The earliest woks weren’t woks at all, but cast-iron pans with sloping sides great for tossing and stirring a lot of food easily. Developed as a result of the frugal use of fuel, historians also think that there’s a connection between the helmuts and shields of the invading Mongols and woks. Whatever ‘woks’ best, right? 🙂
Modern woks are very versatile. They can be used for almost any type of cooking: stir frying, deep frying, steaming, stewing, and even baking a cake. I’ve made hamburgers and pancakes in them, as well as soups and desserts.
A wide variety of different materials, sizes and shapes are available nowadays. When selecting a wok, you must consider the type of stove you have. If you have a gas stove, you may use either a round-bottomed or flat-bottomed wok. If you have an electric range, the flat-bottomed style is the best choice, because it sits directly on the element. By selecting your wok appropriately, you will eliminate the need of a ring stand. Most Woks range in sizes from 10″ to 16″, the 14″ is the most preferable size which is adequate for the preparation of most dishes in the cookbook. Although Woks are available in many different types of materials, the traditional wok made from uncoated carbon steel is the most popular one. This material conducts heat well and is the most economical to purchase.
Hints & Tips – Selecting a Wok
Because there are many types of woks available for sale on the market, the novice wok cook should make some distinction among them. Some woks are sold individually while others are sold as sets with lids, rings, etc. The materials that woks are made of are spun sheet steel, hand hammered iron (low carbon steel), and stainless steel. There are also teflon coated electric woks.
For the beginner it is recommended that to purchase a wok set with lid, ring, wok turner, ladle, and strainer. A wok made of low carbon steel is preferred, as this type of metal is a better conductor of heat and it seems food will stick to the sides better than other materials. If one is concerned with appearance, a stainless steel wok is recommended. It can be scoured with steel wool and restored to newness after each use. Because stainless steel is a relatively poor conductor of heat and tends to reflect the heat back to the stove, it is recommended that a stainless wok be chosen with a slightly flattened bottom, to provide greater contact with the heating element of an electric stove.
Regardless of the type of wok that one selects, one should consider the concaveness of a wok. There are shallow concave woks and deep concave woks. The best wok shape is a medium concave wok. If a wok is too deep then the heat of it will be mostly concentrated in the bottom of it and not enough on the sides. If the wok is too shallow, again, only the centre of it will be heated and sides hardly at all. Also, since you will want your foods to stay up on the sides sometimes, the less concave, the better for that purpose. For the same reasons of heat conductivity, a thicker gauge wok is preferred to a thin metal wok.
Hints & Tips – Seasoning your Wok
Only iron and steel woks need to be seasoned. Stainless steel woks do not need this treatment, as they are far less porous than iron or steel woks. However with stainless steel woks, more oil is required to prevent the food from sticking and burning.
Seasoning a steel wok enables foods to glide smoothly over the cooking surface of the wok. In a properly seasoned wok one should be able to make perfect omelettes. If the omelette even sticks ever so slightly, then the wok is not properly seasoned and should be re-seasoned.
There are two methods for seasoning the iron or steel wok. To season a new or to re-season an old rusty wok, thoroughly scrub it inside and out with soap and a steel wool scouring pad to remove the manufacturer’s protective coating on a new wok, or the rust on an old one. Rinse thoroughly with hot water. Some manufacturers apply a coating that is hard to remove, so set the wok on the stove, fill it with water and boil it for several minutes until the coating dissolves. Pour out the water and scrub the surface clean with steel wool and soap.
Set the clean wok over high heat. Heat until a few drops of water sprinkled into the wok immediately turn into dancing beads. While the pan is heating, it will change from shiny steel grey to blue, purple, red and, finally, black.
Dip several sheets of wadded-up paper towel into peanut or corn oil and wipe the oil on the entire inside surface of the wok (you may want to use long-handled tongs to hold the towels). Reduce heat to low and let the wok sit over the heat for 15 minutes to absorb the oil – the colour changes will continue and, hopefully, the bottom of the wok will darken. In time and with frequent use the entire wok will turn black. If the surface looks dry, wipe with another thin film of oil. Remove wok from the burner and let it cool.
Reheat the wok and repeat the oiling and heating process once more before using it for stir-frying.
Another more thorough method of seasoning a wok is to brush polyunsaturated cooking oil on the cooking surface of the wok and then place the wok into an oven at 150’C. for four hours. The oil in the wok will become pooled while heating in the oven, so about every hour or so, take your brush and brush the oil up around the sides of the wok and continue heating. Obviously, woks that have plastic or wooden handles should not be put in the oven.
New woks may cause a slight metallic taste to the first two or three dishes that are cooked in it, but after use, the metallic taste disappears.
A wok’s worst enemies are soap and scouring pads – they’ll remove any seasoning the wok has acquired. After cooking foods in the wok, it is best to run very hot water into it and clean the surface of the wok with a bamboo brush or plastic scour. If you watch a Chinese cook in a large restaurant, you will see him (yes, I think men are the best cooks! ) keep the wok on the stove, make it hot again and then dump some water into the wok and, as it is sizzling, scrub it quickly with a bamboo brush and then dump the water before starting to make a new order. The whole process takes maybe 5 seconds and the wok is clean.
After you have washed your wok, dry it thoroughly with a paper towel and store for future use. Some gourmets will place a small amount of oil on their fingertips to re-coat their woks to keep them in top cooking condition.
Eventually through repeated usage, a dark brown film will develop in the wok. The wok is now truly seasoned. This film is essentially carbon and is not harmful to one’s health. The bottom of the woks, the part that touches the cooking flame of the stove should definitely be scoured over occasionally to free it of collected residue.
If one has the misfortune to accidentally burn food in the wok, it will be necessary to take steel wool and scour out the burnt material and then re-season the wok once again. Each time that one has to scour out the wok with abrasive material, then one should re-season the wok.
Stainless steel woks sometimes stick when used to cook omelettes or for stir-frying meats. To overcome this problem, one can spend five minutes to “season” the wok before use or spray a coating of lecithin on the surface of the wok to allow for easy gliding of the foods. Lecithin is sold commercially under several brand names as “non-stick” cooking aids.
Hints & Tips – Wok Cooking Instructions
(1) Always check to see if you have all the ingredients on hand before preparing meals.
(2) Cut up your meat and vegetables, marinating any that require this process. Set aside for cooking, if you are cooking several wok dishes at the same meal; prepare all of them before cooking any.
(3) Place oil in wok, heat until oil just begins to smoke.
(4) Stir-fry your meat, onions, or garlic together. Then add other ingredients accordingly.
(5) If gravy is desired, use a little corn starch (about 1 tablespoon) dissolved in 1/4 cup of water. Stir this mixture vigorously and pour into your wok on top of your cooked food whilw it is still quite hot. Mix thoroughly. Your gravy should be just the right consistency. In case it is too thick, add hot water a tablespoon at a time to thin gravy out. If the gravy is too thin, mix up more cornstarch solution and repeat process.
(6) If you are cooking several wok dishes at the same meal, and are worried about keeping them all warm, heat your oven up to 150’C. and store cooked dishes in it until eating time. Maximum storage time is about one hour. DO NOT store cooked leaf green vegetables in this manner as they will turn yellow. Instead, leave those in an uncovered wok and reheat at mealtime.
If you have an electric hot tray, it is excellent for keeping dishes warm.
Woks are inventions of necessity: in lands where fuel is scarce, foods must be cooked quickly. The semipsherical curve of the wok permits maximum cooking surface based on minimal fuel contact. This explains (in part) why foods destined for the wok are routinely chopped into small, thin slices. They cook faster that way. The wok is also the ultimate tool of kitchen convenience, as it can be used to boil, sautee, stir-fry, deep-fry and steam. As one pot cooks all, clean-up is likewise minimal. According to the food historians, woks have been around for about two thousand years.
“Wok is a Cantonese word; the Mandarin is kuo. The wok appears to be a rather recent acquisition as Chinese kitchen furniture goes; it has been around for only two thousandyears. The first woks I know of are little pottery models on the pottery stove modes in Han Dynasty tombs. Since the same sort of pan is universal in India and Southeast Asia, were it is known as a kuali in several languages, I strongly suspect borrowing (probably from India via Central Asia)–kuo must have evolved from some word close to kuali, The wok is virtually indespensible for stir-frying, and this I infer that this cooking technique was a Han invention, perhaps also borrowed or adapted from a borrowed technique. The great virtue of a wok, and its main special function in south Asia, is that when food is stewed in a a wok the liquid evaporates very fast, because the surface-to-liquid ratio is high and the smooth curve of the wok sides allows flame or heated air to rise rapidly, smoothly, and evenly along all the vessel.The wok may well have evoloved as a tool for making curry, in which a reduction of liquid to a thick gravy or even a crust is generally desired. The fact that the wok is also perfect for stir-frying must have been appreciated for a long time as well. The smooth, even distribution of high heat is the wok’s second vital, distinctive feature. This allows, among other things, a tremendous saving of fuel–few pans are more economical. A Wok should be thick and made of a rather slow-heating substance; otherwise it is hard to prevent the food’s burning to the bottom of the pan. The original woks were almost certainly of pottery; pottery pans of similar shape with wide , shapplow coversa re used in Southeast Asia for slow liquid-reducing stewing. Today, good woks are made of cast iron…The old soft-iron wok, like its Western counterpart, the cast iron skillet, also added a good deal of iron to the diet, since some iron dissolved into the food.”
—The Food of China, E. N. Anderson [Yale University Press:New Haven] 1988 (p. 184-5)
” Chinese cooking is the cooking of scarcity. Whatever the emperors and warlords may have had, the vast majority of Chinese spent their lives short of fuel, cooking oil, utensils, and even water’, comments anthropologist E.N. Anderson. This points to the use of braziers. Originally made of pottery, these are now often galvanized buckets. While foods are frequently boiled and steamed, the brazier also offers the most famous Chinese method, stir-frying or ch’ao. The division in Chinese cooking between fan and ts’ai–the rice (or other cereal) and its accompaniment–is reflected in the modern kitchen with the rice cooker and the wok (Cantonese) or kuo (Mandarin). The wok is the standard curved pan ideal for stir-frying, as well as for deep-frying, boiling and, with racks in it, steaming. Its main function in south Asia (where it is known as a kuali in several languages) is quick stewing and evaporation. Stir-frying is likely to have been a Han invention, which makes it about 2000 years old. Although it is not directly mentioned in the texts, Anderson infers this from the great stress on slicing foods thinkly and evenly and the presence of a pottery model woks in the archaeolgical record. He also mentions models of large kitchen ranges with apertures for the curved bottoms of woks.”
—A History of Cooks and Cooking, Michael Symons [University of Illinois:Urbana] 2000 (p. 78)
“Characteristic of cooking in the home is the chopping of ingredients into uniform small pieces, followed by their rapid cooking, usually sauteeing in a semispherical iron skillet or wok. The cooking is done with little fat but with a gamut of seasonings dominated by soy sauce, fresh ginger, scallions, sesame oil, Chinese vinegar, fagara, and chili peppers. Such preparation of food makes for a remarkable economy of equipment. In addition to a rice cookery, all that is needed to prepare any dish is a chopping board–a simple tree “slice” 5 to 10 centimeters in thickness–a cleaver, the wok, and a cooking spatula. In the city most people cook on a gass ring; in the countryside they have a brick stove with several holes on the top so that the wok can be placed directly over the flame. Since fuel is scarce and expensive, it is always used sparingly, which has given rise to the widespread practice of quick stir-frying over high heat.”
—Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambrdige University Press:Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1169)
[NOTE: This book has a long list of citation for further study.]
If you need more information on the origin of the Wok we suggest you ask your librarian how to find books on ancient China and chinese pottery.
Another piece I found somewhere…
My Grandma used cast iron cookware almost everyday. She actually preferred it over the expensive set of pots and pans that were seldom used. “The good stuff” as my Grandpa called it was stored in the back of a cupboard and succeeded quite well, at taking up space.
I believe that there is no middle ground when it comes to consumer opinion, in regard to cast iron cooking. Either you love it or you hate it. At the time of this writing, I’m still trying to decide which side I’m on.
The key to successful cast iron cooking is proper cleaning and seasoning of the pan. This needs to be done to both new and inherited pieces. Don’t discard cast iron that has rusted or is caked with old grease. With a little work, these pans are actually better than new!
To clean an extremely greasy pan, the simplest method is to spray it with oven cleaner and place it in a plastic garbage bag. (Use rubber gloves and some type of eye protection any time you are working with oven cleaner.) Let the pan sit for 2-3 days. Remove from bag and scrub with a brass-bristled brush. Repeat the process if grease still remains, after this cleaning. When pan is free of baked on grease wash with hot, soapy water. Towel dry. Heat in oven or on a burner till completely dry. Now the pan is ready to season.
The best way to remove rust from a cast iron pan is with a Brillo© pad or metal brush. Thicker patches of rust can be removed with the edge of a sharp knife blade. Other methods such as using a drill with wire wheel attachment is easier, but can change the appearance and surface texture of the pan. After all rust has been removed wash with hot, soapy water. Towel dry, then dry completely in oven or on stove top. Season pan.
(Although I have not tried it, I have heard that Coca-Cola© will remove rust from cast iron. Fill pan with Coke. Let it sit for several hours. Wash with hot, soapy water. Dry completely. Season.)
If you look closely at a new cast iron pan, you will see that the surface is very porous… almost pitted. Seasoning it gives it what resembles a “non-stick” surface. When food sticks to your cast iron, it has not been properly seasoned. New pans are gray in color. It is only after repeated use that they turn black. This is a very normal process.
To season cast iron, pre-heat oven to325º. Heat pan for 15 minutes. Remove pan and apply a thick coat of shortening. Wipe away excess with paper towel and return to oven for 10 minutes. Repeat process till paper towel no longer shows gray residue, after wiping pan. If using pans with wooden handles, season on top of stove. Cast iron should be re-seasoned after each use.