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Wok cooking - are home stoves really not hot enough?


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#1 seabream

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 12:02 PM

I frequently hear that true Chinese stir-fries can't be cooked in home stoves because they aren't hot enough. I'm curious to hear what fellow egulleters think about this.

 

I often cook Chinese food at home on my 20-year old average gas stove and I think that I am getting good results. I am able to get brown spots on veggies and proteins without overcooking the interior, on medium-high heat. I find that when I turn the heat all the way to high, I need to move faster and because precise timing is more important, I'm more likely to make mistakes (e.g. sometimes the oil will overheat, or veggies get a bit too scorched). In other words, I don't feel limited by the heat level of my old gas stove.

 

I understand that in Chinese restaurants they have crazy hot stoves - I heard 200 BTU (is this even possible?) I have no doubt that professional cooks can handle the speed and precision of 200 BTU, but I'm wondering if that's really necessary to achieve the "wok hai" that we associate with a good stir-fry.

 

There is no controversy in the fact that home stoves are capable of causing the Maillard reaction in western cooking. Meaning, we can all cook a thin piece of fish or meat that browns on the outside without overcooking on the inside. I don't see how this is different from wok cooking.

 

Or am I not thinking correctly? Would love to hear your thoughts!

 

 



#2 Bjs229

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 12:18 PM

I have cooked on some weak gas stoves before. I think if you allow the wok or pan to get hot enough to sear and don't overload.. Authentic stir fry is attainable. IMHO More btu = speedier heating , easier control.
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#3 HungryC

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 12:24 PM

200 BTU is nothing....maybe you have a few zeros missing?  Commercial wok stoves have around 125K or more per burner.  Of course, the commercial stoves are designed for use with big restaurant sized woks.


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#4 seabream

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 12:27 PM

Ah, yes, sorry, I meant 200K BTU :) So you say 125K is a more accurate number.



#5 HungryC

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 02:01 PM

A 10 second google search on commercial wok stoves reveals a wide spread of BTU output, from a lower end of 100K all the way up to 225K.


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#6 seabream

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 02:06 PM

225K! Crazy. Yeah, I saw similar numbers when I searched online, but was wondering how much of that was real or common. (People always like talking about extremes.)

 

What about Chinese cooking at home? Do people have higher BTU stoves than we do in the West, or do they just settle for less heat? And do they feel they're compromising in flavor compared to going out to a restaurant? (Any Chinese people on eGullet?)



#7 dcarch

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 02:16 PM

Just like you home stove/wok?

 

dcarch

 


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#8 heidih

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 02:17 PM

Based on discussion like this one http://forums.egulle...use-of/?hl= wok - it would seem that the type of wok is also a major factor in how the food cooks.

#9 seabream

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 02:56 PM

dcarch - That video helps me grasp what 200K BTU means :)

 

heidih - Agreed. Wok shape/material is very important. I have two woks at home, with different materials (cast iron and carbon steel) and different shapes (round bottomed and flat bottomed). Even though I have a favorite wok, I would say that even with my least favorite wok I can get decent browning on the outside and an interior that is not overcooked. But yes, point taken, it's not just about the stove, having the right wok has a huge impact in the results.



#10 patrickamory

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 05:22 PM

Grace Young in The Breath of a Wok gives some seriously well thought out advice on how to get as close as possible to wok hei on a Western stove. She recommends a flat-bottomed cast-iron wok, properly seasoned, used on a gas stove. Her tips include preheating to the right degree, the usual swirling technique for liquids, never cooking more than 12 oz. of meat at a time (and letting it sear for 30 secs, stir for 20 secs, sear for 30 secs), and making sure to thoroughly dry all vegetables. And more. 

 

I'm sure you're never going to do as well as a wok burner outside, or a Weber with the circular cut-out hole in the grill for a round-bottom wok to sit in. But then again, wok hei is a Cantonese concept (or so Young argues) - Fuchsia Dunlop doesn't ever refer to it in her Sichuanese book that I can find.

 

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of the hottest heat imaginable for stir-fries, but I feel like I've gotten some great results following Young's recommendations for technique. This book is indispensable.



#11 seabream

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 05:32 PM

patrickamory - Completely agree. I learned to stir-fry the Chinese way with that same book a few years back. And yes, she gets all the credit for the good results I've gotten in my home stove. 

 

I was aware of outdoor wok burners, but the Weber cut-out hole for the grill was new to me. The Weber hole seems brilliant (the fact that I have a Weber grill and a round bottomed wok make it even more brilliant from my perspective). 



#12 gfweb

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 06:16 PM

Do regular Chinese homeowners have blast furnaces on their stoves or is it just a restaurant thing?



#13 HungryC

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 06:50 PM

Dunno about Chinese homes and blast furnace gas heat, but I do know that it's pretty easy to get ultra high heat with a simple charcoal wok stove. I see the terra cotta and tin wok stoves at local Asian markets for about $20-30. Many folks use a chimney starter to good effect.

#14 liuzhou

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 06:58 PM

What about Chinese cooking at home? Do people have higher BTU stoves than we do in the West, or do they just settle for less heat? 

 

Do regular Chinese homeowners have blast furnaces on their stoves or is it just a restaurant thing?

 

Most Chinese homeowners cook on stoves like the one pictured below. They are no hotter than regular western stoves. I've never seen a "blast furnace" wok burner anywhere other than restaurants and wouldn't know where to buy one for home use.

 

cookertd3.jpg

 

 


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#15 Hassouni

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 07:19 PM

The electric coil stove at my parent's house gets hot enough to IGNITE the oil in my wok if I leave it too long without food in it.  As long as I don't overcrowd it, it gets plenty damn hot.

 

In our London flat, the gas stove is hotter than ANY cheap apartment gas stove I've used, and is equally sufficient. Cheap apartment gas stoves, however, SUUUUUCK. I have yet to see how the stove at my new condo fares, it's a GE profile gas one.

 

One thing to keep in mind when cooking at such high temperatures is that your kitchen will get EXTREMELY smoky, which may be why some say that stir-frying "can't" be done at home.

 

(also, the comment about Sichuanese cooking not really having a concept of wok hei seems right, I can't think of any Sichuanese dishes that employ it, or are even stir fried (chao) - Gong bao chicken would be a famous exception, but everything else seems braised, dry fried, simmered, etc.)



#16 heidih

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 07:21 PM

Liuzhou - can you address the whole wok hei at home question in terms of home cooking in China versus restaurants? The first time I saw someone use a real wok as opposed to the teflon electric ones being demonstrated in stores way back when, it was here in the states on a regular gas stove. I went to pick up my kid and the mom who was born and raised in Taiwan was making dinner. While waiting for the kids to pick up their toys I watched as she cooked a simple beef and gai lan dish. What impressed me was the progression of the ingredients into the pan, the movement of them, and the slicing. I did not have the opportunity to taste it but the smell made my tummy growl in anticipation.
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#17 liuzhou

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Posted 04 September 2013 - 09:08 PM

Liuzhou - can you address the whole wok hei at home question in terms of home cooking in China versus restaurants?

 

I honestly don't think there is a question. It is not something Chinese home cooks obsess about the way some westerners do. They don't seem to even think about, if they even know about it.

 

I have just conducted a quick and totally unscientific survey of 10 Chinese friends who are keen home cooks. Half asked me what is is 'wok hei'? ( I asked them in Chinese and they had never heard the word.) The others guessed what it is but said it isn't an issue at home. They don't expect it or need it.

 

The idea that you cannot stir fry on a home cooker is ridiculous. Literally millions of Chinese people do so two or three times a day - even in Sichuan!



#18 Keith_W

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 12:06 AM

I have just conducted a quick and totally unscientific survey of 10 Chinese friends who are keen home cooks. Half asked me what is is 'wok hei'? ( I asked them in Chinese and they had never heard the word.)

My jaw dropped open in amazement. Close to everyone I know knows about wok hei. They even know that if you order fried noodles in a restaurant, you try not to order two servings of the same dish because the chef will cook both servings at once and divide it in half - cook two servings, get less heat, get less wok hei.
There is no love more sincere than the love of food - George Bernard Shaw

#19 liuzhou

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 12:16 AM

Close to everyone I know knows about wok hei.

 

Yes, but you seem to be in Australia. That was my point. It is people outside China who seem to fret about it most.

I'm not saying no one knows about it here; just that it's not the big deal everyone else makes it into. (That may be different in Hong Kong or Guangdong.)

 

I work closely with the catering industry here in China. Almost everyone I know professionally is involved at one level or another. I have never once, in 18 years, heard them even discuss it.

 

And anyway I was talking about home cooking where it is a total non-issue.


Edited by liuzhou, 05 September 2013 - 12:26 AM.


#20 Hassouni

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 07:40 AM

A lot of the Chinese diaspora is Cantonese, so that may explain the prevalence of the wok hei concept abroad.



#21 liuzhou

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 07:51 AM

A lot of the Chinese diaspora is Cantonese, so that may explain the prevalence of the wok hei concept abroad.

 

Indeed.

But as far as I can tell, Cantonese home cooks don't get too excited or worried about it, either. Two of my silly sample were Cantonese speakers. 

 

But there also seems to be an amusing tendency for some westerners to think they have stumbled upon some deep and significant, secret oriental mystery. It is a simple Maillard reaction - combined with slightly burnt oil.


Edited by liuzhou, 05 September 2013 - 08:15 AM.


#22 sigma

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 08:15 AM

A lot of the Chinese diaspora is Cantonese, so that may explain the prevalence of the wok hei concept abroad.

 

Indeed.

But as far as I can tell, Cantonese home cooks don't get too excited or worried about it, either. Two of my silly sample were Cantonese speakers.

 

But there also seems to be an amusing tendency for some westerners to think they have stumbled upon some deep and significant, secret oriental mystery. It is a simple Maillard reaction - combined with slightly burnt oil.

 

I think this is probably what is going on here.  It is difficult to season and cook well out of your native context, and much easier to blame the flame.  Turning it into a lesson on cultural differences takes a lot of the sting out too.


Edited by sigma, 05 September 2013 - 08:26 AM.


#23 dcarch

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 09:10 AM

" --------------------But there also seems to be an amusing tendency for some westerners to think they have stumbled upon some deep and significant, secret oriental mystery. It is a simple Maillard reaction - combined with slightly burnt oil."

 

Maillard reaction, no question. but I have been thinking:

 

In General Chemistry 101, I remember that chemical reaction can be initiated and/or accelerated under very high heat and vigorous agitation.  

 

Would it be possible that under extreme heat and stirring, new flavor compounds is created between various seasonings and food ingredients? beyond/in addition to maillard reaction?

 

wok hei =  C12H22O11CO(NH2)2NO2 CH3CH2OCH3?  :wacko:  :wub:  :cool:  :huh:

 

dcarch


Edited by dcarch, 05 September 2013 - 09:16 AM.

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#24 liuzhou

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 09:21 AM

As we say in China, 哈哈哈!

 

Hahaha!


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#25 Keith_W

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 09:34 AM

It's more than the Maillard reaction, there is also the Liedenfrost effect. A superheated surface instantly vaporizes any liquid that comes into contact with it, causing food to float on a bed of steam. This, combined with the typical stirring and tossing of wok cooking tends to selectively cook the surface of foods.

Just because many Chinese home cooks don't have a high powered wok burner does not mean that the passionate cook should not bother. I don't think that people on eGullet are average cooks - this forum is the birthplace of Modernist Cuisine, we witnessed the birth of Alinea, and I am willing to wager that more of us own sous-vide machines than the general population. A high powered wok burner will give you different results than most piddly little stovetop hobs and in most cases it would be better. Why else do restaurants use it?
There is no love more sincere than the love of food - George Bernard Shaw

#26 liuzhou

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 09:50 AM

Just because many Chinese home cooks don't have a high powered wok burner does not mean that the passionate cook should not bother.

I

Did I suggest they shouldn't? Anywhere?

I was asked  what I felt the situation was regarding home cooking and wok hei in China. I answered that.

i have no idea what relevance sous vide has here. Are you proposing sous vide wok cooking?


Edited by liuzhou, 05 September 2013 - 09:52 AM.


#27 Shel_B

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 10:37 AM

It's more than the Maillard reaction, there is also the Liedenfrost effect. A superheated surface instantly vaporizes any liquid that comes into contact with it, causing food to float on a bed of steam. This, combined with the typical stirring and tossing of wok cooking tends to selectively cook the surface of foods.

Just because many Chinese home cooks don't have a high powered wok burner does not mean that the passionate cook should not bother. I don't think that people on eGullet are average cooks - this forum is the birthplace of Modernist Cuisine, we witnessed the birth of Alinea, and I am willing to wager that more of us own sous-vide machines than the general population. A high powered wok burner will give you different results than most piddly little stovetop hobs and in most cases it would be better. Why else do restaurants use it?

 

Here's a range that may do the trick for someone wanting restaurant-style cooking: 

 

http://www.instaware...CFS9eQgodKT8APA


.... Shel


#28 dcarch

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 11:38 AM

As we say in China, 哈哈哈!

 

Hahaha!

 

More hahaha for you.

 

 

dcarch


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#29 jsager01

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Posted 05 September 2013 - 07:25 PM

i think every poster on this thread has interpreted the OP and subsequent posters in every which way, and they are mostly correct in their own interpretations :-))

 

I frequently hear that true Chinese stir-fries can't be cooked in home stoves because they aren't hot enough. I'm curious to hear what fellow egulleters think about this.

 

I often cook Chinese food at home 

 

If by 'true' Chinese cuisine you mean as in the 'western' countries, or as in China? If it is as in the 'western' countries, then it is predominantly Cantonese or its derivatives, and wok hei IS a big deal in quite a lot of  Cantonese stir-fry. But, Cantonese cuisine (Yuè cài) is not only about stir fry or wok hei (think dimsum, steamed seafood, blanched kai lan, etc).
 
However, if it is about stir fry in China in general, then all bets are off, as there are at least 8 regional cuisines, of which Yuè cài is only one of them, and they differ significantly from each other.
 
If it is only about achieving wok hei at home (are home stoves not really hot enough) as compared to what a restaurant can dish out, then IMO, its something like asking if one can produce a great grilled steak at home as compared to what can be expected from a steak restaurant, ie do most home cooks need or have an external/industrial/whatever grill and sous vide to achieve the same results? Also, a great steak, or a great wok hei, is very subjective, and if it came from ones own kitchen, one may tend to be less demanding, especially if most of the wok hei/steak experience is from ones own cooking.
 
If it is a more general question about heat intensity and control and how it has evolved  in Chinese cooking techniques, then you may want to watch this video that i had previously posted in
The first episode is " optimal heating ' and you may then agree that it is not all about high flaming heat, and  sous vide is not going to be adopted any time soon anywhere in China.
 

 

Grace Young in The Breath of a Wok gives some seriously well thought out advice on how to get as close as possible to wok hei on a Western stove. She recommends a flat-bottomed cast-iron wok, properly seasoned, used on a gas stove. Her tips include preheating to the right degree, the usual swirling technique for liquids, never cooking more than 12 oz. of meat at a time (and letting it sear for 30 secs, stir for 20 secs, sear for 30 secs), and making sure to thoroughly dry all vegetables. And more. 

 

Why flat bottomed on a gas stove? and why cast iron which will weigh a ton and how does one flip the contents during woking? it does not take much practice (using raw rice in a cold round bottom carbon steel wok) to learn that technique, which is somewhat similar to flipping pancakes (flapjacks), and is part of the art of achieving wok hei  with or without a nuclear reactor as the heat source?
 
I believe, as i have no proof, that Maillard reaction can only explain a small part of what it takes to achieve wok hei.
 

happy woking.



#30 Katie Meadow

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Posted 06 September 2013 - 10:58 AM

I was eating stir-fry all the time for a while, inspired by living on the border of Chinatown SF. For years I managed well enough with a traditional round-bottomed carbon steel wok (at least I think that's what it is--I bought it in Chinatown 40 years ago), a ring, and underpowered gas stoves. But even though I turned out some nice stir-fries, I was always conscious of the fact that a little more heat would be a lot better. I never found the flat bottom woks to be very effective, but it never occured to me to use one on gas stove; I thought they were designed for electric stoves.

 

Finally I treated myself to a Viking stove once we moved to our own house. One option was a "wok burner" which we went for immediately. It is made of the same heavy cast iron as the others and is easily switched in as needed. It allows the wok to sit very firmly and lower to the flame than any ring would allow. So not only is the flame higher and hotter on the Viking, but the wok sits down further in it. Short of a more professional wok set-up this works pretty well. Perhaps there are other ranges now that have replaceable wok inserts even if the don't have more btu's. That might go part way toward more heat.