by Chef Dez
Wok cooking is obviously very popular for Asian dishes, but it can also be used for a wide variety of recipes. One may wonder what makes a wok different from an ordinary pan, and how do I choose the best one?
Just like standard pots and pans, there are just as many different woks on the market to choose from. The recognizable shape of the wok is known worldwide, and this unique shape serves an important purpose. The inner cooking surface, mainly up the sides, traditionally should not be smooth. Having rough and/or a slightly uneven surface helps to hold cooked food while the sauce is finished, or other ingredients are being cooked, in the center of the pan. Classic original woks are made out of carbon steel and hammered out by hand, and the residual indentations serve as the perfect surface to assist in doing this.
The round bottoms of the wok also aid in deep frying because it takes less oil to create a deep environment than a regular pot or pan. If you have an electric stove, you may choose to purchase a flat-bottomed wok, but even better would be to purchase a metal wok ring that sits over your electric burner and cradles a round bottom.
Unless you’re always cooking for just one or two people, you will get more value out of a larger wok than a smaller one, so buy one slightly larger than you may first think. A larger wok will help to keep the food contained more easily and can be used for both small dinners as well as large. The other thing to consider, before making your purchase however, would be to ensure that you have ample storage for your new wok. Overhead pot racks are especially handy for this predicament.
I don’t find that non-stick or electric woks are the best option. Non-stick coatings are almost always smooth, there are health concerns about emitting gases from non-stick coatings over high heat, and they don’t last as long as they should.
Electric woks, I find, don’t heat up enough.
For traditional high-heat wok cooking, one needs to be aware that many pots and pans on the market will also warp over high heat. Make sure you read the manufacturers use recommendations before purchasing to be certain. This being said, one should take care to never submerse any hot pan into water for the same reason.
Although it may be difficult to find one that is hammered out by hand, I do recommend buying a carbon steel wok and seasoning it to create a natural non-stick surface over time. They may not be as pretty to look at, but usually are of the least expensive options. They heat up very well and will last you a lifetime if taken care of properly.
Always hand wash only (no scouring pads as they will remove the seasoned surface) and dry thoroughly to prevent rusting.
To season your new carbon steel wok, wash with soap and a scrub brush, dry thoroughly, and place the wok over high heat. When it is very hot and the steel has changed colour, turn the heat to medium-low, add a tablespoon of oil, and use a compacted paper towel held with tongs to coat the entire cooking surface with the oil. Let it sit on the medium low heat for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Allow the wok to cool and repeat as many as three times.
This “seasoning” process is only meant for carbon steel woks, not stainless steel or other types of woks. The downside of a thin carbon steel wok is that they also lose their heat very quickly as well.
My most recently acquired wok is a cast iron one made by the popular Lodge brand. It is rounded on the inside but still has a flat bottom to sit nice and flat on my induction stovetop. The inside surface is a bit rough too, so it holds food on the sides very well when I want to make the accompanying sauce in the centre. It came pre-seasoned and because it is cast iron, it holds heat very well. The only downside is that it is really heavy so I wouldn’t recommend hanging it from a pot rack.
Lastly, I want to mention that I host a Zoom Cooking Class Series focusing on making Chinese take-out recipes in the comfort of your home. We do one of these every month and all the past recordings are available as well. Check out my website for more information.
– Chef Dez is a food columnist and culinary instructor in the Fraser Valley. Visit him at www.chefdez.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, B.C. V2T 6R4