Until last Saturday, I did not own a wok. I know, huge surprise.
I seem to be slightly behind when it comes to Asian cooking tools. I mean, I did not have a rice cooker till a couple of year ago when I moved in with a roommate who had one. And then, there’s the wok.
That’s not to say I’ve never used one.
It was pretty much the only pan I used growing up. We used it for the usual stir fries, omelets, fried rice, steamed fish, heck, even steaks. It was one of the first kitchen items I was introduced to… when my mom made me do the dishes. It was also the first tool I learned to cook with when I was nine (it was fried rice.) For all my familiarity, I just didn’t find them too practical when I started cooking in college. Woks and electric stoves tend not to go great. Also, the one I got at Target was an epic FAIL and I got rid of it quickly. (It had a layer of funky coating.) I also got used to finding ways to replicate a wok’s characteristics, mainly to heat up a sauté pan till it’s screaming hot before commencing a stir fry.
Why a wok
The most delicious stir fries are cooked on stoves that are at least two to three times more powerful that what you have at home. It’s got something to do with BTU’s which is a unit of measure of energy but there’s no need to nerd out too much here.
My buddy got an outdoor propane stove recently for our brewing adventures which really led me to get a wok. Outdoor stoves are great for woks because it tends to be a lot stronger than indoor stoves. Stir frying also tends to be a little smokey because the cooking temperature tends to be at or over the smoking point of most oils. In Southeast Asia, most kitchens tend to be very well ventilated or even outdoors so this isn’t a problem there. It is quite problematic in my current residence in Houston. Plus, my roommates hate me for setting off the smoke alarm.
I don’t really have a scientific reason as to why food tastes better when stir-fried on a well seasoned wok with on a high powered burner but in my tastings, I can vouch that this is true. It has something to do with ‘wok-hei’, which in Cantonese means the ‘breath of the wok’. It gives the food a certain smokiness and charred flavor. Also, the high heat means that food gets cooked through quickly, resulting in crisp vegetables and tender meat.
Getting a Wok and Seasoning It
If you’re a first time wok user, I’ll leave it to the experts to tell you which wok to buy. I got mine at my local restaurant supply store for $10.
Once you get your wok, you’ll need to season it, kind of like what you would do with a cast iron skillet. There are several articles out there as to how to season a wok such as the previous link above, this and this. Ultimately, you’ll want your wok start turning black. Over time with use, it’ll get darker and work better.