In Chinese, a wok (pronounced guo in Mandarin) is a generic term for a pot or pan. In America, wok has come to mean a stirfry pan, but in actuality, this versatile utensil can be used to stirfy, braise, simmer, deep-fry, and even steam food. You don’t absolutely have to have a wok to make a decent Chinese dish, but it really is one of the best (not to mention cheapest) pieces of cookware you can own and it will help you make truly authentic Chinese food.
Edited to add: If you don’t have a wok, I would recommend a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or a fairly heavy saute pan – All-Clad is great because it heats so evenly. Use the “using the wok” section below to ensure it won’t stick, but this will be something you should do for each use).
round or flat bottom?
The typical stirfy wok has a large, shallow bowl shape for several reasons:
- it has no inside edges where food or oil could collect, so it’s great for quickly sauteing food;
- less oil is needed to coat the surface of the food because it’s not collecting in the corners of the pan;
- the center and edges heat evenly and food therefore cooks more quickly and uniformly.
You can purchase flat-bottom woks, which are made to be used on electric stoves (they’ll work for gas, too) and will not heat as evenly as a round-bottomed wok. Their advantage is that you won’t need to purchase a ring for them.
You can find woks made of several different materials, each with its advantages and disadvantages:
- Teflon or other non-stick coated – I would avoid these for almost everything! Teflon has been shown to be harmful when heated to high temperatures for extended periods of time, and if you try to avoid overheating it, you won’t get the searing heat you need for many Chinese dishes. I will admit that we own one, and I do use it, primarily for making scrambled eggs and tomatoes. However, most of the recipes I give use a minimum of oil, and if your wok is properly seasoned, you shouldn’t need more.
- Aluminum are the lightest and least expensive, but they are also the least heat resistant, heat less evenly, and are best left for improvising steamers.
- Cast iron are great because they season well and become virtually non-stick with age, but they are heavy to wield with one hand, which you will need to do to slide food onto its serving platter.
- Carbon steel are my favorite, and with proper seasoning and care they will become nonstick and very low maintenance.
- Electric wok – stay away from these! They do not get hot enough AND they turn on and off at odd moments!
buying a wok:
You can do a lot of research on woks on the internet – a good place to start would be The Wok Shop. You can buy woks online, but the best place to buy a great wok at a good price (and save on the packaging material and time for delivery) is probably in a restaurant supply store. If you live in or near a large city that has an Asian neighborhood, check out the supply stores there first – they are likely to have rows and rows of woks, all with different style handles. Other restaurant supply stores may or may not carry woks, but they can probably tell you where to get one if they don’t.
While you’re at the store, try holding one in your hand, imagine it with food weighing it down some more, and see whether you can easily tip it as if sliding the food out. Also consider the size of your stovetop – most domestic stoves won’t fit a wok that is more than 12-14″ across. The recipes on my blog are all cooked in a 12″ wok. If you plan to cook for more than 4 people on a regular basis and your stove can take a larger wok, go with a 14″ model – if you crowd the food in the wok for a stirfry, it will steam instead of stirfrying.
- A cover made to fit your wok is a good thing to have, particularly if you are going to be rigging up a steamer with it. It is not, however, totally necessary – I have a steamer lid and a pot lid that both fit my wok sufficiently for simmers and braises that require a loose cover.
- A wok ring is a good investment if you have a round-bottomed type of wok (particularly one with a single handle) and are cooking with a gas stove (which is infinitely preferable for Chinese cuisine): this will keep the wok upright and the food from spilling at the inopportune moment when you turn your back on it “just for a second.” The disadvantage of using a ring to stabilize the wok is that it will remove the wok a bit from the heat source, which is a lower temperature than it should be on most domestic stoves to begin with. No worries, though – don’t give up if you don’t own a Viking range! Use a good-quality, well-seasoned carbon steel wok, heat it hotter than you think you need to, and you’ll be fine!
- A good stirfry spatula is a must – if you are not using a nonstick wok, nylon, rubber, or plastic WILL NOT DO! You will be needing a metal one with a very slightly curved bottom edge that will allow you to stirfry without gouging the finish on your wok.
seasoning the wok:
Before using your new wok, you should season its cooking surface as follows:
- Scrub it thoroughly with a mildly abrasive sponge or even steel wool
- Heat it over a very high flame, then rub it all over the inside with a THICK wad of paper towels or clean old rag dipped in peanut oil.
- Let it cool almost to room temperature.
- Repeat steps #2 and #3 two more times with fresh oil and clean paper towels.
- Wipe it out well, and voila – you’re ready to start cooking!
caring for your wok:
A properly seasoned wok will develop and keep a non-stick finish if treated properly. The outside is rarely washed, but you should give it a good rinse in HOT water, as oil is definitely going to run down the side you tilt it toward to slide food onto your serving plate.
- After cooking something in it, rinse the wok immediately with HOT water and scrub with a dish brush – you shouldn’t need any detergent to get it clean. If you have some bits of food stuck to it (common after stirfrying meats that have been marinated in egg white and/or cornstarch), use a bit of salt and a mildly abrasive sponge or dish brush to scrub it after the first rinse.
- Rinse the wok well, again with HOT water, and put it back on the stove. Turn the burner on medium high heat and dry the wok completely to avoid rust.
- If the finish looks scratched or very dull, rub in a bit of peanut oil while the wok is still hot.
- Got rust? Dont’ worry – give the wok a good rub down with salt, wash it out well, and re-season it.
using the wok:
The best way to ensure a non-stick finish before you start cooking is to heat the wok on high heat until it smokes, swirl some oil around in it, then pour it into a heatproof container. Then add cool oil and proceed to cook your recipe.
I find this procedure a bit tedious, not to mention wasteful, so if you season your wok properly to begin with, take good care of it after each use, and be sure to heat it well before adding the oil, you should have no problems.
Let’s get cooking!
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