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Chinese Cooking 101: How to Marinate Meat for Stir Fries

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Whether it's chicken, pork, or beef, this marinade is my go-to recipe when I want to cook a quick stir-fry dinner. [Photographs: Shao Z]

Anyone who's read our Wok Skills 101 Guide knows that with a stir-fry, having all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go is of the utmost importance. Meat should be sliced, vegetables chopped, sauces mixed, and aromatics minced, all before you turn up that heat.

But there's another secret that will improve both the flavor and the texture of your proteins: proper marinating. When done right, a marinade is more than just a flavoring agent. It can help tenderize meat and alter its proteins so that it retains more moisture. It can improve the browning characteristics that is the goal of high-heat cooking. It can also help it absorb other flavors more easily.

Whether it's chicken, pork, or beef, the basics of marinating are the same. Here's what we do.

The Ingredients

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While you can add as many aromatics to a marinade as you'd like, there are a few ingredients that serve as far more than just aromas—they actually physically alter the way meat cooks, aiding in flavoring, tenderizing, and browning.

When I construct a marinade, I like to add my dry ingredients first (salt, sugar, pepper), followed by my wet ingredients (Shaoxing wine, soy sauce), then the oil, and finally some cornstarch.

How do each of these ingredients function?

Along with those functional ingredients, I usually include the following aromatics: