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Woks - Buying, Care, and Use


eatingwitheddie
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If you are cooking any more than a plateful (one serving) of food in a wok in a typical domestic setting you will NOT be able to maintain the high temps required for chowing (stirfrying).

I have never, ever been in a Chinese home that had anything other than a standard gas cooker. I doubt if I could buy a high btu burner here.

This has been my agument in previous eGullet discussions about wok-hei. It exists in the woks used in many Aisan homes and yet they don't have the high cookng heat that most Chinese restaurants use. This argument implies home cooks can't create true stir-fry cooking or achieve wok-hei which is a fallacy.

 

“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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This argument implies home cooks can't create true stir-fry cooking or achieve wok-hei which is a fallacy.

Nobody made that argument. The crux of my statement was to recommend cooking smaller quantities, which I even bolded in my prior post.

Maybe your perception of wok hei is different than mine.

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Here's the wikipedia definition of "wok hei"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wok_hei

When cooked correctly, the "essence" of the food comes through the flavour and the dish is said to "have wok hei". To impart wok hei, the food must be cooked in a wok over a high flame while being stirred and tossed quickly. In practical terms, the flavour imparted by chemical compounds results from caramelization and the Maillard reactions that come from charring and searing of the food at very high heat in excess of 200 °C (approximately 400 °F).
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I think also crucial with wok hei - is the slightly metalic taste of food cooked well in a good wok. It's like you can smell the heating wok.

I think wikipedia is a little off base in saying that wok hei comes from lots of cooking oil. A well seasoned wok should not require too much oil - and an excess of oil at the bottom of a plate of food is definitely not a good sign.

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Sometimes, in home cooking, a little extra oil will help to keep the temperature high when food is added.

If it is hot enough, the oil will not penetrate the food. Of course, some oil must be left behind in the wok.

BB

Food is all about history and geography.

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In this day and age, I find youtube is such a wonderful resource.

There's a user named "chefbalcer" who has the best wok cooking videos, and his technique is pretty sharp. He even rigged his own ventilation system

Edited by takadi (log)
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  • 2 weeks later...

Dear Takadi,

Your enthusiasm for wok cooking and the rush of high flames reminds me of the scene in the film "Jaws": the old curmudgeon fisherman and the youthful scientist eager to bag the shark. Guess who is who? I spent too much of my life in front of the roaring flames in a very busy Thai-Lao [mainly take-out ] restaurant. Not as elaborate wok-hei as Chinese, but enough stir-frying. No pao, only 19, 22, and 24 inch woks with ears. You should see the backs of my fingers! handling the heavy vessels has contributed to severe nerve damage in my right arm, along with a previous condition, so that technique is has its own pitfalls. I mention all these personal details in the hope of convincing you [at last?] that the "flash in the pan" [pun intended] is not everything!

As I wrote in the other thread, Ah Leung, Uncle ben and Prawncracker and others here manage to eat very well indeed, as does most of China, without singeing themselves or damaging their arms!

[Go to the film Man Woman Eat Drink : there you will see absolute masters of technique and substance. That's where one should be learning. NOT Chef Balcer.]

I got a great rush coming to work each day, and still feel the excitement of moving the wok and all the rest of that "nonsense"!! Make no mistake! I love my 22 and 24 inchers on the 16-32 jets and think the pao is for the birds [just kidding!]

Just between friends, for a Western audience 2 excellent texts teach velveting very well. One is Barbara Tropp, but her style is a bit long and involved. Irene Kuo is most accessible, teching velvint in oil, then a modified one in water [good for claorie counting] and a third, slippery coating, very useful for quick, home-style cooking. See if you find these useful.

Besides Ah Leung's trusted frying pan, you may even find a 6 quart shallow-ish pressure cooker [stainless steel] bottom useful as a stand-in for a wok on certain types of stovetops, gas or electric. Cooker bottom halves allow volume, to cover for the steaming interval, and have a flat bottom. Make sure the model you have has a flat bottom. Junkyards in many areas sell odd/mismatched cooker bottoms for a couple of dollars. They will retain some heat and the stay-cool handles are very convenient. Happy cooking.

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Much appreciated post V gautam. Unfortunately, I'm young, I'm stubborn, I'm stupid...

I wouldn't be the youthful scientist eager to bag the shark if I wasn't...well...eager to bag the shark.

The image of the battle hardened stir fry veteran does remind me of this quote though:

"I am tired and sick of pao. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a propane jet burner nor heard the shrieks and groans of the singed who cry aloud for flash, for smoke, for wok hei. Pao is hell."

Edited by takadi (log)
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v.gautam ---- I also enjoyed your post, and sensible comments.

About Barbara Tropp. I agree on her wordiness, and as you said -- she is an excellent teacher. It is as tho she is right over your shoulder as you cook. She leaves no questions as to technique. I remember a Chinese cook who was being asked about steaming. He referred the questioner to Barbara Tropp and her steaming instructions!

Now -- as you are in' Take-ou't, may I ask a technique question about ribs. For years I have used an excellent oven (over water) recipe and these are about the best BBQ ribs I've ever had. But they take time for marinating and then the time for cooking. I have googled quick ways to do ribs, and many involve pre-cooking in foil in a low temp oven (or boiling or steaming), with last minute cooking on the grill. Nice when you want to avoid high kitchen heat in the simmer. BUT the texture is just not right. I don't want falling-off-the-bone texture. I like the texture of my oven roasted ribs.

So my question. How does a take-out do it? When I order ribs, they take the ribs out of the refrigerator and put them in that hot oven and in a few minutes --- they are ready. AND delicious, AND have the texture I like . So ------- do take-outs pre-cook them? Are they seasoned before the final cooking? Can you give me any clues?

I can't seem to find any answers on line.

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So ------- do take-outs pre-cook them? Are they seasoned before the final cooking? Can you give me any clues?

I can't seem to find any answers on line.

Take it from a "lazy, shortcut obsessed ex take-out wok monkey", they are precooked to a degree of "al dente ala Chinois", that is mildly chewy, slathered with the marinade of choice as they cool, refrigerated and then reheated as ordered. Before reheating a fresh brushing of the sauce is added before the ribs go under the broiler.

V. Gautam, that is an excellent post. You obviously have "paid your dues". Like I said way upthread, I find more satisfactory results with a fry pan when I am cooking for the wife and I, especially with an electric stove top or a low fire gas burner. 45 years of tennis and the attendant wonky elbows have curtailed my wok heaving somewhat.

Edited by Ben Hong (log)
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No, but you might be the only one currently obsessing about it :biggrin:

So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness."

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

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How does enthusiasm and passion for a subject translate to obsession? It's not like I sit at home all day and think about woks and how to light everything on fire. Yes, I am a human being and I have a hobby. Perhaps egullet and I are on two very different pages, as I see the pao technique as an artform rather than just a mode of practicality or a mundane everyday occurrence, or worse, a hindrance to cooking and the enjoyment of it. To be honest, I only get this type of reaction here.

Edited by takadi (log)
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  • 3 months later...

We have a new gas stove with a high power burner and "wok ring" in the middle. While I'm sure it's far from professional grade it's better than anything I've had in the past, so I'm on the hunt for a wok.

I know non-stick is out of the question. I'm assuming carbon steel is best? Can anyone recommend a good brand/model? It doesn't have to be huge since I only cook for two normally, so 14" maybe.

All help appreciated!

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I am just starting to play with my new wok. Carbon Steel, 14", bought at my semi-local restaurant store for a whopping $10.50! What a deal! I did go internet walking and found sites to tell me how to season it, told me to heat the wok THEN add the oil to prevent food sticking (works too!), etc. I am such a novice :blink:

The only thing I've made in it so far is Mongolian Beef, but I've made it a dozen times in a few weeks as we are loving it so much. YUM! I am definitely getting better at it too.

Oh, my wok has the round bottom and a helper handle on each side.

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I have and use an old carbon Steel 14" that a friend gave me back in '76. He got himself a new one. This has worked well for me all these years. Good price too.

He is building himself a new kitchen and plans to have one of those 250,000 BTU/hr commercial units.

I wonder if i can sell my wife on a kitchen remodel after only 8 years?

Robert

Seattle

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I will recommend you to tour local Chinatown before you make online purchase. I did buy a wok from www.wokshop.com once, but I soon realized that I can get the same quality item in local China town at the same price (almost) without paying shipping for shopping online.

Carbon steel is easy to season, and does the job. I will go for a 16" if you cook for 4 or more. 14" is standard, anything 12" and labeled as 'stir fry pan' is ultimately for show instead of function to my experience.

You can either get a wok with one long handle (similar to western fry pan), or one with two loop handles(like a stock pot). Either way, go with a round bottom! Especially when you have a wok ring in place already.

You can also get a Logde cast iron wok from amazon.com. It's heavy duty, thick cast iron wok. Ideal for shielding any sharp object coming to you way... It holds heat well, and it's preseasoned. It does require longer 'preheat' time comparing to carbon steel wok though... and it's way more expensive than carbon steel ones.

When buying a wok, checking the thickness of the carbon steel, feeling the handle, doing some toss with it to see if you can handle the weight or not.

My wok shopping list will be a 'Pow' wok - single round hollow handle, and a wok with two BIG loop handles. Both of them will be carbon steel. I can get them from Chinatown about $25 total... of course, you need to season them yourself. And with Pow wok, you can just stick it in the over without worrying the heat burning the wood handle (ex. Joyce Chen's wok)....

I have a few posts about wok online, do a search with my name if you want to know more.

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  • 3 months later...

I am leaning towards a 14" wok but I may want a 16"

Carbon steel i suppose is best

i am looking at wokshop.com

ANY advice is very welcome-I have not made up my mind yet

I steam/braise more than i stir fry if that makes a difference

(i cant stir fry for beans-want to learn tho)

oh and I have a gas stove

thanks!

Edited by bloosquirrel (log)
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  • 4 weeks later...
I am leaning towards a 14" wok but I may want a 16"

Carbon steel i suppose is best

i am looking at wokshop.com

ANY advice is very welcome-I have not made up my mind yet

I steam/braise more than i stir fry if that makes a difference

(i cant stir fry for beans-want to learn tho)

oh and I have a gas stove

thanks!

You don't need a 16" wok for the job you do. A 14" double loop handel wok might just fit your job (vs. the one long handle, one helper handle on the other side, like the western skillet style).

Go to local China town to get a feel before you buy from wokshop.com, what you get might not be what you see (and it might or might not be a good thing, search my post in the forum and you will see).

As a matter of fact, I will use a cast iron dutch oven for the job you described.

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  • 6 months later...

Jo-mel,

Sorry for the late reply! Coming to this thread after a long time! Since you asked about the ribs, I shall have to defer to Uncle Ben's sound advice and good taste. As you will have read, my experience has been in a Thao-Lai place: sadly, no delicious Chinese ribs; papaya salad took its place I guess! There, the Lao owner insisted on authenticity and had a bucket of Pla dek or fermented fish slurry, instead of fish sauce, to create the true Lao taste. Did people ever get a surprise when they requested the Lao som tam!!! You could see the would-be sophisticates in a university town try their best not to heave on their dates seated right opposite them! It made the excellent curry puffs sell very, very well, to clear the palate immediately after, several plates worth in fact!!

Re woks: please go to GALA SOURCE a restaurant supply company on the internet and familiarize yourself with the many types of woks, their metals and finishes, and where they are manufactured [China, Taiwan, Japan]. Armed with this information, you will be better able to make a choice.

If steaming is your favorite activity, you might be better served either getting a Stainless Steel wok, a Joyce Chen non-stick wok or a dedicated large metal steamer that can have many uses.

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  • 1 month later...

I bought my first wok a couple of weeks ago from a supermarket here in China. It's 32 cm, and flat-bottomed. I didn't see any round-bottomed woks available for purchase. Actually, when I bought it, I joined a rather large group of confused looking locals surveying the racks - it seems the main qualification for purchase was the ability of the shopper to heft and brandish the wok appropriately. At one point, an older man got so animated with his pan that he brought down an entire row of woks upon himself - it was fun to watch all the shop attendants come running to rescue him from the pile. It must be a thorny choice for people, because as I was making my way through the store with my wok in the basket, my friend and I were stopped by another woman who asked us how we'd managed to pick one out - she confessed there were too many models for her to choose from.

The shop attendants were keen to push non-stick woks on us, but I wanted one to season myself, following Barbara Tropp's thorough method listed in her "Modern Chinese Cooking", which I will chronicle in photos here.

First; the wok. I think it's carbon steel, but who knows.

2009 09 13 002.JPG

Ms. Tropp is very specific that it gets a good scrubbing, but minutes of furious scrubbing yielded me a pan no different than before the steel wool touched it. I assume she was dealing with dirtier pans in her day. Still, she doesn't strike me as the sort of person whose steps should be skipped. So; I scrubbed.

2009 09 13 003.JPG

Then, onto the gas ring on a high heat, until the pan sizzled water.

2009 09 13 004.JPG

I had a dish of peanut oil, tongs, and a cloth to help. She suggests paper towel, but I couldn't find any.

2009 09 13 005.JPG

When the pan was hot enough to sizzle water, I began to rub in the peanut oil with the cloth, until the pan began to smoke and turn dark on the bottom. Not for those faint of heart or exhaust. Fortunately, Chinese home kitchens seem to be well ventilated.

2009 09 13 007.JPG

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