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Four Ways to Cook in Your Wok

A wok is good for so much more than stir-frying. Learn how to use this versatile pan to smoke, steam, and deep-fry, too.

Fine Cooking Issue 117
Photos: Scott Phillips
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When I was a very young girl, my father taught me that a wok is the ultimate pan for just about every cooking technique. Baba knew all of the best chefs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and he’d regale me with stories of their wok prowess. The genius of this humble pan, Baba would point out, was threefold: Its broad surface enables liquids to reduce more quickly; its deep, concave shape makes stir-frying a breeze; and its well radiates intense heat, transforming its sloping sides into a dynamic cooking surface.

Baba was right, of course. After all, for more than 2,000 years, the wok has been the essential tool of the Chinese kitchen, ideal for everything from stir-frying to deep-frying. No other pan can claim the same versatility, whether you’re cooking a Chinese dish or not.

On the following pages, I’ll share with you some of my favorite recipes and explain why a wok is the perfect pan for each one.

My wok of choice for these, and all, recipes is a 14-inch carbon-steel flat-bottom wok with a long wooden handle. A flat bottom is essential when using a wok on a western-style stove because it enables the wok to sit directly on the burner, maximizing the heat in the pan. I prefer carbon steel because it heats and cools quickly and, like a cast-iron skillet, it forms a natural nonstick patina the more you cook in it.

To keep that patina in good shape, the wok will need a little TLC. The most important part is seasoning the pan before its first use with oil, ginger, and scallions, a classic Chinese method. The ginger and scallions have properties that clean the wok, and the oil coats the porous metal, creating the patina.

Thanks to Baba, I’ve devoted much of my professional life to mastering wok cookery, but I think the legendary Chinese cooking teacher Florence Lin said it best: “With one wok, we can do everything.”

Behind the Kitchen Door:Tour Grace Young’s kitchen to learn about the design details that make her space ideal for wok cooking.

How to Steam in a Wok

The concave shape of a wok makes it the perfect receptacle for a bamboo steamer insert, my preferred tool for steaming. The advantage of a bamboo steamer is that its lid absorbs excess moisture; a wok’s metal lid (and regular metal steamers) will drip condensed water back onto the food, diluting its flavor.

Tips for steaming in a wok:
• Always bring the water in the wok to a boil before putting food in the steamer.
• Take care when adding and removing food—the steam will be very hot. I recommend using retriever tongs for safe and easy transfer.
• If your carbon-steel wok is newly seasoned, steaming (or boiling or poaching) may remove the wok’s thin patina. Simply reseason your wok if this happens.

How to Smoke in a Wok

Smoking is probably the most exotic and ingenious technique for wok cooking. Unlike standard pans, a wok is deep and wide enough to accommodate an indoor smoking set-up, and its spacious interior provides ample room for the smoke to circulate around the food. The method is simple: Scatter tea leaves, sugar, and rice in the bottom of a foil-lined wok—the tea contributes aromatic smoke, the sugar caramelizes to lightly color and sweeten the food, and the rice acts as the fuel source, keeping everything smoking. Heat the wok until the mixture begins to smoke, and then cover it to trap the smoke inside and infuse the food with delicate smoky flavor.

Tips for smoking in a wok:
• Be sure to thoroughly clean the wok before setting it up for smoking so there are no stuck-on bits of food that could burn.
• Remember: If you smoke your food for too long, it can develop a bitter flavor.

How to Deep-Fry in a Wok

Deep-frying in a wok is ideal because its concave shape requires less oil than a regular pot, and the roominess of the wok lets you fry more food at one time without crowding, which means frying in fewer batches.

Tips for deep-frying in a wok:
• Never fill the wok more than halfway with oil.
• Use a deep-fry/candy thermometer to monitor the oil temperature.
• Moisture causes oil to spatter, so thoroughly dry the food to be fried.
• Add pieces of food to the oil one at a time, or they’ll stick together in a cluster and fry unevenly.
• Wooden chopsticks are handy for adding ingredients to the oil, but I prefer to use a metal skimmer or strainer (spider) to remove several pieces of fried food at a time.

How to Stir-fry in a Wok

A wok’s flared shape develops intense heat in the bottom—or well—which quickly radiates to the sides, allowing both the well and the sides to be used to quickly and evenly cook ingredients in a small amount of oil.

Tips for stir-frying in a wok:
• Always heat your wok until a drop of water evaporates upon contact before adding the oil. A well-heated wok prevents ingredients from sticking and gives them a good sear.
• You’ll know the wok is overheated if the oil smokes wildly when it hits the pan; faint smoke is fine, though.
• Don’t crowd the wok with too many ingredients, which will reduce the temperature of the pan and cause the food to steam.
• Use a metal wok spatula for stir-frying; a wooden utensil won’t be thin enough to get under the ingredients.

Featured Recipes:

Steamed Salmon with Leeks, Shiitake, and Soy

Tea-Smoked Shrimp Salad with Mango


Summer Vegetable Tempura
Stir-Fried Chili Beef with Bell Peppers and Snow Peas


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