Introduction to Woks
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 helmets 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.
How to Select a Wok
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 to sit the wok on.
Most Woks range in sizes from 10″ to 16″, the 14″ wok is the preferable size because it is adequate for the preparation of most dishes in the cookbook.
Woks are available in many different types of materials, the traditional wok made from uncoated carbon steel is the most popular. This material conducts heat well and is economical to purchase.
Woks can be made of spun sheet steel, hand hammered iron (low carbon steel), and stainless steel. There are also teflon coated electric woks.
- Some woks are sold individually
- Others are sold as sets with lids, rings, etc.
For the beginner it is recommended;
- To purchase a wok set with lid, ring, wok turner, ladle, and strainer.
- Buy a wok made of low carbon steel 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.
How to Season a 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…
1 – Quick “Clean & Burn”
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.
2 – Oil & Oven Bake
Another more thorough method of seasoning a wok is to;
- Brush polyunsaturated cooking oil on the cooking surface of the wok
- 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.
Wok Seasoning Notes:
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.
Things to Avoid
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
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.