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Wok Basics

Selecting a wok


There are lots of discussions about this out there so this will be a quick summary with some links to deeper discussions.

Material

Carbon steel or cast iron. These are the two authentic materials. As you season and use these pans, they become more and more non-stick. And this type of surface protects the wok from rust and functions well at the high temps of wok cooking.

For carbon steel woks, consider the thickness of the material. Ideally I've been told, an average person shouldn't be able to flex the wok when you press from the sides. I don't know about that as all woks I've seen for sale in carbon steel have been thin enough to flex without too much effort. All the same, choose one you can flex the least.

Chinese cast iron woks will be a thinner casting than a western cast iron wok. The historic woks of china were cast iron. The thin cast iron heats much like a modern carbon steel wok, but is more fragile than carbon steel or thicker cast iron.. The thicker western style cast iron takes more time to heat up and is still fragile. These cast iron woks are heavy and the food is not usually tossed in these through shaking the handle as you often see with the carbon steel woks.

For cast iron woks, you want to choose a smooth even casting. The smoothness of the cooking surface is more important than the other surfaces.

Stainless steel--even layered and clad stainless steel, aluminum, enamel coated, non-stick coatings are all poor choices for a wok.They stick and are fussy at the temperatures involved. While you may see Ming Tsai and other chefs cook with some of these on cooking shows, remember that the pan manufacturer is sponsoring the program and it's about product placement. In his restaurant, Ming Tsai uses carbon steel.


Picking a handle

Carbon steel woks usually have a handle protruding from one side and a loop assist handle on the other side. Some will have two loop handles. This reflects a historic regional variation in the cooking of China. Northern China usually has the stick type handle and Souther China the two loop handles. A Northern Chinese cooking technique ( called pau or bau ) includes tossing the food in the pan by means of the handle. Southern China doesn't. This distinction is more historic than modern however.

Most carbon steel woks have the stick handle. It can be wood but is more often metal. Check the attachment strength, There shouldn't be flex through the handle or attachment point. Even wood handles can get hot in wok cooking so expect to use a hot pad.

Now and then you'll see a vertical stick handle on a wok. I've never tried that particular kind of handle.

Cast iron woks usually have two small ears or handles cast integral to the wok. Some do have stick handles, usually the thinner Asian variety of cast iron which aren't as heavy as their western counterparts


Choosing a Shape

There are two basic wok shapes: round-bottom and flat-bottom.

The classic wok is dished and round throughout. This shape doesn't work well on many western stoves but is ideal for concentrating heat in the bottom of the pan. For Western stoves, round bottom woks need a wok ring to sit stable and safely on the stove. Gas stoves tend to work better for round bottom woks than electric,

flat-bottom woks were designed for Western cook tops. They work on gas, electric, glass tops and other common household stoves. They don't work as well as a round bottom wok, but there are times they can be a reasonable compromise, particularly for the glass top stoves. They often require some adapting of classic wok technique to work their best.

In some cast iron woks, the casting will be flat on the bottom but completely round inside. This is a nice feature for western cook tops giving you both the flat-bottom and round cooking surface. Cast iron woks will probably not be smooth enough on the bottom for a glass top stove. They will scratch it.


There is a fair amount of disagreement between users of round and flat-bottom woks. I strongly prefer the round bottom woks, even on electric coil burners, but respected Chinese cooking authors such as Grace Young prefer flat-bottom woks for all home stoves.

Links discussing the shape issues:
Wok: Flat or Round Bottom?
What Experts Consider - Buying Guides for Woks and Stir Fry Pans at Cooking.com
I Heart Asian Food: Talk the Talk, Wok the Wok (Part 2)
Choosing A Wok

 

If you have a general purpose induction stove or burner, you will need to use a flat bottomed wok.  There are induction hobs specifically for round woks as they have a dished burner and they're quite expensive.


Choosing the size

For most home cooking, a 14" wok is a good size for most households. Big enough to hold a reasonable quantity of food without crowding out the stove or storage options. Also the right size for a whole chicken or duck or fish. Comfortable to work in without making a mess.



Seasoning a wok

Seasoning carbon steel is very much the same as seasoning cast iron.

The wok is cleaned of protective grease, wax or other production coating.

A fat/oil of some type is carbonized by high heat into the surface of a wok forming a black, less-reactive non-stick surface usually referred to as the patina. Cast iron generates a tougher thicker patina than carbon steel.

There are some Chinese traditions about seasoning a wok, Most involving the use of Chinese chives and pork fat. The wok might be scrubbed with the woody stems to clean and sanitize the metal. Most end up stir frying the chives in the wok at some point. It's often said to remove the metallic flavor from a a new wok.


In practice, there are many ways people season woks.Here are two common ways.

Stovetop method

Wash the wok with hot soapy water and steel wool or green scotchbrite. Rinse well and dry.

Rub a thin even coating of shortening all over the metal inside and out. Or spread oil thinly and evenly over the wok with a paper towel.

If you have a burner on your grill, consider doing next step outside. Alternatively, Turn off your smoke alarm or tape it over with plastic wrap or plastic bag. Then turn on the fan and open the windows and doors.

Heat the wok on high heat on the stove. It will smoke as it gets hot. The bottom will darken faster than the rest. Heat it about10-15 minutes, then let it cool down. You may want to keep wiping it with a paper towel to keep oil from pooling in the lower part of the wok. Hold the paper towel with tongs to protect you from the heat. Uneven layers of oil or fat cause sticky spots and uneven seasoning.

For a more even seasoning on a carbon steel wok, take the time to tilt the wok into the heat and get a darker seasoning on the upper edges of the wok. The wok will continue to take on darker and darker patina with use.


Oven method for cast iron

Cast iron woks can be seasoned in the same way as carbon steel woks, but also in the oven or grill. I prefer the oven method.

Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Put a rack on the lowest level and another rack right above it. Put a sheet of foil
on the lower rack if you wish. The intent is for any dripping oil to fall on the foil rather than your oven floor. In practice, if you put a light coat of oil on, any drips will burn off before you're done. If this is your first time seasoning cast iron, use the foil as backup from too much oil.

Wash the wok with hot soapy water and steel wool or green scotchbrite. Rinse well and dry.

Rub a thin even coating of shortening all over the metal inside and out. Or spread oil thinly and evenly over the wok with a paper towel.

Put the wok in the oven upside down. This prevents any fat from pooling in the bottom of the wok and messing up the seasoning.

"Bake" the wok for 1 hour. Turn off the oven and let it cool undisturbed. This will take hours so consider doing this in the evening and letting the wok cool overnight. This also lets the smoke dissipate while you're elsewhere. Again, open windows are helpful.

I've found this method best for seasoning all cast iron. It always comes out with an even dark black layer. Most of the manufacturer recommended methods leave the cast iron yellow or brown and often sticky as the fat wasn't completely carbonized.

Other seasoning references of interest:

Season a Carbon Steel Wok
Wok: Seasoning & Caring
How to season a wok


Accessories and utensils

Required

Wok ring

A tapered ring, usually with holes around the edge for air flow, used to stabilize a round bottom wok on western style stoves. Wok rings are inexpensive and you can cut slots in them for a perfect fit to your stove grate and wok height.

Lid

A 14" wok should have approximately a 13" lid. Then general rule for sizing a wok lid is 1" smaller diameter than the wok itself. Wok lids don't fit tightly like you may be used to on western cookware but are still useful and inexpensive. They are usually highly domed and this is a good shape for some of the other ways you can cook in a wok.These are generally of stamped aluminum with a wooden handle at the center.

Spatula or shovel

This is a round tipped spatula with raised sides and back.It's usually about the same length as the wok is across (14" for most home cooks). The rounded front edge matches the shape of the wok. This is a bit problematic in the flat-bottomed wok which isn't evenly rounded everywhere. Still, where the flat-bottom transitions to the rounded sides, this becomes useful.

Spider

Sometimes called a skimmer, a large brass or stainless steel wire disc-shaped basket for straining out fried, blanched or boiled foods. I prefer the 6" size over the smaller 3" size.

Cooking chopsticks or tongs

Long bamboo chopsticks are used for selecting items or pushing items into the spider. I'm not handy with chopsticks so tongs are a good substitute.




Useful Accessories and utensils

Ladle

Most often a broad oval shape, the oval matches the curve of the wok. It's usually about the same length as the wok is across. As a home cook I find the ladle less useful than the spatula. Most professional wok cooks use the ladle over the spatula. In their pro kitchen, they'll dip the ladle in various oils, seasonings, stocks and so on to add to the wok they're cooking in. They usually drag it from the back towards the front.

Steaming baskets

Bamboo baskets, usually two steaming layers and a lid. You partially fill the wok with water, not up to the level of the basket. The basket rests on the wok above the boiling water catching the steam and directing it around the food.
How to use Asian bamboo steamer for steaming asian food recipes

Rack

A round rack, often with legs. Heatproof plates are set on the rack as for steaming but with the wok lid to hold the steam. Or for smoking food as in Tea Smoked Duck.


Accessories links
Wok Accessories
Chinese food recipes | Chinese cooking | free Chinese recipes | Wok this way! Wok accessories


Stir frying in a wok

The stir fry technique is suited to the shape and high cooking temperatures of a round wok. This too is often discussed and will only be touched on briefly here.

Classically, there are two stir-fry techniques. Chau, usually westernized as chow as in chow mein. And pau (pao, bau), A very high heat pan toss method but also seen as a more vigorous stirring technique as in Kung Pao chicken (more authentically gong bau chicken not counting diacritical marks). Stir frying - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Outdoor Stir Fry Stove - Stirfry Techniques - Chao and Bao. (some good videos too)


These and other techniques are briefly discussed at:
http://www.flavorandfortune.com/data...cle.php?ID=200
Outdoor Stir Fry Stove* - Other Cooking Techniques.

Basic preparation for wok cooking

All food and seasonings are cut and measured and at hand so they're ready to go as you're cooking. There is no time to do additionally preparation and the wok needs your undivided attention.

Often some ingredients are seasoned and cooked apart from other foods, then combined right at the end. This allows each of the ingredients to have a different texture and flavor than other ingredients in the same dish. This variation in simultaneous flavor and texture is a hallmark of Asian cuisine.


Stir frying in a wok at home

As you stir through a round wok, the pieces tumble and turn themselves as they fall back to the bottom. In contrast, the western saute pan and flat-bottom wok act more to push the food around when stirred with the spatula. And one pass through the center will not agitate all the food as it will in a round wok. You have to chase the pieces around more in a flat-bottom wok.

The other issue for home cooks is that they generally don't have the high heat of restaurants or of the original stoves for woks. So food tends to cook slower, often releasing and accumulating liquids rather than quickly boiling them off. Further, the food doesn't sear in the time it's in contact with the pan so it doesn't have the flavor.

Two adaptations to classic technique are important for cooking in a wok at home. Cooking smaller amounts in batches and letting the food sit a minute or two to sear and pick up the flavor of wok style cooking.

Because Asian food often cooks ingredients separately then combines them right at the end, it is well suited to cooking in smaller batches. The goal here is to keep the pan from losing too much heat as ingredients are added. There should be a continuous and hard sizzle sound. You'll have to experiment with your wok and stove to see how much of what ingredients it can handle without too much of a heat loss.

Besides working in smaller amounts, you may need to let the food sit for a couple of minutes. This is particularly important with meat where you need to put in the wok in an even layer and let it pick up some color and flavor. If you stir it, the meat will gray more than brown and often loose too much heat to each new uncooked face of meat it meets. Let it sit a minute or two ,then stir fry another minute or two. Some foods such as shrimp won't need as much undisturbed time.

With a round bottom wok on a western stove, you may have to repeat the stir and rest technique a bit as the upper parts are cooler than the bottom especially on home stoves.

Fried rice is another dish that benefits from letting the rice toast in the wok a bit undisturbed. Stir and let toast a bit, then repeat until the rice is right. Let your nose guide you.


Lots of good wok videos
YouTube - wokfusion's Videos

 

Induction burners and flat bottom woks can produce intense heat fairly quickly and are a good compromise for a home cook who wants more heat without a whole kitchen remodel. You won't need to let things sear so much and you'll have to work more quickly to avoid scorching and burning. However, this is a good thing as it's much truer to the nature and technique of stir fry.

Chinese Food Theory

The Chinese, and to some extent the rest of Asia, have a different view of food. As already mentioned, they usually have a greater contrast of flavors and textures in one dish than is common in the west. They see their health as tied to the foods they eat in a more direct way. And some foods are reputed to have particular health effects. Similarly, they choose different foods in a meal to balance the elements of nature and the particular yin and yang elements of the meal. These tie back in to their view of how the food will affect their health. One can delve deeply into this but it's not absolutely necessary to creating a good Chinese meal.


But it does introduce some ways to put together a Chinese meal at home. Often in a Chinese restaurant, westerners will construct a meal of various stir fried dishes as well as fried rice that arrive at the table all at once. You're not going to be able to do that with just one wok and one cook. And neither do the Chinese.Rather the meal will have dishes cooked in various ways, again to bring in contrasting flavors and textures as well as reflect the realities of kitchen and cook capacity. Include soups, fried dishes, braises and steamed dishes which can be cooked in your other pots and pans.

Chinese Cooking Tips - The Five Elements Theory of Chinese Cooking
Chinese Cooking Tips - Yin and Yang in Chinese Cooking
Authentic Chinese Cuisine -- also check the bibliography links

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