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Talk the Wok

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

Friend of The Food Geek Jennifer asks via twitter:

Hi, Jennifer,

The great thing about the wok is that it’s a really big pan that you can get for very little money at the right store. The downside is that, even for a very little money, this is a pan that takes up quite a bit of real estate. If you’re not used to cooking nearly everything in it, the wok turns into a lot of used space for an infrequently used item. Space that could be used to house, for example, an ice cream maker.

So, what is it that makes a wok so special? Primarily, the wok is handy because you have a section of it that is directly applied to heat, and a bunch of extra surface that can still hold food but isn’t going to cook the food it’s holding. From a practical perspective, this means that you don’t need to use as much oil for the volume of food you’re cooking.

In a normal western frying pan or similar, there is a bunch of cooking surface, which allows you to cook a bunch of food all at the same time. If your food loses contact with the oil and just touches the surface of the pan directly, then there will be a number of consequences including uneven cooking and sticking to the pan.

With a wok, you are encouraged to move the food around so that only a small percentage of the food is touching the bottom of the pan at a time, and only that portion of the pan is directly heated. The food not touching the active cooking surface isn’t actively cooking (as one might imagine), so it doesn’t need the oil. The slope of the pan encourages the oil to slide off of the food and into the bottom of the pan where it might do some good.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can deep-fry in a wok as well. I’ve also seen an Iron Chef cook a whole mess of scrambled eggs in a wok, though I can’t say I’d be able to manage that. I don’t believe he used bacon, though.

So: minimal cooking fat with a large amount of food, deep frying, and a bunch of scrambled eggs at once. It sounds like some good reasons to own a wok to me, but you have to use it to make it worthwhile. Everyone will have to decide on their own if it makes sense for them.


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