The Best Beef and Broccoli Stir-fry Recipe, Simplified and Greener

By Charleen - January 12, 2020

Beef and broccoli is a classic Chinese restaurant dish that is so much better when made at home! The secrets to a great beef and broccoli dish is both a perfectly balanced sauce and techniques to make sure the broccoli is sufficiently cooked without overcooking the slices of beef. Inspired by the wok evangelist Grace Young's delicious recipe, I sought an even simpler, greener method to achieve the outstanding flavors and textures of this dish. 

Beef and Broccoli modified from Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge.

Homemade beef and broccoli used to be hit or miss for me. I marinated the meat in soy sauce, rice wine, garlic and black pepper, but the slices came out tougher than I liked until I learned the secret of including a bit of cornstarch in the marinade. And unless the broccoli was finely cut, there would be pieces that still had the raw, slightly bitter taste. I have also had many disappointing restaurant versions of the dish, with huge, coarsely cut, raw rather than crisp, broccoli.

In contrast, I had learned from my mother a great way to cook all sorts of vegetables in a 12-inch stainless skillet with a lid. This involved heating oil and adding sliced garlic. Then any type of cut up vegetable would be tossed in and stir-fried until the outside turned a bright shade of green and the vegetable released its subtle fragrance. For spinach, that was all that was needed aside from seasoning with salt and pepper. For other vegetables that required longer cooking times such as carrots, broccoli and even cabbage, she would sprinkle on some salt, splash a bit of water on the inside of the lid and cover the pan for 2-3 minutes to allow the vegetables to steam in their own fluids. It was amazing how flavorful and delicious vegetables cooked this way tasted and looked, with their intensified color. The raw edge or bite was gone, but they retained their body and crispness. 
Beef and Broccoli modified from Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge.

When I discovered Grace Young's recipe for Beef and Broccoli, in Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge, a number of light bulbs went off for me. Although the recipe ended up being a bit too salty (to my taste) for the 3/4 lb of beef, the sauce had a rich, complexity that elevated this popular dish to new heights. In addition to unami-laden soy and oyster sauces, she adds a bit of the funky flavors of Chinese dried, fermented black beans (click here for brand info) with a hint of mellow sweetness from onions. I knew instantly that I would never again be happy with restaurant versions.

Watch this American Test Kitchen video to see how easy it is to make this beef and broccoli recipe in either a wok or a skillet!
The recipe makes just the right amount of a light, savory sauce to soak up with rice.

Grace achieves the marriage of perfectly cooked broccoli with tender steak by blanching the broccoli in advance. While this results in a delicious dish, I try to avoid blanching vegetables for a number of reasons. You have to bring a large pot of water to boil so the water is not cooled too much upon addition of vegetables. This takes a lot of time and energy as water has a high heat capacity. Water soluble vitamins are leached out and discarded. And you have to expend energy on ice-making for the ice water bath to prevent overcooking. Plus there are extra pots, strainer scoops and bowls to be washed. While blanching is efficient in the restaurant workflow, it adds quite a bit to the time, energy and cookware used to make a single dish. 

Greener cooking for energy efficiency

The beauty of stir-fry is that it was devised as a fuel-efficient method of cooking. Indeed it survived the purging of the Cultural Revolution because it was a humble cooking method employed by the masses to prepare food in an inexpensive manner. Extra prep time spent cutting meat and vegetables into bite sized pieces results in rapid cooking. The fantastic balance of broccoli and meat flavors that I now knew could be easily achieved by giving the broccoli a head-start in cooking, inspired experimentation to see if I could do it in a more fuel- and time-efficient manner. 

I read that the microwave was the most efficient method of cooking, but foods cooked in the microwave tended to lack flavor. As discussed in Tips below, this worked surprisingly well. The flavor was quite good due to subsequent stir-frying with onions and the bits of fond and black beans left in the pan after searing the meat. But the texture was not quite as good.
Blanching broccoli in batches while turkey stock reduces. Note that brighter green color of ideally cooked (on plate) compared to raw (on cutting board) broccoli. Bottom: Mise en place with all ingredients.

When I was reducing the stock made from my Thanksgiving turkey bones so that it could be frozen in smaller jars, I got the idea to blanch the broccoli in the stock. This worked out fabulously as the broth added rich Szechuan peppercorn notes from the turkey, and recreated perfectly the texture of the original recipe. But instead of using extra energy and dishes, I was squeezing another culinary use out of roasting of a single turkey -- meat and gravy, leftover turkey dishes, two rounds of stock making from the same bones, and perfectly cooked beef and broccoli!

While these experiments worked well, the most efficient method I developed was simply to combine Grace's recipe with my mother's in-pan method of ensuring perfectly cooked vegetables -- a mixture of stir-frying and steaming. 

How to cut beef and broccoli for stir-fry

Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge is my favorite of Grace's cookbooks. Not only is every single recipe easy to follow and tasty, but also it has great tutorials for how to prep different shapes of meats, seafood and vegetables. 

This dish tastes great with any type of steak, from the cheap to the expensive. Yes, I have used ribeye and strip steaks as well as round steaks depending on what I had on hand. It is, however, at its best with flank steak and any other cut of steak where you can see the longitudinal grain of the meat. These steaks tend to be tougher, but have a rich flavor. The Chinese techniques of cutting thin planks across the grain, adding a scant cornstarch coating in the marinade, and stir-frying rapidly in a pan that cools immediately when removed from the heat, all serve to produce tender, succulent bites of beef.

For this dish you will first cut the steak longitudinally into two-inch wide strips. Then each strip is cut crosswise into 1/4 inch slices. As each muscle fiber is now only 1/4 inch long, the meat will be tender.
Bottom right: steak cut into 2 inch slabs following the grain longitudinally. Upper left: slabs cut across the grain into 1/4 inch thick planks (center).

For the broccoli, I peel the outer layers off the large, tougher stalks. Then I cut the corner off of the main stalk at an angle, rotating a quarter turn towards me with each cut. This generates a bite-sized, tetrahedral shape that will tumble easily for even cooking. The smaller stems are cut off into pieces until the florets separate. The larger florets are then sliced down the stem partway until they can be separated into 1 to 1 1/2 inch pieces.

• Cutting food into small, uniformly sized shapes allows it to cook more rapidly, using less fuel.

• For efficiency, cut all the vegetables before handling the meat. That way you can use the same knife and cutting board, and only have to wash it once.
Mise en place with raw broccoli to be stir-fry steamed for an efficient one-pan meal

• The broccoli stems are the best tasting, tender-crisp part of the vegetable.  Do not discard them.

• I have reduced the saltiness of the recipe. The recipe can also be made with more beef and more broccoli. Just sear the beef in batches. Grace recommends no more than 3/4 pound of beef at a time in a 14 inch wok or 12 inch skillet.
Let the beef sear in a single layer undisturbed, and remove to plate when 75% of surfaces are browned.
• Covering the pan and steaming the broccoli in a scant amount of water saves a tremendous amount of time and energy compared to blanching; you don't have to make ice, the vitamins stay in the dish, and there are fewer dishes to wash. For larger amounts of broccoli, you may have to repeat the steaming step, periodically tossing broccoli around in the hot pan, until it is cooked to your liking.
After stir-frying onions and broccoli, splash in a little water (no more than a tablespoon or so) and cover to steam broccoli a few minutes. Taste to ensure it is fully cooked before proceeding.
• While you can certainly pan-steam your vegetables until cooked to your liking before searing the meat (even the night before), the advantage to doing it in the pan after the searing the beef is that this acts to deglaze any delicious browned bits so it is ready to be incorporated into the sauce.
Add back beef and accumulated juices to vegetables, pour sauce in sauce, and toss to coat until beef is just cooked

Love2Chow The Best Beef and Broccoli Made Greener

2-3 stalks of broccoli (about 12-16 oz)

1 Tbs Chinese fermented black beans

2-3 cloves garlic

½ medium onion (or two celery stalks)

1 inch of fresh ginger root

2 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp plus 1 Tbs Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry, divided

1 tsp sesame oil

1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper

12-16 oz of steak, preferably with a longitudinal grain

½ Tbs cornstarch

2 Tbs water or unsalted chicken broth

1 Tbs oyster sauce

1 tsp dark soy sauce


If serving with rice, start rice before beginning. An Instant Pot makes it possible to have whole grain brown rice done by the time the stir-fry is ready to serve. For Instant Pot rice, click here.  

1.     Holding broccoli by the crown, use a potato peeler to remove the outer skin from the thick, main stalk. Separate head from stalk. Trim off dried, tough end, if any. Cut the stalk at an angle into ½-¾ inch bite-size pieces, rotating a quarter turn with each cut. Chop smaller stems up to the floret, then cut partly down the stem to separate larger florets into 1 – 1½ inch pieces.

2.     Using the back of a spoon, smash the black beans in a small bowl. Mince garlic and add to black beans. Cut onion in half lengthwise through root. Placing flat side down, cut into thin half circle slices. Cut the largest slices in half. Set aside

3.     Mince ginger. Place in a bowl large enough to marinate meat. Add soy sauce, 2 tsp of the rice wine, sesame oil and black pepper.

4.     Cut steak with the grain into 2-inch wide strips. Then slice against the grain into ¼ inch thick planks. Add to ginger marinade in bowl, and mix well.  Stir in cornstarch until it lightly coats all slices and disappears.

5.     In small bowl, mix 2 Tbs water, 1 Tbs osyter sauce, 1 tsp dark soy sauce & remaining 1 Tbs of rice wine.

6.     Heat wok or 12-inch stainless skillet over medium high heat until a drop of water evaporates in about 1 second. Add 1 Tbs oil and swirl around pan until shimmering. Add the black beans and garlic and toss briefly until fragrant. Push to sides of wok, and spread no more than 8-12 oz of the beef into one layer across the wok. Allow to sear undisturbed for 1-2 minutes.  Flip and toss briefly until 75% of the meat surfaces are browned, but pink remains. Set aside. Sear remaining beef if necessary.

7.     Heat additional Tbs oil until shimmering in the same pan. Add onion and cook ~30 seconds until translucent.  Add broccoli and toss until heated. Add a splash of water and immediately cover to steam. Check after 1 min and, if contents seem too dry to produce steam, add 1-2 Tbs of water and cover for another 1-2 min. Taste a piece. The broccoli should now be very bright green and have lost the "raw" taste. If undercooked, repeat until it is cooked to your liking.

8.     Stir in oyster sauce mix and heat to boiling. Add back the steak and all its juices. Toss until combined and beef is just cooked through. Remove from heat and serve with rice.

🍃 If you are boiling water or stock for another reason, it becomes more energy-efficient to go ahead and blanch the broccoli. This might be when reducing stock made from bones, or if there are multiple types of vegetables to be blanched for a crudite platter. A strainer that hangs from the side of the pot can be quite useful.

🍃 Alternate ways to give broccoli a head start include microwaving beneath an inverted bowl for 3-4 min. The microwave is an energy efficient cooking technique, but the texture and flavor is not optimal. Luckily, the final stir-frying helps with both.

🍃 Although the massive amounts of livestock raised for beef is harmful for environmental reasons, stir-fry allows you to feed a whole family using a single steak. Supporting small, local ranchers and committing to use of the entire animal may be helpful. 

🐾 With all the bacterial contamination that seems to be occurring with greater frequency in our factory farmed vegetables, passing them through a quick stir-fry may be a great way to retain the crisp nature of the vegetables and reduce the risk of illness. Grace Young also has a fantastic stir-fried lettuce dish.

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