Lively lifestyles call for dishes that cook in no time but don't skimp on taste. And when agendas get active, nothing beats a streamlined stir-fry.

Stir-frying cooks bite-size pieces of meat and vegetables over medium-high heat in a small amount of oil. It's a boon to busy folks because it's fast, preserves flavors and nutrients and can easily be customized to suit family tastes. Since it usually requires just one pan, cleanup's a snap, too.

Stir-Fry Starters

When it comes to stir-fries, the possible meat-and-vegetable combinations are endless. You can enjoy chicken, like in Sesame Chicken and Noodles (pictured above right), as well as beef and shrimp. Along with these great options, you can get creative with turkey sausage, cubed pork, imitation crab or last night's leftovers. Plus, there's a multitude of fresh or frozen veggies to choose from.

Because stir-fried foods cook extremely fast, they need to be stirred almost constantly. That's why it's best to have all your ingredients cut and measured before you begin.

Stir-fries were originally eaten with chopsticks, so items are typically cut into bite-size pieces. Slicing meat into small pieces ensures thorough cooking in a short period of time.

Similarly, vegetables should be cut into small pieces that are equal in size to ensure even cooking. If you're racing against the clock, consider using frozen veggies. Many varieties are already cut into perfect portions, with some blends specifically prepared for stir-fries.

Stirring up a Storm

One item common to most every stir-fry is oil. That oil, however, can vary according to taste. Vegetable, olive and canola oils are the most popular, but sesame and peanut oils add flavors that many stir-fryers enjoy.

Regardless of the oil used, it's important to warm it in the pan over medium-high heat before you begin. A wok (a deep, bowl-shaped pan) is commonly used for stir-frying. If you don't own one, a large skillet or saute pan works just as well.

Once the oil is heated, add the meat, poultry or seafood and start stirring. Remove pieces from the pan as soon as they're cooked through, and then give vegetables their turn.

Adding different vegetables to the pan at different times prevents some veggies from overcooking. Start with denser produce, such as broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, because it takes longer for them to become crisp-tender. Items that cook more quickly (mushrooms and peppers, for example) can be added to the skillet shortly after. Green onions, peas and other rapid-cooking veggies should be tossed in near the end of the process.

Adding in Personal Favorites to Stir-Fry

Personalize your dish with a favorite herb or spice. Garlic and ginger are standard seasonings in a stir-fry, but cayenne pepper, curry and red pepper flakes are wonderful ways to give the final feast a little kick.

Seasonings and herbs are usually added to the meat or vegetables while stir-frying, but they can also be combined with a sauce.

Whip up your own sauce with broth seasonings, teriyaki or soy sauce and cornstarch for thickening. Shortly before the vegetables are done, return the meat to the pan and stir in the sauce mixture.

After the sauce has thickened, add any vegetables that simply need to be warmed, such as tomatoes. Then you're ready to put dinner on the table.

Stir-Frying Made Simple

  • Chop and measure all ingredients, keeping them close at hand. Begin by stir-frying the meat, poultry or seafood in a small amount of oil.
  • When it's cooked through, remove the meat from the skillet. Cover and keep warm. Stir-fry the vegetables, adding more oil if necessary.
  • Return the meat to the skillet and stir in sauce mixture. Complete the stir-fry by adding fast-cooking vegetables like tomatoes.

Stir-Fry Strategies

  • Foods at room temperature cook more quickly and evenly than those that are cold, so remove ingredients from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you begin.
  • Cutting vegetables in different shapes creates a snazzy-looking stir-fry. Carrot coins and green pepper strips for instance make a pretty presentation with beef cubes.
  • Combining too many foods in a skillet or wok at one time causes them to stew rather than fry. If this is the case, stir-fry the ingredients in batches. Add extra oil in between batches if needed.
  • Top individual servings with peanuts, cashews, chives or parsley for fast flair and tantalizing taste.

Find Stir-Fry Recipes on Taste of Home's Recipe Finder.