Fried rice is a wildly popular takeout choice, often served with lunch specials and always ordered by a friend of mine, who shall go unnamed. But fried rice is the last thing on the menu I'd order when dining out, for one reason: It's so very simple to make at home. After a quick dig in the fridge for cooked rice, last night's leftovers, and whatever treasures lurk in back, everything comes together in less than 20 minutes.

Just about anything can go into fried rice: leftover roast chicken, grilled steak, ham, and fresh or frozen vegetables. Just don't use super "wet" leftovers, like a curry, or your fried rice will turn to mush. Cleaned everything on your plate last night? Just season thinly sliced chicken breast, peeled shrimp, or tofu cubes in some soy sauce and sauté until almost cooked, then set it aside.

Cooking fried rice isn't a science; you don't need exact ingredients or measurements. But getting it right does take a little know-how. I've dished up my fair share of burnt fried rice, clumpy fried rice, and simply not-very-good fried rice, and I'm happy to share my lessons learned:

  • Use medium- to long-grain rice. Medium-grain jasmine rice is my choice for fluffy, sturdy grains that don't clump or fall apart when fried. Short-grain rice tends to be softer and to stick together.
  • Start with leftover cooked rice that's been refrigerated overnight. Cold rice is firmer, making it easier to separate and decreasing the probability of mushy fried rice. Two to three cups should be enough to feed two. Break up any large clumps and separate the grains with wet fingers.

  • A blazing hot wok and an adequate amount of oil will ensure your ingredients don't stick to the surface. A large pan, skillet, or Dutch oven will do the trick as well.
  • Use the biggest pan available in your kitchen and don't crowd it with ingredients. In other words, don't try to cook fried rice for your spouse, son, twin daughters, and grandma and grandpa too. One to two servings is ideal.

Now that you're suitably enlightened, you'll never order fried rice for takeout again!

Here's how to make fried rice in six steps:

1. Preheat a 14-inch wok, or the largest pan you own, over high heat for about one minute. Swirl in about two tablespoons of oil and heat it until it shimmers. Reduce the heat to medium and add some minced garlic and chopped onion, then stir until fragrant.

2. Add the vegetables — I like carrots, peas, broccoli, and napa cabbage, chopped into bite-sized pieces — in order of how long they will take to cook (carrots and broccoli usually take the longest, and should be added first). Cook until they're tender, about two to three minutes.

3. Add the cooked meat, and cook it for a minute or so to let it crisp up.

4. Move all the ingredients to one side of the wok. Crack two eggs into the middle, letting them sit for a minute or so until they begin to set. Then, stir to scramble them until they are almost cooked through, but still a little soggy.

5. Add the rice, stirring and tossing between each addition. Use your spatula to break up any clumps. Add a few tablespoons of your chosen sauce (tamari, oyster sauce, bottled teriyaki sauce, chili paste, etc.), plus salt and freshly ground black or white pepper to taste. Don't add too much sauce or things will get mushy.

6. Stir everything swiftly around the wok until the rice is heated through, well-coated, and well-colored (little bits of white here and there are okay). Add more oil if the rice begins to stick to the wok; reduce the heat if it starts to scorch. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary, then divide the rice among dinner plates. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Photos by James Ransom

This article originally appeared on How to make fried rice in 5 easy steps.

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