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The Wonder of a Wok

The key to making the best stir-fry is using the right pan. Wok guru Grace Young explains how this kitchen essential works its culinary magic.

June/July 2019 Issue
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Don’t get me wrong, I love all my kitchen equipment, but number one on my list is definitely my wok. It’s the workhorse in my kitchen. I love it for many reasons: Its spacious surface allows liquids to reduce quickly. Its concave shape makes stir-frying fast and easy. And its deep well radiates intense heat, transforming its sloping sides into a dynamic cooking surface. Simply stated, it’s the only vessel that can stir-fry anything and cook it quickly, in a healthful way.

I see wok cooking as a way of life, both timeless and timely and to be used every day. Stir-frying in a wok works culinary magic that transforms ingredients. I can’t think of another cooking technique that makes less seem like more, that allows a small amount of food to feed many even while keeping meat to a minimum and accentuating an endless variety of vegetables.

Serve a stir-fry with rice or noodles, and you always seem to have enough food to feed a crowd. Of course, a great stir-fry depends on great ingredients, especially in-season veggies. When a vegetable is in season, it has so much flavor that you barely need to add any seasonings. Combined with high heat and super-fast cooking, the technique of stir-frying makes the most of each ingredient’s inherent flavor and texture.

As you use your wok, the patina deepens and acquires a darker hue. A well-seasoned wok allows you to use less cooking oil, because the carbon steel has been transformed into a rustproof, naturally nonstick surface. Even without the added fat, you’ll notice your ingredients brimming with intense flavors.

These recipes are an introduction to the wonders of the wok. The Sweet and Sour Pork with Fresh Pineapple and the Kung Pao Chicken reach back to my Cantonese roots, but I’ve given each a modern flair.  The Farmers’ Market Vegetable Stir-Fry takes advantage of all the great produce available at farmers’ markets this time of year. And the Stir-Fried Garlic Shrimp with Tomatoes and Basil proves that a wok isn’t just for cooking Chinese food.

I hope these recipes will inspire you to use your wok every day to stir-fry—and, of course, to steam, poach, and braise. Remember, the depth and breath of a wok run to the sky’s edge. Wok on!

Wok Basics

  • A 14-inch carbon-steel flat-bottomed wok with a long wooden handle and a short helper handle is ideal. It’s roomy enough for tossing ingredients; the carbon steel heats quickly and evenly and acquires a natural nonstick surface the more you cook with it; and the flat bottom sits right on the burner so it gets hot enough for stir-frying.
  • Use an oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut, grapeseed, safflower, or canola. Cut ingredients into uniform pieces so that everything cooks in the same amount of time.
  • Dry vegetables with a salad spinner or kitchen towel before adding to the wok. Line up ingredients next to the stove in the order that you’ll use them. Once cooking starts, there’s no time for last-minute prep.
  • Heat the wok on high to prevent ingredients like meat, poultry, fish, rice, and noodles from sticking. The wok is hot enough when a bead of water vaporizes in 1 to 2 seconds.
  • When stir-frying, you should hear constant sizzling. If there’s no sizzle, the wok isn’t hot enough, it’s overcrowded, or the ingredients are wet.
  • Stir-fry with a flexible metal pancake or fish spatula (or if you have one, a wok spatula); a wood spatula is too thick to get under ingredients.
  • Don’t crowd your wok. Too many ingredients will lower the wok’s temperature, turning your stir-fry into a braise.
  • High-heat cooking requires your full attention.
  • If your wok is newly seasoned, don’t braise, steam, boil, or poach in it because the liquid will dissolve the new patina.
  • Traditional Chinese kitchens have two woks: one for stir-frying, panfrying, and deep-frying, and one for steaming, boiling, poaching, braising, and smoking. If you have just one well-used wok with a heavy patina, you can do all types of cooking in it. A little of the patina will disappear when boiling, poaching, and braising, but it will return with more frying.
  • To preserve its patina, wash your wok as you would a cast-iron skillet. Soak in hot water for 5 minutes. Wash with a sponge. Rinse in hot water. Dry over low heat on the stovetop until all the water has evaporated.
  • Your spatula will cause scratches, but scratches give your wok character. As you continue to cook with your wok, the scratches will fade as the patina deepens. A new wok is thirsty for fat, so use it to cook bacon or for deep-frying. The fat will help your wok to develop a patina faster.


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