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Woks - Buying, Care, and Use


eatingwitheddie
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Much as I love cast iron for frypans, it's impractical for a wok - too heavy and too slow to heat up. Stainless tends to stick and is not great at heat transfer. Plain steel is best for durability and rapid heat transfer. That's what Asian restaurants use worldwide. There's one situation where you might want to consider a non-stick, and that's if your wok will get very infrequent use and as a result won't be kept seasoned. Otherwise, steel.

I suggest get one with a rounded bottom if you have a 'wok burner' element on your stove, or a wok with the smallest practical flat spot on the bottom if you don't. This allow a small amount of oil to concentrate in a small area where food can be stirred in and out of it, which is the objective of stir frying. If the flat spot is big, you might as well use a fry pan.

Size the wok to the number of people you'll be cooking for. I use a 12" at home since I'm usually cooking for two.

Hong Kong Dave

O que nao mata engorda.

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Transparent, I respectfully suggest that the VAST majority (maybe even 100% of restaurant woks are carbon steel. I grew up in, worked in and owned "Chinese" retauarants and to be frank, I have "never" seen a cast wok in a restaurant. If you have ever used one, they take forever to heat up (not wok-like), you can't flip or shuffle them while cooking because they are as heavy a dickens, they are brittle, etc. I am positive though, that there are applications where a cast iron wok would be appropriate (because they are being manufactured), but I've not seen any.

Perhaps someone with a better and wider experience than me can correct me if I'm wrong.

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Hm, maybe I'm confused about the types of woks. Carbon steel has more a shine than cast-iron, right? My wok is completely black and pratty damn heavy. I assumed it was cast iron...

Edit: Looking at The Wok Shop's site, the "cast iron from china" wok look exactly like mine. The carbon steel ones just look too "smooth." I'm comparing it to the parts of my wok without the patina, by the way. The more I look at it, the more it looks like mine...

Edited by Transparent (log)
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I'm probably going to get killed here for say this but for most people the best "wok" for home use is a standard 12" cast iron skillet. The reason being chinese resturants have VERY high BTU burners. 68,000 BTU+, they all have multiple flame rings. If you look at one it's kinda like looking at the bottom of a rocket engine. Woks are purposly very thin to allow the best transmission of that energy from the burner to the food. When you add food to the wok the high btu burner allowes for very fast recover of heat in the wok.

This provides the nice "smoky" flavor called wok hay. Even if you have a pro style stove at home they generally top out at 30,000 BTU so it dosen't really provide the fast recovery for best flavor development. The way to work around this problem at home is the use a heavy cast iron pan. The pan is heavy and tends to retain heat. If you preheat the pan until it is smoking hot and drop a small amount of food in it the temperature dosen't drop significantly and you can get the nice wok hay flavor. But to keep the temerature in the cast iron pan hot enough you have to cook in small batches and preheat between batchs. I've made fried rice at home (both gas and electric stoves) with a wok, 12" aluminum skillet and 12" cast iron skillet. The cast iron skillet provided the best flavor. I've also made "orange flavor beef", "sesame chicken", "beef with oyster sauce" at home in the 12" cast iron skillet and it tasted much better than the vast majority of chinese resturants out there. Had the nice smoky flavor expected in dishes like that. Also growing up my parents used a wok on your standard gas range at home. The food never had that nice wok hay. My parents also owned chinese resturants. When we were in the resturant with the high btu stoves and made the same exact receipe. It tasted much better.

If you don't believe me give it a try. Cast iron pans are cheap ~$20. Woks are cheap. Buy both. But I'll bet that your wok like mine will be gathering dust in the closet somewhere.

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I agree with jongchen.

I have a large steel wok that I use occasionally, however I have a separate wok burner, not part of my cooktop.

One of my neighbors uses her wok (her kitchen is rather antiquated) on one of the separate propane burners made for the turkey fryers as it was cheaper than getting a new stove or a wok burner for which she had no room in the kitchen.

She cranks the burner all the way up and sometimes gets some flameover so she does all this cooking out on her (covered) patio so it is safer. (Also because her husband doesn't like the odor of very hot oil in the house.)

If you absolutely must have a wok, I would go with the steel wok because the response time is much faster than cast iron and it is much easier to handle.

You should get a high dome lid so you can stack bamboo steamers in it as it works beautifully for that and the heat comes up very fast compared to regular steamers.

I actually took a class on wok cookery some 15 + years ago and it opened my eyes to the variety of things that can be prepared in the wok.

Recently I have been watching Kylie Kwong on Discovery Home channel and have been inspired to get out the old wok and try some of the things she has done. Last Saturday she did eggs in way that really looked interesting. She also did chicken and lobster combined in a dish that looked fantastic.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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I'm probably going to get killed here for say this but for most people the best "wok" for home use is a standard 12" cast iron skillet.  The reason being chinese resturants have VERY high BTU burners.  68,000 BTU+, they all have multiple flame rings.  If you look at one it's kinda like looking at the bottom of a rocket engine.  Woks are purposly very thin to allow the best transmission of that energy from the burner to the food.  When you add food to the wok the high btu burner allowes for very fast recover of heat in the wok.

This provides the nice "smoky" flavor called wok hay.  Even if you have a pro style stove at home they generally top out at 30,000 BTU so it dosen't really provide the fast recovery for best flavor development.  The way to work around this problem at home is the use a heavy cast iron pan.  The pan is heavy and tends to retain heat.  If you preheat the pan until it is smoking hot and drop a small amount of food in it the temperature dosen't drop significantly and you can get the nice wok hay flavor.  But to keep the temerature in the cast iron pan hot enough you have to cook in small batches and preheat between batchs.  I've made fried rice at home (both gas and electric stoves) with a wok, 12" aluminum skillet and 12" cast iron skillet.  The cast iron skillet provided the best flavor.  I've also made "orange flavor beef", "sesame chicken", "beef with oyster sauce" at home in the 12" cast iron skillet and it tasted much better than the vast majority of chinese resturants out there.  Had the nice smoky flavor expected in dishes like that.  Also growing up my parents used a wok on your standard gas range at home.  The food never had that nice wok hay.  My parents also owned chinese resturants.  When we were in the resturant with the high btu stoves and made the same exact receipe.  It tasted much better.

If you don't believe me give it a try.  Cast iron pans are cheap ~$20.  Woks are cheap.  Buy both.  But I'll bet that your wok like mine will be gathering dust in the closet somewhere.

I'll bite. I disagree. But whatever works for you, well...works for you.

"Wok Hay" is something that develops over time in a wok, just like a cast iron pan develops good seasoning after being well-used and maintained. It's a layer of flavor you notice right away when eating out in a restaurant. You will know immediately by the taste whether the food you're eating was made in a well-seasoned wok or not.

I refuse to buy into the myth that you can't make decent stir fried food at home because home ranges/burners can't output the same heat that restaurants use. How many millions of people in this world use woks (or similar pots/pans) to cook with at home on their residential ranges/stoves and now they should all cease and desist because they will never get it right thanks to their inadequate stoves? I don't think so.

I bought one of those cheap woks made out of sheet metal from my local Asia Market about 10 years ago and it's just now developing a nice "wok hay". It'd probably taste even better if I stir fried more often, but I don't, unfortunately.

I have an electric stove. I'd rather have a gas stove, of course but I make do. My wok is round-bottomed and I don't use a ring as the electric coils on my stove have a small empty circle in the middle and I've found it's open just enough to hold the bottom of the wok. So I crank the burner to high and "wok'n'roll". :wink: The sheet metal is thin enough I don't have to wait too long for the heat to recover.

I'd like my wok better if it had a helper handle but that's a moot point now. To get back to the original post, I'd say definitely stay away from the non-stick wok and don't bother with the stainless steel. You can achieve great things with the cheaper carbon steel "sheet metal" woks. Save yourself shipping charges and head to your local asian market and buy your wok there.

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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I investigated woks a few years ago and on

Friday, July 19th, 2002

from The Wok Shop in San Francisco bought a 14" hand hammered "Pow wok", from China, steamer ring, lid (with handle), and a standard stirring tool. Of these items, what I have actually heavily used is the wok; so far I have used the other items rarely or not at all.

The construction of the wok is just stamped sheet steel -- not cast iron, not stainless steel, and not Teflon coated. I fully agree that stamped sheet steel is the only candidate wok material.

There is a handle, also of steel. The handle looks like they took a piece of steel tubing that might otherwise be used for exhaust pipe for a small car, cut off a piece about one foot long, hammered one end to be flat, and pounded the other end into a forming tool to roll the cut edge inward to make a smooth end. Then they attached the flattened part to the outside of the wok with three rivets. The quality of the rivets is terribly low, but so far they have held.

I've been quite happy with the wok. By now, it is very well 'seasoned'. The 'seasoning' operation was easy enough: Just use the wok, let oil get black on the surface, and then don't remove the blackened oil. At times I did clean the inside with a stainless steel scrubber (a ball of tangled shreds of stainless steel with lots of sharp edges), detergent, and a sponge. So, the inside surface is now a great cooking surface. For the outside, it's hopeless: Enough food spills over the edge and gets on the outside that the outside is a bit sticky. I just let the heat worry about the outside.

The 14" diameter was about the largest that would fit in my kitchen sink.

The 'hammering' puts some shallow dents in the surface and are said to help hold food on the slopes and not just all slide to the bottom center. I am not sure that the hammering is very important; it has not been for what I have done with the wok.

I use this wok for nearly all my 'saute' work. For a spoon, I have never used the Chinese one and have used a long handled one piece stainless steel cooking spoon instead.

In using the wok, I have an insulated glove in my left hand to hold the wok handle and hold the spoon in my right hand.

My last use was during the Blizzard of '05 here in New York: I made 7 quarts of chicken soup. Used two roasting chickens, total weight 15 pounds, 4 pounds of onion, carrot, celery (2:1:1) for the stock, and another 2 pounds of onion, carrot, celery plus 1/2 pound of mushrooms for the soup, all browned in the wok -- yup, during the blizzard! So, that was 18.5 pounds of food to brown. We're talking huge clouds of rising steam, smoke, grease!

I would never attempt to use the wok indoors; it's an 'outdoor puppy' only. I use it over a 170,000 BTU/hour propane burner. The burner is fully effective but very simple and inexpensive: It is from King Kooker, a company in Louisiana, and was intended for cooking large pots of seafood on beaches. There is just a simple cast iron burner, a brass and steel jet for mixing the propane and air, a frame of welded iron rods, and a hose with a pressure regulator to a propane source. I got Model No. 88 PKP, but they have revised their products since then. It's been outdoors since I got it maybe five years ago. Eventually rain and freezing weather ruined the pressure regulator, so I used some stock brass fittings, some Teflon tape, some stainless steel hose clamps, and some epoxy to eliminate the regulator. So, right, I'm using the thing without a regulator; to adjust the propane flow, I just use the valve on the propane tank. I don't recommend this, but I'm getting by with it.

The wok is not super stable on the King Kooker; a wok ring might help, especially if you cut notches each 120 degrees so that the notches could fit over the three rods of the burner.

The wok has just one handle, and I agree that a small handle on the other side could be helpful.

Now to learn how to cook as well as in my local inexpensive Chinese restaurants!

What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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  • 4 months later...

My aunt gave me her old carbon steel wok yesterday, but it needs to be re-seasoned. Any suggestions on the best way to do this? I've seasoned woks with the Oven Method a la Grace Young, but this is rather time-consuming.

Does anyone have a favorite or tried-and-true method? Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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Good question. Is it rusty? Bad rusty? Or just not seasoned.

Best way I know to season a (non-rusty) wok or cast iron pan is to deep fat fry in it. Several times. Still time consuming, but at least you get to eat the results.

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Now is a great time to really clean the wok with all the abrasive and wire scrub pads that you want to use. Really, really give it a good going over, and when you're done, rinse well and dry. What you have now is a wok that is clean and has some shiney metal showing.

The next steps are rather easy, but time consuming. Turn on your largest stove top burner up high and place the wok on it. (Turn on your exhaust fan now). As the burner (electric) gets red hot, the bottom of the wok starts changing colour a bit . Pour in a couple of ounces of clean oil and swirl around. You must also tilt, and rotate the wok over the burner so all sides are equally heated hot and oiled. After a few minutes or when you can't stand the oily smoke any more, turn off the burner, remove the wok drain the oil and let the wok cool thoroughly. Wipe clean and repeat twice.

From now on the wok is seasoned and should never see a wire scrub pad, abrasive cleansers, soapy detergents ever again. Hot water and a nylon or bamboo brush should do 99% of future cleaning. I don't cook tomatoes or other acidic dishes in my good carbon steel wok as that stuff destroys the seasoning.

The oven method works almost as well, except if your wok has wooden handles.

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Unfortunately, I do not have an exhaust system, which is a problem. Also, the wok has a wooden handle and wooden helper handle. I already own _Breath of a Wok_, and have tried the Chive Method for carbon steel woks after scrubbing off all the old crap with a stainless steel scrubbie. I don't feel like it's really "seasoned" though - it just looks the same as before. I haven't cooked anything in it yet, as I just tried that yesterday. If that doesn't work, I might try the method recommended by Ben Hong.

Edited by Zen Baker (log)
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The next steps are rather easy, but time consuming. Turn on your largest stove top burner up high and place the wok on it. (Turn on your exhaust fan now). As the burner (electric) gets red hot, the bottom of the wok starts changing colour a bit . Pour in a couple of ounces of clean oil and swirl around. You must also tilt, and  rotate the wok over the burner so all sides are equally heated hot and oiled. After a few minutes or when you can't stand the oily smoke any more, turn off the burner,  remove the wok drain the oil and let the wok cool thoroughly. Wipe clean and repeat twice.

I seem to remember my mom *dry* stir-frying (i.e., no oil, no water) black beans (not the pickled one, but the dry, usually "soak-before-use" type) on low to medium heat until it smokes as a way to season new wok.

Uncle Ben: Is that a "Hoisanese" method you would recognize? I'm not really sure about the chemistry behind it.

As well, fresh chives are involved if it is a brand new wok, so as to get rid of the ferric odor that it usually has.

If smoking and a lack of good exhaust are a concern, try to use lard in the place of oil per Ben's method. Or dump a pound of bacon in there -- sure, it'll smoke, but at least it's really aromatic smoke!

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You have to keep in mind that a carbon steel wok is porous. The method I use is simply to clean/scour it as others have said, then dry it on the stove. The heat opens up the pores of the metal. Pour some oil in the HOT wok, and rub it around the whole wok with a wad of paper toweling. Let the wok cool -- closing the pores and entrapping the oil. wipe well. Repeat the heating, oiling, rubbing, cooling 3 times. Wipe the wok well, not letting any pools or slicks of oil remain. That should do it. Never, ever, scrub with soap again.

One time, my favorite wok was encrusted all over. I took off the wooden handle and put it in my self cleaning oven. When the cycle was finished, I had a wok with a pile os sooty dust all over it. So I scrubbed it and started seasoning it from scratch

Years ago, in NYC's Chinatown, there was a hardware store with an old sign by the counter. The sign explained how to season a wok: (or words to this effect)

"Heat a pound of lard in a wok. Add a bunch of bean sprouts and heat to high. When the sprouts turn color, throw the whole thing out and wipe the wok. The wok is now seasoned"

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Seriously, get to deep fat frying. This will give an iron or steel pan a seasoning like black velvet. Any time the seasoning or coating starts to loose its effect, say from cooking an acidic food, put tonkatsu or chicken katsu or potato chips on your menu. Wallah, the coating is back. Let the outside of the wok go ahead and get crusty.

Methods described above are great, but only get you started on the seasoning. Cooking (usu. over very high heat) is what really develops the coating. Rinsing and wiping out with a light hand is imperative.

Friend of mine moved back to Japan and gave me her deep cast iron skillet (dutch oven) that she had ever only used for deep fat frying. You should see the seasoning in that thing-its awesome. Now I mostly use a wok though, 'cause it takes less oil.

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After using my wok for steaming a few times (and heating with oil again before putting it away), the seasoning near the rim - not the area that was in direct contact with water during steaming - started bubbling away in little bubbles from the iron underneath. This is not rust as far as I can tell, but instead it LOOKS as if the seasoning is peeling away from the wok.

Is it rust, do you think? What should I best be doing to fix it and to ensure that it doesn't happen again? Deep fat frying would mean that I would have to heat the wok right up to the rim with oil (and my kitchen does not have an exhaust system, so that is not going to happen).

BTW, the wok had, I thought, been seasoned pretty well right from the beginning (I inherited it from Chinese friends who were leaving the country).

I realize a photo would probably help, but basically it shows up as black on black, and my photography skills are not up to dealing with making that sort of thing look clearer.

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One thing you should do is to get another steaming utencil. I have a couple of 'stainless' woks that accomodate my steamers, so that my seasoned woks don't lose their patina.

If that 'crusting' is loose, scrape it off. Then just heat/oil/wipe etc. the wok again.

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You have to keep in mind that a carbon steel wok is porous.  The method I use is simply to clean/scour it as others have said, then dry it on the stove. The heat opens up the pores of the metal.  Pour some oil in the HOT wok,  and rub it around the whole wok with a wad of paper toweling. Let the wok cool -- closing the pores and entrapping the oil. wipe well. Repeat the heating, oiling, rubbing, cooling 3 times.  Wipe the wok well, not letting any pools or slicks of oil remain.  That should do it. Never, ever, scrub with soap again.

Just a quick nitpick that is driving this former chemist crazy... carbon steel is not porous, it's reactive. That is, it's easily oxidized. Heating the pan up does not open up the pores in the metal, to change the metal at all you'd have to go to much, much higher temperatures. On a stove top you'd change the chemical structure of the oil before you change the structure of the metal.

regards,

trillium

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You have to keep in mind that a carbon steel wok is porous.  The method I use is simply to clean/scour it as others have said, then dry it on the stove. The heat opens up the pores of the metal.  Pour some oil in the HOT wok,  and rub it around the whole wok with a wad of paper toweling. Let the wok cool -- closing the pores and entrapping the oil. wipe well. Repeat the heating, oiling, rubbing, cooling 3 times.  Wipe the wok well, not letting any pools or slicks of oil remain.  That should do it. Never, ever, scrub with soap again.

Just a quick nitpick that is driving this former chemist crazy... carbon steel is not porous, it's reactive. That is, it's easily oxidized. Heating the pan up does not open up the pores in the metal, to change the metal at all you'd have to go to much, much higher temperatures. On a stove top you'd change the chemical structure of the oil before you change the structure of the metal.

regards,

trillium

I looked to the book where I read about pores in a carbon steel wok. It was Tropp's first book TMAOCC. She does use the word pores as: "pores". She speaks of the metal as 'drinking up the oil', and in another paragraph she says to wipe the oil-soaked cloth evenly around the wok 'deliberately driving the oil into the wok'.

I'm not questioning your chemistry, but could you explain how the carbon steel does absorb the oil? A heated metal/oil reaction?

Edited by jo-mel (log)
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I agree with Trillium on this one. The process of seasoning a wok is in fact adding microscopic layers of oil to the steel surface. The adherence occurs when the wok is heated, oil added, cooled and wiped off. The physical properties of the oil changes in the superheating and then cooling, I believe, making it more adherent. In simpler terms, the oil adheres in a "baking on" process. It's that baked on oil residue that makes a wok "seasoned".

I am NOT a chemist nor a physicist, but I know that NO kind of solid steel can be called porous. That is my opinion only :smile::wink:

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I've heard the porous thing a few times before but never gave it much thought. But if you think about it, solid metal is clearly not porous. If it were, then the seasoning would go all the way through the metal pan. But it isn't, the carbon seasoning is only on the pan's surface.

Edited by sheetz (log)
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This whole question is still bothering me. I keep reading on 'google' about 'pores' -- which I now agree are not there. I assume carbon steel expands and contracts with heat. Does that explain the terms 'impregnation with oil' and absorption of oil' -----that I've come across in my search?

I'm just trying to understand the process and want to better explain it when I have my cooking classes.

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Sorry to have bothered you, I'll try to explain better without getting myself into trouble with people who think about chemistry all the time, unlike me these days. I guess at the atomic or molecular level you could say all things have pores. However, I think the whole point of heating oil on a reactive iron surface (carbon steel or cast iron) is to cause the oil to undergo polymerization and adhere by forming bonds with the reactive substances in the iron (maybe iron oxide if I had to guess), in effect sealing off the reactive part of the metal with a thin sheet of polymerized oil. I think the heat is working more to change the structure of the oil in the presence of the metal, and not as much to change the structure of the metal itself. That's what I was trying to say, but maybe I should have just kept quiet.

Anyhow, oil and heat on reactive iron is a good thing!

regards,

trillium

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Sorry to have bothered you, I'll try to explain better without getting myself into trouble with people who think about chemistry all the time, unlike me these days.  I guess at the atomic or molecular level you could say all things have pores.  However, I think the whole point of heating oil on a reactive iron surface (carbon steel or cast iron) is to cause the oil to undergo polymerization and adhere by forming bonds with the reactive substances in the iron (maybe iron oxide if I had to guess), in effect sealing off the reactive part of the metal with a thin sheet of polymerized oil.  I think the heat is working more to change the structure of the oil in the presence of the metal, and not as much to change the structure of the metal itself.  That's what I was trying to say, but maybe I should have just kept quiet.

Anyhow, oil and heat on reactive iron is a good thing!

regards,

trillium

Certainly not a bother at all! I'm glad you've clarified things so well. It's been awhile since my chemistry days, and I never did that well in those classes anyway. For me, chemistry was just a springboard for medical school. Anyway, I tried the method as stated above, and while it has worked (kind of), it does not appear to be as effective as the Oven Method from Breath of a Wok. One day, when I have a little more time, I might re-season again with the oven. I like the bronze color that the pan takes on; it's almost like seeing the oil polymerized on the surface of the iron. When I seasoned it recently, it did not take on this bronze sheen. It just stayed...metallic-looking.

Also, one more question to the pores debate: is traditional cast iron porous? The un-glazed kind, of course. I would think that that kind of metal would actually be porous and be able to "absorb" oil during seasoning, or is it just a figment of the imagination? Thanks.

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