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Using your Wok

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Kasma's also written on Wok: Round or Flat Bottom.
On the blog, check out Kasma's Adapting a Wok for Your Stove.

We're sorry but we are unable to answer specific questions about woks.

Do Not Throw Out Your Wok – Use It with Great Pleasure!

Bananas frying in a wok A recent national food publication gave an amusing advice: "Throw Out Your Wok! Skillet Works Best for Home Stir-Frying." The article asserted that woks were used in China to cook over cylindrical fire pits and were "not designed for stovetop cooking, where the heat comes only from the bottom"; therefore, they simply "don't work for American home cooks."

As an Asian who has cooked countless wonderful meals in woks over flat stovetops, I find such definitive advice from a Caucasian, apparently with limited wok cooking experience, to be a bit presumptuous. I am sure there are large numbers of people who feel the same way as I do, among them the growing population of Asian Americans and countless creative cooks, cooking instructors and cookbook authors of all ethnicity who have enthusiastically adopted the wok into their kitchens.

In my lifetime, I have seen the kitchens of the Orient evolve from being equipped with charcoal braziers to gas burners, and in many booming metropolises with a growing affluent middle-class, electric stovetops are beginning to creep into home kitchens. The wok continues to be an important and useful utensil and instead of throwing it out, the cultures of Asia have adapted it to their new stovetops. Numerous types of stands and gadgets have been produced to alter stovetops to accept the versatile round shape of the wok.

A flat nonstick skillet, as recommended by the magazine, cannot come close to matching the degree of proficiency and pleasure the wok provides in stir-frying, not to mention the flavor enhancement a well-seasoned wok is capable of imparting. In a wok, you can toss vigorously and with great satisfaction without the worry of splattering and spilling of food particles over onto the stovetop. With a good, deep wok, your stove will remain much cleaner after stir-frying than when a flat skillet is used. Try stir-frying a big batch of leafy greens, such as chard or spinach, and you'll see what I mean.

Because tossing is easier in a wok (uses fewer muscles too!), food is cooked more evenly and is less likely to burn. Of course, maintaining a high degree of heat is essential in stir-frying, so knowing how to adapt the wok to your stovetop is a key to success in its usage. For most home cooks preparing meals for two to four people, most stovetops provide sufficient heat for successful stir-frying.

Adapting a Wok to Your Stove

Each stovetop differs. On some, the wok balances well enough on the grate without the need to use any special stand. For greater stability when stir-frying on such stovetops, simply hold on to a wok handle with one hand while tossing with the other.

On other stovetops, the grate may be removed and a wok ring fitted down onto the indentation of the burner to bring the wok as close as possible to the heat source. From my years of teaching, I have found that many people use their wok rings inefficiently. The wok is better balanced and brought closer to the flames if the wider end of the ring is placed facing up.

Wok rings come in different sizes and depths, so find one that fits the burner you plan to use for wok cooking. Do not settle for the ring that comes with your wok set; if it does not fit your stove, hunt for one that will. Check Asian markets near your home; as a last resort, try cookware stores in San Francisco's Chinatown or Japan Center.

Wok rings also come either with open sides or closed sides with a series of small holes around the ring. The latter type is especially important if you have an electric stove as it helps concentrate and direct heat. Wire rings with open sides work best for powerful gas burners (10,000 b.t.u.'s or hotter), allowing air circulation to nurture the flames.

Select a wok that is deep and well-rounded, made of heavy carbon-steel for maintaining good heat and for easy seasoning. Flat-bottom woks are now commonly available and though they provide good balance on flat stovetops, I still prefer the old-fashioned round bottoms. It is much easier to remove all particles of food from round woks without scraping the seasoning, enabling you to stir-fry two or more batches of food without having to clean in between batches.

I use a 16" carbon steel wok with a round bottom on a gas stove. I find that the round bottom works better with a wok shovel. A round-bottom wok may sit securely on the burners of your stove, but most likely you will need a wok ring that fits your stove well. I like the 16-inch wok better than the smaller standard 14-inch size: you can just as easily cook smaller quantities for a few people, or a feast for a larger group – that is, if your burner is hot enough to take a loaded wok (12,000 b.t.u.'s or better)

If you have an electric stove, you might find that the flat-bottomed woks work better, but because the wok shovel is intended for a round-bottom, you might substitute with some other implement (such as a wooden spoon) that would not scrape off the seasoning at the corner where round sides meet flat bottom. (See Kasma's article Wok: Round or Flat Bottom.)

Also check out Kasma's blog on Adapting a Wok for Your Stove.

Stir-frying With a Wok

Make sure you season the wok well: the same way you would season a cast-iron skillet. Once it is seasoned it will have a wonderful black patina: of course never scour a wok as this will take away your hard-earned seasoning. Re-season frequently, as necessary, until a permanent coating of black is achieved.

For a successful stir-fry, always start by heating a wok before adding anything to it. Wait until the surface literally begins to let off smoke. Then dribble in the oil to coat its surface and wait a short while longer to allow the oil to get hot. Now you may begin your stir-fry. The rule of thumb is: always add cold oil to a hot wok and never cold oil to a cold wok. Pre-heating before adding oil will prevent food from sticking and help season it. It will also ensure that the oil does not burn and smoke up your kitchen before the upper surface of the wok is heated. You may also avoid the risk of burning in overheated oil the garlic and onions, which should be added early on to flavor the oil, and in turn for the oil to flavor the meats, seafoods or vegetables to be stir-fried in it.

Listen to the sound of food cooking in your wok. The sizzling should be loud and lively. If it slows down, slow down also on the stirring as this can dissipate heat. Spread the food up along the heated sides of the wok rather than lump them in the center. Stir only as needed to cook food evenly and prevent burning. For an average home stove, try not to stir-fry more than a pound to a pound and a half of meats or seafoods at a time.

With an average-size wok and a hot burner, you can cook for two, four, six or even eight, but if you use a flat skillet, you will need different size pans for cooking different quantities. A large skillet is inefficient for stir-frying small amounts and is more likely to burn food should you try to do so. On the other hand, using a small skillet to stir-fry a large quantity of food will likely mean a messy stove when you are through.

Besides stir-frying, a wok is an excellent and very safe utensil for deep-frying. It provides a wide area to work with and makes it easy to scoop up crisped food quickly with a large wire-mesh strainer-spatula. Because of its shape, the oil is far removed from the flames, such that even if a few drops dribble over the sides, they do not endanger the remaining oil inside. Just be sure to fill the wok no more than two-thirds with oil.

Recommended Size

Whole fish frying in a wokFor Asians who love their fish whole, nothing works better than a wok in frying a whole fish. A standard 14-inch wok can easily fry a one to one-and-a-half pound size fish, browning it evenly from head to tail when tilted from side to side during cooking. For my students who love to entertain and do not yet own a wok, I advise them to acquire the next larger size - a 16-inch wok, which can fry fishes large enough to feed six to eight with ease.

A wok this size can be used to cook for two just as well as for eight to ten. Of course, to stir-fry large quantities of food at once, it helps to have a gas range with burners that have an output of at least 10,000 b.t.u.'s. Many of the newer gas stovetops provide at least one burner with this heat capability. As greater numbers of people discover the joys of cooking, more companies are making more powerful gas ranges available to consumers.

After Using a Wok

Clean only with water and a soft sponge – do not wipe dry but dry instead with heat on the stove-top. If the wok surface appears dried out, re-season quickly before putting it away so that it will not rust.

A well-seasoned wok is worth its weight in gold. Not only will food not stick to its blackened surface, flavors are greatly enhanced. It is as if the wok has stored memories of the many meals it has cooked and calls on this storehouse of experience to enrich the food it is now asked to cook.

Don't have a wok yet? Read learn Wok: Round or Flat Bottom to find out which is right for you.

We're sorry but we are unable to answer specific questions about woks.

Copyright © 1996 & 2006 Kasma Loha-unchit. All rights reserved.

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