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Wok cooking - are home stoves really not hot enough?

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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!

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

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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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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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).

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

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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.

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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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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.)

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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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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!

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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.
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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 (log)

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

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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 (log)
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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 (log)

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" --------------------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 (log)
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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?

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