The other night, I was teaching a cooking class and a student was sautéing some vegetables. I sidled up to him and asked, “Can I teach you something?” Once he agreed, I told him that I have a theory that most people are either over-stirrers or under-stirrers, and asked which he thought he might be. “I’m probably an over-stirrer,” he said, and I nodded in agreement as he, yet again, gave the veggies a turn.
It’s really common. You’re standing at the stove and it feels like you ought to be doing something. So you stir.
Now if you’re making stir-fry, that’s a good thing. Stir-fry is all about crisp-tender vegetables cooked over high heat. Because the heat is so high, the food has to be moving near-constantly to become crisp-tender without burning.
(Celebrating Chinese New Year? Try this Orange Chicken Stir-Fry with Rice Noodles.)
But if you’re not stir-frying, that constant stirring isn’t such a good thing. Because it sacrifices browning.
What’s so great about browning? Browning is flavor. Think about the difference between how a poached or microwaved chicken breast tastes versus one that’s been pan-seared. That difference is browning—it adds deliciously roasty, toasty, savory, rich flavors to foods.
If you’re an under-stirrer, your food might cook unevenly or get overly browned (in other words, blackened and burned). Perhaps that’s why over-stirring is more common—because under-stirring poses the greater risk.
My advice to my student? Have the confidence to do nothing, to simply stand there and let the heat, the skillet, and the food do their job. And have the confidence in yourself to know when it’s time to help them along. You may overbrown/blacken a few things along the way, but ultimately you’ll become a better cook. The food you make will be more satisfying and the experience, more rewarding.
Happy New Year.