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Wok cooking - are home stoves really not hot enough?

37 posts in this topic

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 (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?

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

http://www.instawares.com/chinese-gas-range-2.icra-2.0.7.htm?s_cseid=GSHP&gclid=CIvT4IbltLkCFS9eQgodKT8APA


 ... Shel

"... ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself "

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As we say in China, 哈哈哈!

Hahaha!

More hahaha for you.

dcarch

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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.


It's dangerous to eat, it's more dangerous to live.

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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.

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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.

It is almost impossible to find round bottomed woks in China any more. All are flat bottomed or nearly so - some have a flat section at the very bottom, then round up a bit.

Induction cookers are to blame. They are the fashion. Once it was to have a bicycle, then a radio, then a tractor, then a phone, then a motorcycle, then a house, then a car.

Just before cars came free-standing induction cookers. Ideal for plonking down in the middle of the table for hot pots. But the woks would fall over, so they flattened them. I have spent the last two weeks trying to find a traditional round bottomed wok and failed.

Prior to the induction cookers, all cooking was done by gas or directly from fossil fuels and wood etc. I've never seen an electric cooker in China (apart from table top induction cookers n the last few years.)


Edited by liuzhou (log)

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A month ago I tried wokking on the BBQ for that "Wok Hei" thing (as per "the food lab"/Kenji Lopez suggestion). It was basically a disaster, but I found two useful facts based on measurements I made with my laser/infrared thermometer:

1. The BBQ heats up to considerably higher temperatures than the hob.

2. However, with the miniature BBQ I used, the wok itself heated up considerably more on my hob than it did on the BBQ.

Which is to say, temperature alone doesn't do it. From whatever heat source you use, you need sufficient total heat output to quickly get the wok back up to cooking temperatures. Suddenly the bicycle-pump pressured jet burners used in Asia are starting to make a LOT more sense.

LiuZhou: That's funny, from all the Chinese I've seen when I lived in Asia, most of them would get a nice car before they'd get a house looking good not only on the inside, but the outside as well (i.e. not box-shaped, if you see what I mean). I may be biased though as I never lived in China.


Edited by kleinebre (log)

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I'm a complete novice at wok cooking only having started trying to cook Chinese dishes recently, but for what they're worth here are my observations.

I'm stuck with a induction hob. I bought a 'flat' bottomed carbon steel wok. I did quite a bit of on line research before seasoning. Can't say that I was wildly successful in that effort, but the wok seems to be coming around as I use it. Its now at a point where almost nothing sticks to it and I can easily clean it with warm water & a soft cloth.

I think one of my main problems is that my induction hob is not linear in its heating. The difference between a '7' setting & an '8' setting is not proportional. Don't know if this is a common problem or not. The 8 is too hot & many times the 7 too low. What I have learned though experience is that using the wok on my largest burner works better than using it on the burner that seems to fit it best. Go figure?

In any case I'm beginning to be happy with the results and I'm beginning to get a good sense of how much I can cook at a time.

I'm still mystified as to how people get what look to be extremely fast cooking without burning or sticking. My wok will stick or form a coating if I try to use too much heat.

Any advice anyone would care to give me would be greatly appreciated.

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I think that as the seasoning builds, your wok will get more and more nonstick.

I recommend cleaning it while it's still hot, with just hot water and a paper towel. Directly after you dump the final contents on to a plate. If you use a bamboo wok brush, be gentle - it can remove quite a bit of seasoning.

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I think that as the seasoning builds, your wok will get more and more nonstick.

I recommend cleaning it while it's still hot, with just hot water and a paper towel. Directly after you dump the final contents on to a plate. If you use a bamboo wok brush, be gentle - it can remove quite a bit of seasoning.

Thanks for the advice. I'll try that as I've been waiting until the wok cools and using a soft cloth.

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When you thin about it, your 200k BTU burners won't have been around that long but Chinese cuisine has a long history. These powerfull burners have only made the sitr-frying techniques quicker. Barbara Tropp states in her book that stir-frying is the product of "labour-rich and fuel poor country. Add together the the many Chinese hands ready to chop, the few Chinese twigs or lumps of Chinese coal available to burn, and a never-ending quantity of oil capable of being heated to hellishly hot degrees, and one arrives at stir-frying...................There are no tools required beyond those typically found in a Western kitchen".

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