When it comes to Asian cooking, there is one kitchen tool that is seen time and time again: the wok. It is the primary pan used in most of Central and Eastern Asia, and even in Southern Asia a similarly shaped pan is used. Because of its unique shape and style, the wok requires special cooking techniques to bring out what the Chinese call “wok hei” – the signature flavor of wok cooking.
- Use the right size of wok. For stir-frying, you do not want to use a wok much bigger than 16 inches, or it will be difficult to lift it and move the food around. For other cooking methods, a larger pan can be used, but never overfill the wok, or the food will not cook quickly enough. There should be several inches of free space at the top of the pan. »Finding the right size wok
- Make sure the wok is seasoned. To create a distinctively wok-cooked taste, you need to use a well-seasoned wok. Only woks made out of iron and steel can be seasoned, so a stainless steel or aluminum wok will not be able to replicate the wok hei – the signature wok flavor. Make sure you re-season your wok whenever the finish begins to erode. »How to season a wok
- Prepare ingredients thoroughly. Prepare all of your food ingredients before you begin cooking. This is because the wok cooks very quickly using high heat levels, so you need to be beside the wok at all times to supervise. You cannot spare a second to go chop some more vegetables or grab the chicken out of the refrigerator.
- Heat the wok before adding oil. Before you add oil to the wok, you need to preheat it dry until it begins to smoke. This will open the pores of the metal and seasoning, releasing the flavor stored in the wok before you add the oil. Once the oil is added, the pores will begin to close.
- Choose oil carefully. For wok cooking, it’s best to use oils with a high smoke point and low polyunsaturated fat content. These include grapeseed oil, peanut oil, soy bean oil and semi-refined sesame oil – but never use unrefined sesame oil, or it could burn. Also, avoiding oils with high polyunsaturated fat contents, such as soybean or fish oil, will help keep your seasoning from growing gooey.
- Employ high heat. The key to cooking with a wok is to expose the bottom of the pan to controlled, high heat levels. The heat must be high enough to flash-cook the food. Usually the burner needs at least 10,000 BTU to reach the appropriate temperature of around or above 400° F. As long as the heat is high enough, you should be able to stir fry meat and vegetables very quickly to produce a crisp, fresh flavor that could only come from a wok.
- Cook on a gas burner. Gas burners use open flames to heat the pan, rather than an element. Elements retain heat, making it difficult to quickly increase or decrease the temperature level. With a gas burner, the flame can be adjusted and the effect is immediate, giving you better control over your high-power wok cooking so that food does not burn.
- Use a curved-end utensil. A standard flat-end turner is not ideal for stir-frying, deep frying or simmering in a wok. The flat end of the turner will not be able to reach into the narrowing concave area at the bottom of the wok.Use awok spatula or a long, wooden spoon for stir frying, a wok ladle for simmering or braising and a round, slotted basting spoon or a perforated wok ladle for deep frying.
- Move the wok. Stir frying gets its name from the motion of moving the wok to “stir” the food inside. Whenever you are cooking things at high temperatures in your wok, it is important to frequently tilt the pan so the food will not burn or stick.
- Deep fry in your wok. The wok is not just for stir frying or making fried rice. It is also an ideal tool for deep frying. In a standard fry pan, you will need to add plenty of oil in order to raise the oil level high enough to submerge the pieces you are frying. The curved, narrowed bottom of the wok creates extra depth with less oil, making deep-frying more efficient.
If you are lucky enough to have the privilege of cooking with a wok, whether it is at home or in the commercial kitchen, make sure that you are utilizing it to the best advantage. Proper wok cooking will impart a unique flavor to your meals that cannot be replicated with another kind of pan. By following the above tips, you can use your wok to create a variety of delicious Asian meals.
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