The Food Lab: Stir-Fried Beef With Broccoli in Oyster Sauce
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This recipe is the third in a four-part series about how to stir-fry on an outdoor grill.
There's an old dirty joke about beef with broccoli that is neither particularly appropriate for this nor particularly funny, so I'll spare you from having to listen to it. The only reason I bring it up at all is to demonstrate that beef and broccoli is so ingrained in American culture that we can actually refer to it in a joke and everyone immediately knows what you're talking about.
The beef and broccoli of my youth, I must say, was pretty special. I grew up in New York and Boston, both of which have seriously good Chinatowns and many restaurants specializing in the Chinese-American, Cantonese-derived dishes popular in food courts across the country. Beef and broccoli is one of the most popular, and with good reason. Who could say no to tender strips of marinated beef seared to a smoky crispness in a hot wok, tossed with charred florets of crisp, bright green broccoli, all tossed in a savory-sweet, garlic and ginger-scented oyster sauce? I sure as heck loved me the hell out of some beef and broccoli as a kid.
It wasn't until I went off to college and had the first of many mess-hall, steam-tray style beef and broc-trocities that I realized what many peoples' impression of the dish must be: steamed, grey beef in a watery sauce that tastes mostly of thinned out soy sauce and flour, along with drab gray lumps of mushy broccoli that stand limp and and wet like weeping willows after a storm. Yuck.
That's what happens when you try to cook without enough heat input. As with any wok-cooked stir-fry, the key to really great beef and broccoli is to use the highest possible heat, minimizing cook time so that you can get a great sear on the meat and vegetables before they begin to overcook in the center.
For this version, I use flap meat marinated in soy and rice wine (you can feel free to use flank, hanger, or skirt if you prefer), sliced thin, then rapidly stir-fried in a wok that I heat directly over the coals in my Weber kettle grill (see here for more information). The coals get the wok hot enough so that I can sear the beef, push it up the sides, sear the broccoli, add the aromatics, then toss everything in sauce right there in one go without having to move things back and forth. It's the ideal quick meal, ready in under five minutes once you've got your coals nice and hot.
When I make a version indoors at home, I make sure to cook in small batches in a wok set over a gas burner, letting the pan preheat as much as possible between batches of meat and veg before finally stirring it all back together with the sauce in the wok at the end.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.