What is a wok?
The wok is probably the most versatile piece of equipment in Chinese cooking. It can have a round or flat bottom. They conduct heat in a slightly different way due to the shape, but it does not make much difference for day to day cooking - a round bottom is better for high heat stir frying, a flat bottom is better for searing and shallow frying. The high, curved sides of a wok allow food to be tossed around so that all ingredients can be cooked evenly at a high heat. You can also sit a bamboo steamer on top for making bao or dumplings.
The popular usages like frying, steaming and braising are just three of many techniques that make use of a wok. This article will be focusing on carbon steel woks, which are widely used in Chinese professional kitchens and home cooking.
This carbon steel wok, or flat-bottomed wok, is a versatile cooking pan, most often used for stir frying – but also for home-smoking, deep frying and steaming. Carbon steel is the best metal thanks to its ability to heat quickly and evenly. The carbon steel wok’s flat bottom means that that it is suitable for both electric, induction and gas cookers.
How to care for a wok?
A brand new carbon steel wok needs to be seasoned. Check the instructions that come with your purchase. One thing to keep in mind is that, once you have seasoned your wok, it is not going to look pretty and spotless anymore. It is expected to turn black and have a few brown stains here and there as time goes by. Every wok develops its own patina and it changes depending on what you cook in it. This is the beauty of it.
Woks do not react well with detergents. They require cooking oil to keep them from rusting. If there is food sticking to the wok, soak it in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes before using a bamboo brush or non metal scrubber to remove. Dry the wok immediately with a cloth or kitchen towel after washing, ideally leave it out to dry overnight before putting it in the cupboard.
Every month or so, if you have time, it is recommended to re-season your wok. Heat it up and then use a piece of kitchen paper to apply a thin layer of vegetable oil. Repeat three to four times and then wash and dry before putting it away, as suggested previously.
How is a wok used in Chinese cooking?
The most common use of a wok is stir frying. ‘Wok hei’ is a term to describe the flavours of a dish that is cooked in a wok at a high heat. ‘Hei’ means energy or ‘chi’, which also represents the smoky or charred flavours created during the process. You will see this technique being used by both a street side noodle stall and a high end Michelin star restaurant. For a dish containing both vegetables and meat, the vegetables should be slightly charred on the outside but still remain crunchy and fresh, while the meat should be just cooked but still tender inside.