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The Wok

post #1 of 20
Thread Starter 
From a cooking standpoint, what makes a wok different than a fry pan?

is there any case where a wok is absolutely necessary?

what does it do better?
post #2 of 20
With wok cooking, the heat is concentrated in a small area at the bottom of the bowl. The foods that take the longest are added first, stir-cooked (not necessarily in oil...you can stir cook in water, broth or any other flavorful liquid), when done to the cook's desire, the food is pushed up the sides, to be kept warm and continue gently cooking, while quicker-cooking food is added into the center bottom of the wok. Continue in this way until all the ingredients have been added. No, you don't have to have a wok, but it sure makes life easier if you like to cook this way.
"The pressure's on...let's cook something!"
 
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"The pressure's on...let's cook something!"
 
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post #3 of 20
woks evolved in regard to the need for fast, high temp, minimum fuel use cooking. hence the spectrum of thinly sliced, small piece prep, Asian styles / approaches.

using the same "implement" you can deep fry, saute, steam "all in one spot" depending on ingredients, technique and skill.

you have undoubtedly encountered the situation where you wanted to cook something hot and fast - so it was flame on - flame max - in pan flipping to beat the band. although not exclusively true/accurate, the wok is the reverse: flip not the pan, flip the food. aka "stir fry"

as to what can _only_ be done in a wok.... dunno. perhaps some more experienced wokker can provide that insight.

there is a "problem" with wokking in the home kitchen - the whole 'trick' to the wok technique is the really really small hot spot at the bottom. most home kitchen do not have a strong enough btu/min heat source to fully exploit the technique.
post #4 of 20
Outside of the already remarked upon versatility -- a wok makes it easy to do two types of cooking which aren't easily done in a frying pan. Together they're known as "ch'au." Separately they're liu and pao.

You're familiar with the word ch'au as "chow." As in chow mein. Which is really ch'au mien or wok fried noodles. liu means "stir," by the way. You're also familiar with the word pao, as in "kung pao chicken." "Pao" means "toss." Things chowed are liu, "stir fried," which means they're slowly moved around the wok at medium high temperatures. Things pao are cooked at very high heat and tossed frequently.

A wok allows you to use a little bit of oil in ways that make it seem like a lot. For instance, using a wok, you can pan fry in as little oil as you'd use to saute in a frying pan.

No. In the same way almost any sharp knife can perform almost any cutting task. You can make up for a shortfall in pan shape by combining an understanding of how you're trying to cook with the technique to do it.

That said, the best woks are very inexpensive, relatively thin, carbon steel. Don't buy an All-Clad, don't buy a non-stick, buy cheeeeeeeeeeep.

Pao and liu. If you're serious about preparing good quality Asian food, a wok or two will make a big difference. If you're wondering about cross-over purposes, a work makes an excellent and thrifty deep and pan fryer. Because there's a lot of agitation in wokking and sauteing, you'd thin a wok would make an excellent saute pan, but it's a bad choice for sauteing because when you saute you want to use the surface of the pan (contact conduction) but in a wok you want to use the heat of the oil (immersion conduction). As a substitute for a saucier, the shape isn't bad for quick reductions, but doesn't lend itself to the other aspects of sauce making like whisking. Also, most good woks are carbon steel and you don't really want to load them up with a lot of liquid which would screw up the season.

Just to clear up a misconception -- Pushing food up the side of the pan to hold, while cooking something else in the bottom isn't something that's actually done very much. Not that it's never done; and not that some of the best people don't do it often; just that it's more a "technique" described in an infomercial for hand-hammered woks which ran a while ago.

Evem more than western style cooking, Asian cooking is all prep and mise en place. Most complicated wokked dishes are cooked one or two things at a time, according to desired technique (liu, pao) and then assembled on the plate (or the to-go carton). You're familiar with this if you've ever bought Chinese food to go -- all the meat is either on the top or the bottom. Now you know why -- they're cooked separately. You can get away with doing this with Asian food because everything is cut so thin it cooks immediately -- or else it's partially pre-cooked.

Hope this helps,
BDL
post #5 of 20
They need heat to work well. Lots of home stoves don't work well with woks. My gas stove tops out at 14K BTU on the big burners and I don't like how it wok-cooks on the home stove. I've got an outside/camp stove with three 30K burners and it's a joy to cook on with a wok. I don't usually run it full out, but probably in the 20K range. I'd love to have a real wok burner in my kitchen. And a tandoor, and....

For home cooks on home stoves you need to be very careful about overloading the wok. Otherwise you lose your heat and it just steams/boils. Don't be afraid to work in small batches and combine at the end to finish. It will vary from the recipe's instructions you're reading, but it's necessary for good results in my experience. 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup of stuff at a time approximately.

And BDL, I've got that hand-hammered wok. I bought mine on clearance in a store, not from the infomercial. That was the early 90s, but I love it still. I have a cast iron one too. They have surprisingly similar cooking behavior. My aluminum lid is a bit out of round but it's still going strong. I've used some short drywall gripper screws to replace the original screws that stripped out finally for the handle. In a few more years I'll have to drill it out and go with bolts probably.

I think my 10 year old daughter has her eyes on that wok.

Woks steam well with the additional steamer baskets, They also make good old fashioned stove top pop corn poppers.

Woks save time. Not in and of themselves, but the cuisines developed around the wok were frugal on energy and time. So you can usually prep a wok based meal quickly once you have the knife skills.

Phil
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #6 of 20
Thread Starter 
thanks guys.

NRatched....is Fakasian (Korean, adopted at 7months by a whiter than white family) Shes looking to get into Asian cuisine a little more (I told her she need to step up and really play the part already! joking joking)

Cooked some good gingered beef tonight....might have to invest in a cheap wok (the hong kong supermarket has a dozen or so, all rather cheap)
post #7 of 20
Don't forget tea smoked fowl. Yum. A classic wok technique. I don't know what else you could do that technique with that wouldn't ruin the pan. Maybe a cameroon smoker but you can't fit a whole bird in one.

This is a good read too about wok hei and a classic dish to test the chef's ability to impart wok hei.

Beef chow fun - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Phil
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #8 of 20
Thread Starter 
silly question, there are many woks at the local Hong Kong supermarket, whats the difference between flat bottom and not? do i need a wok ring? how can i tell if it's carbon steel?

thanks. I also have a BB&B 50$ gift card, but the ones there, at least the carbon steel joyce chen one for 24$ looks like it would fall apart.
post #9 of 20
Thread Starter 
post #10 of 20
Let's start with,
If it doesn't claim to be something else, chances are it's carbon steel. Cheap is a good sign, too.

These two belong together. A round bottom wok needs a wok ring to sit (more or less) safely on a flat stove. A flat bottom wok does not. The wok ring and round bottom wok will make better use of the available heat on your little Westinghouse stove -- but I"m not sure the ring will sit flat without the burner grate. Once the burner grate is in, you use a lot of effectiveness.

A round bottom wok is more efficient in every other way as well, but that doesn't do you any good if the wok isn't safe on your stove. A flat bottom wok will still get top heavy and requires a lot of attention if it's filled beyond the half way point -- as for deep frying. That said, a flat bottom wok is far superior to no wok at all.

There's nothing wrong with the Joyce Chen woks except for the way the handle is secured (?!). No law says you can't replace the little tack with a stout screw. On the other hand, there's nothing particular right with them, either. I suggest picking up a round bottom and a ring, taking it home and attempting to get it stable while still empty. Then, frustrated as all get out, taking it back for a flat bottom.

Much luck,
BDL
post #11 of 20
I tried to post this earlier but got database errors. It's similar to what BDL already posted.

A flat bottom wok is a compromise to make them sit flat on electric and glass top stoves. I think they're no better than a large saucier at that point. They don't really cook like a wok. They don't cook badly, but it's not a wok.

The whole rounded bottom changes how the pan heats. When you push the round ended spatula or large ladle through that bottom, you scoop up everything and stuff falls from the edges to the bottom. This behavior simplifies and evens out the cooking of the stir frying process. It's form and function coming together. The flat bottom woks you have to chase things around more to get them cooking evenly but you have the issue where the base transforms into the side. The curved spatula is at home at all angles throughout the wok as it matches the curve. Or at least matches close enough.

Ask the workers if you're not sure which woks are carbon steel. They'll help you out and are usually quite helpful. 14" is a good home size. I suspect they'll all be carbon steel at the asian store.

You'll need a wok ring for the round bottomed woks. They'll work pretty well with your gas stove. They work pretty well with electric coil burner stoves. Theoretically, you're told to use the ring with the wide base down on gas stoves. I suggest you experiment with both ways and with and without your cooking grate. With the design of my stove, my ring is much more stable (safety & spills) with the cooking grate in place but I get better heating with the wide side of the wok ring up. Which is opposite of what the general recommendations are.

Get a lid.

Get a rounded edge spatula with the raised edges. I don't use the large ladles at all but they're considered standard equipment. I suppose I've got some more learning and technique to pick up.

There are little racks that slip over the upper edge of the wok for draining fried foods and such. I've been tempted by these a time or two but don't have one yet.

A round cake rack is useful for steaming and smoking. Try a couple of different sizes for different heights and sizes of food. Often a heat proof plate is set on such a rack, the food (fish) placed on the plate and the lid put on.

I also like my stacking bamboo steamer baskets for the wok, but you'll also see dedicated stove top metal steamers in your Asian market. This is more for the various dumplings and steamed buns. These tools are more for volume steaming as you can probably steam what you and nratched would eat on the cake rack and plate.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #12 of 20
I deleted a little joke I made here earlier . . .

In India, there's a wok-type pan that's used for deep frying. They use a lot of flat-bottomed pans for other things such as rice and curries, but for deep frying this wok-type pan is the most common, in my memory. I'm sure there's a reason for it, but not sure what the reason is. I have done very little deep frying aside from restaurant work.
post #13 of 20
Thread Starter 
thanks, I'll have to see how the round bottom and rings work out on my stove since it has the depression



post #14 of 20
That's the same issue mine has.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #15 of 20
It's called a "kadai."

Gets the most use out of a minimum amount of oil and heat.

BDL
post #16 of 20
If you really must go flat bottom, take a look at the cast iron ones.

Most of these are cast flat on the bottom but fully dished inside. Here's an example.

Shop Lodge Pro-Logic Cast Iron Wok at CHEFS. See the ridge at the bttom that's part of the flat plate?

These aren't as stable as many of the normal flat bottom woks as their flat bottom isn't as large. But they're stable enough in my experience.

Go to a right-wing outdoors store. By that I mean one that has hunting as a focus. Army Navy surplus stores are good too. They'll usually have cheaper cast iron than most places. Pick out the smoothest interior you can find and that is otherwise evenly cast and flat on the bottom.

I bought my cast iron wok at an asian grocer. It was dirt cheap but well cast.

Phil
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #17 of 20
Did you get a wok yet?

Phil
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #18 of 20
.There are little racks that slip over the upper edge of the wok for draining fried foods and such. I've been tempted by these a time or two but don't have one yet. ,

Save your money, Phil. I've never seen one of these that would be at all efficient on a home-stove sized wok.

Now then, if you had a nice 2 1/2 or 3 foot diameter wok (and the burners to use it on) those hangers might serve you in good stead.

I recently bought what amounts to being a flat-bottomed wok. They called it a "stir fry pan," and for the price I figured, what the H.

You're right. It's not a whole lot different than a saucier. Although the sides are more rouned, which makes tossing stuff a little easier.

But it certainly does not heat up the way a wok does.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #19 of 20
Thread Starter 
I refuse to until NRatched learns how to use cheftalk! That was/is the deal.

I have enough questions I pester you guys with, and with her learning asian cuisine, i can't keep up posting her questions AND mine :D
post #20 of 20
Steel woks need to be seasoned, much like cast iron, to provide the nonstick surface. I got a nice hammered wok from some friends who received it as a wedding gift and hadn't even opened it after 5 years. I did make them several nice meals as a thank you.
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