How not to cook stir fry

This January I started taking an online course offered by Stanford University (ever heard of it??) called Child Nutrition and Cooking 2.0, taught by Maya Adam. The course is presented through a series of videos, surveys and quizzes, and the videos cover nutrition concepts, cooking lessons and terrifying, paralyzing, nightmare-inducing statistics about child nutrition.

Inspired by one of the cooking lessons, I decided I would learn to make stir fry. Being rather new to cooking in general, and stir fry in specific, I knew I’d need a practice run. One night, after the kids were asleep, I set to making my first batch of stir fry with plum sauce.

It did not go according to plan.

The house was still and dark, the hour being half past 11. Headphones in and video queued, I started to follow along. Skillet? Check. Olive oil? Check. Stove? Check. I stared the burner, poured in some oil and got to chopping veggies.

The first thing to add to a stir fry is onion and garlic. I despise onions — MOM — but we did have some minced garlic in the fridge. With the oil steaming hot, I tossed in a rough teaspoon.

Big mistake.

Instantly, sound and smoke erupted from the pan. Shrapnel of hot oil covered my arm and shirt, splattering onto the stove top, as thick gray clouds floated past the unmoving exhaust fan to the kitchen ceiling. The heat pressed against me, and tiny flecks of scalding garlic singed my skin.

I paused the video. While my ordeal had just turned into a literal battle of man versus food, Maya was calmly stirring in carrots. I was off the map. It was instinct time.

Remembering all the smoke, I twisted the oven vent dial all the way up, but it was too late.


The smoke detector loudly announced my failure as I lifted the skillet and carried it carefully to the sink. Simply setting it near water was enough to warrant further angry complaints. I grabbed the dish towel draped on the oven handle and fanned wildly to ease the discomfort of the nearby detector.

Apparently, news of my incident was making its way around the house.

“What’s going on?” Holli asked, rubbing her eyes, more confused and disoriented than outright angry.

“I’m cooking stir fry,” I said. Obviously.

At the insistence of my fanning, the klaxon abated. What followed was a short conversation with mah wife about how our decisions affect those we love. I promised to maybe not set off the smoke alarms again as I cleaned the film of oil that covered my new glasses. I couldn’t promise this would be my last midnight cooking lesson.

As Holli returned to bed, the loud humming of the oven fan reminded me that I now had a decision to make: to throw in the dish towel or to clean up, heat up and try again.

Try again I did, minus the garlic The resulting stir fry was amazing. I sat at the kitchen table and lost my mind over the flavors fist-bumping my taste buds. I had no idea some cooked vegetables and plum sauce could come so close to ambrosia.

Despite my failure, the night had been a success.

I learned some valuable lessons from the experience: don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to try again, and — most importantly — skip the garlic.

5 Replies to “How not to cook stir fry”

  1. I can’t guarantee this, but if you had used a fresh clove of garlic and minced it yourself, it MAY have acted differently. I’m assuming you’re using minced garlic from the jar, and I’ve learned to treat that differently than what the recipe says. It can be added later instead of having to cook several minutes like the onion. It’s also in its own juices, which obviously reacts to the hot pan.

    I’m so happy to read that your dish was (eventually) a success!

    1. I think you’re absolutely right, Lauren. The garlic in the jar is also much more finely minced than what I would have done, making it cook much faster anyway. And with the juices and the water — well, we all know how water and oil mix.

      The bigger issue to my cooking in general is that I begin to heat the oil way too soon in the recipe. I start it like I would an oven, and the consequences are always a smoke alarm, which then scares the children and annoys my wife.

  2. I think your oil should be heated beforehand, but you can turn it down if you’re only adding garlic and not onions. The onions would help disperse and absorb the heat and keep the garlic from taking the bulk of it. If you turn the gas down the garlic can cook a bit slower and not burn, and then when you start frying the other ingredients you can turn that sucker up. Or just keep it really hot and add the garlic with the other ingredients–the aromatics in the garlic won’t be as finely unlocked, but you should still get cooked garlic nonetheless.

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