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Adapting the Wok to your Stove

Kasma Loha-unchit, May 6th, 2010

Maintaining a high degree of heat is essential for 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 wok cooking.

Wok Cooking

Student at Kasma's Kitchen

Each stovetop differs. On some gas stoves, the wok balances well enough on the grate without the need to use any special stand. Though a bit wobbly, a wok with good weight and depth has a center of gravity that makes it difficult to tip over unless one is really careless. 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 gas stoves, the grate may be removed and a wok ring fitted down onto the indentation around the burner to bring the wok as closely as possible to the heat source. (Some of my students find that the grate on their stove when turned upside down balances their wok perfectly; but this works only on certain stoves.) 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. In any event, avoid using the wok ring on top of the grate as this lifts the wok too far above the heat source and will not give good results to your stir-fry.

Wok Ring

Wok ring for electric stove

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Wok rings come in different sizes and depths, so find one that fits the burner you plan to use for wok cooking and that is deep enough for your wok. Do not settle for the ring that comes with your wok set; if it does not fit your stove, search Asian markets for one that will. Wok rings also come either with wide open sides or closed sides with a series of small holes around the ring. The latter type is well-suited to the electric stove as it helps to concentrate heat and direct it upward (see right). Use a ring wide enough on its narrower end to completely surround the electric coil to assure that as much heat as possible is directed toward the wider end on which the wok sits. Heavy wire rings with open sides work best for powerful gas burners (hotter than 10,000 b.t.u.), allowing flames to leap up the sides of the wok and good air circulation to nurture the flames (see below left).

Wok Rings

One type of wok-ring

Choose a wok that is deep and well-rounded, made of heavy gauge carbon or spun steel for maintaining good heat and for easy seasoning (see next section). Flat-bottom woks are now commonly available and though they provide good balance on flat stovetops, I still prefer the age-old round bottoms. The wide, shovel-shaped wok spatula, which makes tossing such a breeze, is made to fit the rounded contours of the wok. I find it much easier to use with the round-bottom wok. Besides tossing, following a stir-fry, the spatula easily dishes out all the pieces of food, including small bits of garlic and drops of sauce, from the wok’s surface, enabling me to stir-fry two or more batches of food without having to clean in-between batches. This saves precious time in washing, drying and reheating the wok when cooking dishes with compatible flavors.

Wok on Stovetop

Wok on upside down burner

With a flat-bottom wok, the introduction of a slight angle where its bottom flattens out makes tossing with the round-edged wok spatula a bit more challenging and less fun, and often, food is less evenly cooked. Particles of food caught around this edge sometimes end up overcooking or burning, making cleanup more of a chore and increasing the likelihood of scrubbing off some of the precious, hard-earned patina. This slight angle also increases the likelihood of scratching the area above it while turning the pieces of food with the wok spatula. Some people solve this problem by replacing the wok spatula with a wooden spoon with which to stir-fry, but tossing with a spoon is much less efficient than with the wide wok spatula, defeating part of the purpose of cooking with a wok.

Although the flat-bottom wok is specially designed for better balance on the flat coils of the electric stove, it can be a challenge to stir-fry food evenly on it as its flat bottom, sitting directly on the coil, heats up much hotter than the rounded sides above it. Food can easily burn if it is not tossed quickly enough and tossing is made more difficult for reasons already mentioned.

Two woks on stove

Two 16-inch woks on one stove

So even on an electric stove, I advise my students to use a wok ring to lift the wok just a little bit above the coil. The burners of most electric stoves do put out plenty of heat; even if the wok is slightly lifted from the coils, enough heat will be conducted upward with the proper wok ring for a successful stir-fry. If a wok ring is to be used anyway, then it makes sense to just stay with the better-designed round-bottom wok.

Whether round-bottom or flat-bottom, use whatever wok you feel most comfortable with in your kitchen, and if you have been making perfect stir-fries on a flat skillet, then continue doing what you have been doing.

Read Kasma’s other articles on the Wok:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2010.

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