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Wok this Way! How to use a wok and how to care for a wok
by Helen Fan

Woks: An Introduction

WokWoks have been synonymous with Chinese cooking since the emergence of Chinese cuisine. They have been used for some 3000 years in China for a variety of cooking methods, including stir frying, boiling, and steaming. A wok is a large, thin-walled, round-bottomed, metal cooking pan, and shaped like a shallow bowl with handles. The addition of a wooden rack and cover transforms the wok into a steamer. Although woks come in sizes ranging from 10 to 32 inches in diameter, a wok that's 11 to 14 inches should suffice for use in a household kitchen.

With the increasing popularity of Chinese cuisine, there are now many “Westernized” versions of the wok. There is the addition of a metal ring, which is set on top of a gas or electric stove to hold the wok to prevent tipping. Some have a small flat bottom instead of the traditional round bottom, for the same reason. The new versions will get the job done, but the "traditonal" large round-bottomed woks are still, by far, the preferred wok of choice.

Since the essence of Chinese cuisine is to achieve food tenderness through quick cooking to retain the natural taste, flavor, and color of the ingredients, the wok's ingenious unique design makes it a perfect fit in Chinese cooking. Its bottom concentrates heat to achieve 2 objectives: 1) to direct the heat at the food, while sealing in the flavors and allowing food to be cooked evenly, and 2) to allow cooking food quickly with very little oil. The stir fry cooking technique shifts food around the wok quickly, coating it with oil during cooking, as opposed to using a flat frying pan where a lot more oil is required. Consequently, cooking with a wok is essential for a healthy diet. It also has curved sides to keep in food that is being tossed and flipped during stir frying. Food, when cooked, may be moved up the sloping side of the wok to stay warm without cooking further, while other food is cooked at the bottom. It is also ideal for deep frying as it requires less oil than any other kitchen cookware to do the job.

Woks: Round-bottomed or flat-bottomed?

Woks come in two different bottoms, the traditional round-bottomed woks, and the Westernized flat-bottomed woks. Both have their advantages, but there are reasons that the traditional wok lasted thousands of years in Chinese kitchens. The flat-bottomed woks do not heat as evenly. The flattened area creates a little angle around the bottom that makes it harder to manipulate your cooking utensil. Food may get caught in this area, becoming overcooked or even burnt due to the lack of movement. This also could present a problem when you clean it afterwards. That little angle also increases the likelihood that you will accidentally scratch the wok while stir frying. The flat-bottomed woks were designed for better balance on flat American stovetops, especially the electric stove. But there is a simple solution for that. You can purchase a “wok ring” that you put on the stovetop, and sit the wok over it for balance.

A wok is generally made of iron, copper, carbon steel, or aluminum. Carbon steel and aluminum are the better ones because of their superior heat conductivity, but the general consensus is that carbon steel is, by far, the best material for a wok. Carbon steel is the most porous, and when exposed to high heat, the pores open up to absorb the cooking oil, contributing to developing the "patina", and then the elusive "wok hay" (see below). If you go around Chinese restaurants and ask their chefs the kind of woks they use, an overwhelming majority will swear by carbon steel woks. The best part is that carbon steel woks are relatively inexpensive to buy. There is an old adage that says “you get what you pay for”. This is definitely not the case for woks.

There are now stainless-steel versions of the wok, although it is generally not recommended. Stainless-steel is not a good heat conductor, which defeats the purpose of Chinese cuisine that relies heavily on quick cooking on high heat. They sure look nice, but would you rather have a nice looking wok, or a tastebud-tickling, mouth-watering gourmet dish? The answer should be obvious. Woks with non-stick coatings are not desirable, either. They all inevitably scratch and food gets stuck to the metal, ruining the taste, smell, presentation of the dishes, not to mention the extra effort needed in cleaning the wok. In addition, the high heat required for Chinese cooking may eventually damage the non-stick coating. A well-seasoned wok will last forever, where as a non-stick wok will inevitably need a replacement over time.

There is an enamel-lined version where there are no reactions between the metal and the food, which makes it a nice alternative. But, if a steel carbon wok is seasoned well (see below), it will become virtually non-stick and will work better than any other versions out there. If you must buy one with a non-stick surface, we recommend purchasing a hard-anodized, or heavy-gauged aluminum wok, but the downside of that is that they are very expensive. Why spend a big wad of money on an expensive wok when you can get one that will do a better job, at a fraction of a price, right?

The bottom line is, if you're serious about cooking Chinese food, and creating dishes that taste authentically Chinese, pick a round-bottomed, carbon steel wok, and include a wok ring as an accessory (if necessary) to balance it on the stove.

Woks: Seasoning a new wok

Cooking with a wokSeasoning is the most important thing you can do to your wok. Only carbon steel and iron woks need to be seasoned. The purpose of seasoning is to remove the manufacturer's protective coating and coat it with a thin layer of oil. This creates a smooth cooking surface which enables food to shift and glide easily, thus preventing your food from sticking, discoloring, and picking up a metallic taste.

The initial step is to scrub it thoroughly. Take a steel wool scouring pad and scrub both the inside and outside of the wok with soap. This will remove the anti-rust coating that comes with most woks. If your new wok comes with some rust spots, don't worry. It is completely normal for unseasoned woks to develop some minor rust. Just make sure that you scrub out the rust before you move on. Rinse it thoroughly with hot water. Then, to make sure that you remove all the coating, set the wok on the stove, fill it with water, and boil it for 5 to 10 minutes to dissolve the remaining coating. Pour out the water and scrub the surface again with steel wool scouring pad and soap. New woks may cause a slight metallic taste to the first two or three dishes that are cooked in it, but after that, the metallic taste will disappear.

Reminder: the steel wool scouring pad is only to be used in this initial step prior to seasoning your new wok. Do NOT use a steel wool scouring pad on a seasoned wok, EVER! It will waste all the effort you put forth in seasoning your wok, and will require you to re-season it again.

Next, place the wok on the stove over high heat. You are ready for the next step when you sprinkle a few drops of water into the wok and they start to dance around the bottom. Then, roll up a few sheets of paper towel, or use a piece of cloth, and dip it in cooking oil. Peanut oil or corn oil are preferred because of their high smoking point, thus minimizing smoke fumes when you are seasoning the wok. Naturally, turning on your stove top vent will help reduce the fumes, too. Using a pair of long wooden chopsticks, or tongs, wipe the soaked paper towel over the entire inner surface of the wok. Reduce the heat down to low, and let the wok sit for 15 minutes. This allows the wok to absorb the oil. If the surface begins to dry off, then wipe the wok again with the soaked paper towel. You want the wok to obtain a thin film of oil when it's seasoned. The bottom of the wok should be slightly brown. Repeat the above steps two more times, and the bottom should darken even more. Over time, the entire wok will turn black (that's good). Now the wok is ready to go.

But we are not nearly done. Ever wonder why Chinese restaurant dishes produce that mouth-watering aroma when they are served on your table? And ever wonder why you can't quite match that fragrant flavor when you try to cook Chinese food at home? They come from cooking food on an almost impervious shiny black coating in a well-seasoned wok. That black coating is called “patina”, which is essentially harmless carbon residue from cooking in a wok repeatedly on high heat. A well-seasoned wok cooking at a high heat will impart what Chinese chefs lovingly call “wok hay”. Its literal translation is “breath of wok”. Wok hay is so revered in Chinese culinary tradition that in China , especially in the Canton region (south), when a customer is served a stir fry dish without wok hay, it is considered an insult or bad luck.

It takes time, care, and regular use before a wok develops a patina. There are no shortcuts. But having patina on your wok is still not enough produce wok hay on your dishes. It is imperative that you heat the wok on high heat to the point where you see some faint smoke coming from the bottom before you add cold cooking oil. The cold cooking oil cools down the wok slightly, and makes the food taste tenderer once it's done. If the wok is not hot enough, or cold (gasp!) when you pour in the cooking oil, the ingredients will stick to the wok (even with the patina) and inevitably burn, also leaving the ingredients raw inside. Not to mention you lose that coveted “wok hay”.

Woks: How to calen and care for your wok

Non-stick woks do not require seasoning, and come with simple cleaning instructions from the manufacturers, while steel carbon and iron woks require seasoning. Cleaning a seasoned wok is a lot different than a non-stick wok, and this is what we will cover here.

We will start with an important reminder: Do NOT use a steel wool scouring pad (or any abrasive product) on a seasoned wok, EVER! It will waste all the effort you put forth in seasoning your wok, and will require you to re-season it again.

A freshly seasoned wok will need some extra tender-loving-care. Immediately after cooking each dish, rinse the wok with plain hot water only. It is important to not use any other cleaning product to avoid damaging the seasoning. Often, there will be some bits and pieces of food particles stuck on the surface of a freshly seasoned wok. To remove them, gently lift them off with a bamboo brush (highly recommended), or a non-metallic scrubber. Then rinse the wok once more with plain hot water. To dry the wok, instead of wiping it dry, put the wet wok on the stove and set it on high heat. Heat the wok until a faint smoke arises from the bottom, then either let it cool and store it away, or continue to cook another dish. It is a common practice for chefs in Chinese restaurants to immediately put the wok back on the stove, pour hot water into the wok, scrub it quickly with a bamboo brush, dump out the water, and then place the wok back on the hot stove while he / she prepares another dish. By the time he / she is ready to cook the next dish, the wok is already hot, dry, and primed to go. It takes literally seconds to go through the drill once you get some practice. This process allows the traces of grease from the last dish to settle into the carbon steel's pores, further seasoning the wok.

After you are finished cooking a meal, cleaning the wok, and ready to put the wok away, it is always a good practice to apply another thin coat of cooking oil. Store it in a dry, airy spot until you use it again (hopefully, very soon). Once the wok is well-seasoned, it becomes self-sufficient, and will not require re-coating again. As mentioned before, It takes time, care, and regular use before a wok develops a patina, where the wok becomes virtually non-stick, and the dishes impart that elusive “wok hay”. In addition, clean-up and care will be easy, requiring little time and effort, often only involves rinsing it with plain hot water and little scrubbing, as none of the food should stick to the wok.

As the black patina develops from frequent repeated use, it will also appear on the bottom exterior. It is also a layer of carbon from cooking at a high heat. In a household kitchen, where the stove does not reach as high a temperature as it does in a restaurant, this is actually a good thing. It helps conduct the heat faster, concentrates the heat to the bottom of the wok, and brings the wok to an even higher temperature. A nice bonus is that it also enhances the flavor of the dish. So, there is no need to scrub the exterior of the wok, either. Just a simple hot water rinse after cooking should be enough.

Wok accessories

While Chinese cuisine basically revolves around the wok, having the right accessories will make your cooking experience much easier, and much more fun. Below is a list of wok accessories to complement your wok. We will start with what we feel are the essential items:

  • Wok lid or cover

    This item a must have, especially if you are planning on using the wok as your primary cookware in the kitchen. Wok lids come in flat tops or dome tops. There are no advantages to using one, as opposed to the other. It is really just a matter of personal preference. Make sure the lid is of the same diameter as the wok, so it fits inside the rim of the wok. The lids also come in deep or shallow types. As a general rule, the lid should be high enough to fit a whole chicken underneath.
  • Wok Bamboo brush

    This is another must have item. Its special use is for cleaning your wok. It is inexpensive to own, and is the preferred wok cleaning utensil for Chinese restaurant chefs. Other alternatives are plastic or nylon scrubbers.
  • Wok spatula

    A must have tool to go with a seasoned wok, especially when stir frying. It is a long-handled utensil used for stirring and shifting the food in the wok. It has a wide, slightly curved metal blade that is specially designed to avoid scratching a seasoned wok. Another option is a wooden spoon or spatula.
  • Wok Steaming basket

    There are generally two types of steaming baskets, one made of bamboo and the other one metal. They come in various sizes to match and fit your wok. They are also stackable, so you can steam many baskets at the same time. The steamers come with their own lids, therefore you won't need the wok lid when you are steaming. They can also double as serving trays for steamed food such as Chinese buns, dim sums, and Chinese sponge cake. In our opinion, the bamboo steamer is better than the metal steamer because the texture of the bamboo absorbs the moisture, allows the steam to circulate inside it. As the steam circulates, the condensation collecting on the top of the lid is minimized, thus preventing water dripping onto the food, spoiling the taste and appearance of the dish. With a metal steamer, this problem can be curtailed by wrapping the metal steamer lid with a thin towel before covering the steamer.
  • Wok ring

    A wok ring is used stabilize your round-bottomed wok on the stove. Flat-bottomed woks usually do not need wok rings, as the weight of the wok distributes evenly on the flat bottom. There are two kinds of wok rings: the ones with open sides or closed sides with a series of small venting holes around the ring. The open-sided ones are best suited for use on gas stoves where the gas flames can climb up the sides of the wok, also it allows air circulation to raise the flames, further heating up the wok. The close-sided ones are better suited for electric stoves as it concentrates and conducts heat upwards. Place the narrow side down when using the wok ring, as it gives better balance to the wok and brings it closer to the source of heat. But if you are using an electric stove, make sure the wok is not touching the coil on the stove.
  • Wok skimmer

    The wok strainer is a wide, wire-mesh strainer with a long bamboo handle (some come with metal handles). It is used for removing noodles, wontons, dumplings, etc from boiling water, and especially deep-fried foods from hot cooking oil. The wire mesh allows the oil to drip off the food, and the long handle helps protect your hand from the heat radiating from the wok.

Now, on to the rest of the wok accessories:

  • Wok ladle

    The ladle is most commonly used by Chinese chefs to add water, stock, seasonings while they are cooking. While holding the spatula or the wok in one hand, the chef reaches over with the ladle on the other hand to scoop up whatever he needs and put into the wok. The chefs are so experienced that they can simply eyeball how much of it they are scooping up, instead of using a measuring device. Thus, the wok ladle doesn't really come into use in a household kitchen.
  • Wok Rack

    This is a semicircular wire rack used to hang from one side of a wok. It serves dual purposes of draining the oil or water while you prepare other dishes, also keeps the food warm, as it is elevated right on top of the cooking oil, or water. In addition, if you are deep frying, the oil drains back into the wok, adding on to the flavor of the dish. This is a great addition if you like to prepare deep fry dishes often.
  • Wok Tongs

    Tongs come in different materials, styles and length. They are useful for manoeuvring and removing hot food from the wok and the steamer. Which type of tongs is more suited for you really depends on your personal preference. Many chefs prefer long chopsticks over tongs. But again, it is a personal preference thing.
  • Portable gas stove

    This is a nice alternative for those whose gas stove, or especially electric stove, just can't quite produce enough heat for wok cooking. They come in different varieties and a wide price range, but on average, they are modestly priced. Besides portability and versatility (can be taken outdoors), some of these gas stoves can almost match the heat delivered by the gas jets delivered in Chinese restaurants.
  • Clay pot

    Clay pot dishes are the equivalent of casseroles in western cuisine, but instead of being baked in the oven, the clay pot is heated on top of the stove. It is used to make porridge, and other regional specialty dishes. Clay is a porous material, so it soaks up moisture rather easily. As the pot warms, it releases the moisture as steam. The food inside the clay pot retains its moisture because it is surrounded by steam, resulting in a tender, fragrant dish. The evaporation of the water prevents the food from being burnt, as long as the pot is not allowed to heat until completely dry. Very little or no oil is usually needed for using a clay pot, thus dishes prepared this way are usually lower in fat compared with food prepared by other methods.

This article was written by Helen Fan who grew up in a family that has owned various Asian restaurants all over North America, from Vancouver (Canada), Houston (Texas), Decatur (Illinois), to Chicago (Illinois). She, and the rest of the Fan family are now sharing their decades of knowledge on the art of Chinese cuisine at www.ChineseHomeCooking.Com

Published 22 May 2007