USING AND CARING FOR A WOK
this Way! How to use a wok and how to care for
by Helen Fan
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.
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.
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.
Round-bottomed or flat-bottomed?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Seasoning a new wok
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
How to calen and care for your wok
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Wok Bamboo brush
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.
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
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 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 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
on to the rest of the wok accessories:
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
22 May 2007