will be cooked through too quickly.

                            2. re: tastyjon


                              I have to tell you I do not.....although I am a fan of the slow cook/low temperature for roasting meats........the application of the method does not apply to stir fry. Cheap cuts of meat, no matter how hard you pound will not make the meat enjoyable. Introducing an agent to tenderize the meat is the only way to accomplish this......but you risk the problem of altering the texture of the meat making it seem like "mystery meat". There were products available in the 80's from a specialty food service that catered exclusively to the New York area Chinese Restaurants.....for meats there was a liquid that guaranteed to tenderize the meat, no matter what cut was used......it did tenderize the meat, but it resembled putting rubber noodles in your mouth and not meat(more like a marshmello).......It was used mostly in Chinese Take-Out Restaurants.

                              There is a reason why it is called "Quick Stir Fry".

                              1. re: tastyjon

                                Also important is the slicing of the beef. Depending on what your making is the marinade or cornstarch. Freeze the meat for about 15-20 minutes to where it barely frozen. Then slice the meat against the grain thin ON the diagonal. Then marinade or coat the meat. Also, when you cook it on high, you don't wnat to cook it all the way. It should look med rare, then finish once your toss it together with the other ingredients.

                            3. I agree with most of the recommendations about oil blanching, high heat, cornstarch for coating etc. In Chinese cooking people also do not put any salt to beef until the very last minute (and usually use soy sauce) as it is believed that adding salt to the beef will make it tough.

                              1. learning how to cut beef nice and thin on the diagonal against the grain is the best way to cut a cheap cut. If the strips are long, cut them in half or 2 inch pieces. Its really important to make sure the meat is slightly frozen to help you get those slices nice and thin.
                                I like to marinade in cornstarch, baking soda, sherry for 15 minutes. You'd be surprised how much you can get from a small cut of meat using this technique.
                                Hot hot oil. I cook the veggies first, making it easier to wipe the pan out.
                                When cooking the meat the first time, I stir fry with garlic and ginger quickly, and then remove it keeping it med rare. When I am finish the dish, I put all back into the wok, and finish cooking another short trip and it keeps the meat nice and tender, and the veggies al dente. Mrs Yu would be proud of me!
                                Depending on what dish you're making will dictate the sauce you build.

                                1. 1) Marinating in the cornstarch slurry(soy and sherry or wine) does 2 things, I think. It protects the meat interior from cooking too fast and it helps brown the outside quickly. A simple side by side test will show this.

                                  2) Slicing too thin will give you less margin for error before overcooking. I wouldn't slice too thin. Nothing wrong with a little pink inside, yes, even in Chinese food.

                                  3) Heat. Everyone will tell you that you can't get the same heat as in a restaurant. It's true. So don't use a wok. Cast iron or good stainless steel pans will work. But most importantly--and no one has mentioned this. Don't stir the meat right away. Let it sit there a little bit to brown, say 30-45 secs. Then start stirring. This will go a little way in compensating for lack of high heat.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: Modern

                                    two more questions for you and others who have replied...

                                    - after marinating, do you separate things and let the meat dry off a bit? Or pat dry? Or does it really matter due to the high heat negating the boiling problem?

                                    - what's the best oil?

                                    - how much oil? I'm not afraid of using too much. I'm just not sure if it should be enough to make the pan slick, make the meat sizzle like bacon, or a plenty enough volume to where you are almost deep frying on a smaller scale.

                                    1. re: tastyjon

                                      The hotter you can get your pan/wok, the less oil you need. A good rule is to lightly coat the bottom surface of the pan , or up to three inches of the side of the wok, not so much that the meats bathe in the oil. If you stay on top of your cooking, you will not fear burning any meats..........you can use a utensil/spatula to ring a spider effect or simply swirl the oil to coat. Which oil is best is argumentative. Peanut oil has the highest smoking point, but most Chinese homes use Mazola Corn Oil. Most commercial kitchens use vegetable oil. Ming Tsai is a proponent of Canola for it's neutral taste and also Grapeseed Oil......as I believe his child is allergic to all others........

                                      You do not need to [at dry or separate meats before cooking...just sear without overcrowding and do in smaller batches if necessary as to not drop the temperature of the pan. In Chinese restaurants, after searing the meats, many cooks will use a flat colander or strainer over a sauce pot to drain the meat juices and hinder the steam process from developing due to the heat...... not allowing the meat to steep in it's own natural juices. A flat colander is desired, because it allows you to spread and separate the cooked meat, so not to be bunched together. When returning the meats to the wok/pan to finish the dish, the juices would also be added at the same time.......do not waste the goodness.........

                                      If you are using a combination of meats......cook each one separately for best results.

                                      1. re: tastyjon

                                        tastyjon - I realize that I gave you contradictory advice on the time length for the marinade! 20-30 minutes is fine!

                                        I prefer Peanut Oil myself. In addition to its high smoke point: it is pretty clear in color, has a very neutral taste and keeps for a long time.

                                        There was a lively discussion on the China board recently on what was the most popular cooking oil in China:


                                        Also, you might add a tiny drop of oil to your marinade to help facilitate separation when the meat hits the pan.

                                        Re the volume of oil - enough to coat the pan really as fourunder says. You can always add more if you think it is not enough.

                                        1. re: tastyjon

                                          No don't dry it off, if you notice the meat will sort of "plump" up, I separate it bit with chop sticks so that the meat can cook evenly, but cook it very quickly you want it still pretty pink. No browning. Wipe the wok out with a wet cloth because anything left in there will continue cooking and leave you with dark bits that will likely be bitter. That's why I always cook the meat last.
                                          And yes after cooking the meat, putting it on its own plate, I add all the juice left on the plate back into the pan (lots of flavor there). But don't dump the meat along with the marinade into the wok or it will boil and you will not get good results. You can throw the marinade out, unless you want to cook it on its own and add, I've never done that though.

                                          1. re: chef chicklet

                                            One other important thing; don't add the oil to the wok until it is hot& ready to add the meat. this will reduce sticking. and makt the pieces easier to turn. another thing, as modern said, let the meat sit for about 30 seconds before you stir it. this will allow a crust to form which will also aid in tenderness. I prefer peanut oil as well, and depending on the dish, will add a few drops of sesame oi; at the start.

                                      2. Ditto what everybody says about velveting the meat. And the cut is important; something tender with a consistent texture and little or no connective tissue. Tenderloin is ideal, but spendy. Top sirloin works fairly well, but slice it THIN. Partially freezing the meat before you slice will permit more precision.

                                        But the thing that really jumped out at me was your comment that your beef seemed "boiled." That just screams insufficient heat. If the wok doesn't flash the moisture off almost immediately, you're going to steam your beef instead of stir-frying it. Not good.

                                        IMHO, you can't properly stir-fry more than a couple of ounces of beef on a home stove. If you spend thousands of dollars on a cooktop with 15k btu burners, make it three ounces. A dedicated 30k btu wok burner is really the minimum if you want to stir fry in your kitchen. But that requires not only counter space, but also a major upgrade to your ventilation system.

                                        Since you apparently live in an area where brutally cold winters aren't an issue, there's a cheap and easy solution: an outdoor propane burner. Opened all the way up, those guys can crank out about 130k btu. Now THAT'S what I call cooking!!! Just get one with long legs; the turkey fryers will have you cooking on your knees.

                                        1. Hi! New here to the boards. It's baking soda. Use just a pinch of baking soda to your meat and let sit for 10 min and it will break down the proteins and become soft. Just be sure to rinse off the meat and dry thoroughly before frying!

                                          1. I'm interested in the type of beef that Chinese restaurants use, the ones who don't use the good meat like the flank steak or the flap meat. When they charge $5 for a dish and it's large enough for 2 meals, I doubt they are using the good stuff, right? So what meat do you think they are using? I'm not saying I want to do that all time, but maybe at least to try it.

                                            My second question has to do with the baking soda/cornstarch thing. My marinade is cornstarch and soy sauce, and I'm happy with it. I do understand the baking soda part, but when do I use it? And for how long? Is it that I mix the meat w/baking soda first (someone mentioned about 1/8 tsp or less) and then mix it with my marinade? It's not instead of the cornstarch, right?

                                            1. As others have stated, heat is the main issue. If you have an electric range, preheat the burner on maximum for at least 5 minutes. Cook the meat in small batches, not all at once. Also, don't stir-fry it at first; let it sit in the wok undisturbed for 30-90 seconds then turn it and repeat for the other side before finishing with a little stir-frying. A flat-bottomed wok is also useful.