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jemartin

Info on How to Learn High-Heat Chinese Wok Cooking

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Posted (edited)

I heard that you need quality iron or carbon steel woks and a very powerful gas burner for getting good wok hei and making the best tasting Chinese stir fry dishes like restaurants make.  I have a wok and a wok burner that I think work for this purpose, but would like to know what to do now.  The main problem I'm encountering is that nearly all cookbooks seem to be designed to teach people to cook on low-power standard home stoves rather than in the high heat setting with a more restaurant-like round-bottom wok on a powerful gas burner.

 

There's one particular recipe at Chinese restaurants I really like and want to learn to cook at home.  I think it's this:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7603564

 

Where should I go to learn to do this correctly? Is there a particular cookbook or education source that teaches you to cook restaurant-type Chinese food with these powerful gas burners in particular? I've been making similar things at home with beef & broccoli stir fray seasoning packets and with the wok, but notice if I use the suggested amount of water for the sauce it boils off in the wok very quickly, and leaves my broccoli relatively uncooked.  I think I need to learn how to cook stuff on the higher heat specifically to make it work out right.

 

My stir fries with the sauce packets taste pretty good if I add more water than the sauce packet suggests so it doesn't all boil away, but I don't think this is the right way to cook it to get wok hei, and probably aren't as good as my favored meal at the Chinese restaurant I like.  What to do?


Edited by jemartin (log)

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Don't forget that you can always vary the heat during cooking...it doesn't have to stay turned up to 10.

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I've never seen this covered in a book. The closest coverage like this I've read is when a hacker starts stir frying in his backyard over a turkey fryer, an imported Asian burner, or a grill. There's some coverage in assorted blogs across the internet. Try searching wok + grill, wok + turkey burner, etc....you get the idea. Kenji over at Seriouseats has a great article on stirfying over a grill. 

 

Having watched pros at work (I worked at a chinese resto as a kid) and comparing them to home setups, I'd say the techniques are the same, they're just way faster on a pro burner. The searing times are much shorter, and then as Catdaddy said, turn the heat down to cook through. Trying to cook broccoli through at 180K BTU  and then pulling it off at just the right moment makes timing too hard for most mortals.

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It's all about the timing. Food doesn't stay in the wok long. Your mis en place needs to be on point. A pro wok range setup always has a full pot of simmering stock going. Hard veg, like broccoli, are dipped into the stock for maybe 45 sec to get the cooking started before they hit the wok.

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This is a skill you can't learn from a book: trying to explain this kind of stuff with written words is almost impossible. A lot of cooking skills are based on sensibility, the only way to learn them is having someone showing you what to do, then practice and practice and practice. You develop these skills through your senses: how food changes its color; how smell changes; how noises change; how texture changes (stir frying calls for stirring, so you feel how food texture changes through the utensil you use for stirring). It's impossible to teach this stuff via written words. This is the main reason why graduates from cooking school are considered beginners in every professional kitchen: they have the theory, but totally lack sensibility and experience (which are way more important than the theory).

 

 

 

Teo

 

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14 hours ago, tomishungry said:

Trying to cook broccoli through at 180K BTU  and then pulling it off at just the right moment makes timing too hard for most mortals.

Many of the places I've seen around here typically par-boil some of the tougher veggies or meats, drain, then stir fry for a few seconds...

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Since I started cooking with a wok forty years ago I have developed a technique and a familiarity based on trial and error such that I can make a simple stir fry practically in my sleep. Most of my stir-fries are fairly similar. I'm very lazy, and for the two of us I am not going to make more than one dish, so the basic dish typically involves a modest amount of shrimp, chicken or whatever protein, plus a variety of vegetables, usually cabbage, choi sum and Chinese chives. 

 

For a beginner I suggest reading and trying various recipes or taking a class, although I kind of agree that timing and experience and technique are also a matter of practice, practice, practice. I wouldn't have assumed this, but lately I am trying to teach my husband how to make our basic stir fry and it's trickier than I thought. The things my husband is good at, like baking bread, give you time to think and plan in a way that is very different from the speed of a stir fry. Remember that stir-fry came about because there wasn't a lot of fuel--a short burst of high energy was the best you could get from a small bundle of sticks. Okay, I don't know if this is totally true, but it must be a factor. 

 

A decent round-bottom wok is a necessity. My preference is carbon steel. So is the ability of your stove to produce a high flame as needed. So is making sure your wok is sitting in a stable fashion and at a distance from the burner that works well for you. After years of cooking on an under-powered gas stove we finally put in a small-size Viking range that can generate some real heat. I bought an interchangeable cast iron wok burner as part of the original purchase. If you cook with a wok once or twice a week like I do, that was worth the upgrade. I've never done a stir-fry outdoors, so I'm ignorant about that. 

 

I've never heard of a sauce packet, but it sounds like you can't get much variety that way. The basic ingredients for marinades and sauces are easy to work with and mostly cheap and will allow for creativity and different flavors.  Books can help there, both with suggestions for purchases and ways to combine ingredients. Eventually you will find your favorites, and hopefully you have access to Chinese ingredients, although the basics such as various soy sauces, vinegars, rice wine, peanut oil, chiles etc are pretty available. For me this has become the most efficient dependable meal that I can put together without thinking, and it never gets old.

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9 hours ago, KennethT said:

Many of the places I've seen around here typically par-boil some of the tougher veggies or meats, drain, then stir fry for a few seconds...

 

Yeah, you can do that, or just man up and cook it entirely in one go in the wok.

 

Seriously though, I've done it both ways. Blanching/par cooking is fine, but doing it all with the proper heat control in one pot is way more convenient. I've never seen a professional chinese kitchen take two steps when one will do. If you pre cook, you're obliged to shock everything in cold or ice water to stop the heating process before everything overcooks. That's too much work - it's easier to sear/brown over high heat and then gently simmer for a minute to cook through. Boiling at high heat as the OP did is too hard on timing for non-professionals to do consistently. Even the pro cooks I've seen turned the heat down to a simmer so they wouldn't compromise the texture of the longer cooking veggies.

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You are also supposed to push the food up the sides of the wok where it's a (little) cooler so it doesn't overcook. Doing this also makes room in the hot part of the wok to make/thicken your sauce.

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This is an interesting topic as I just bought a 160k BTU outdoor wok burner and a round bottomed wok. I've been using it for about 2 weeks now with a lot of success and some burnt rice. I purchased Grace Young's Breath of a Wok and Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge and both are very helpful. I also joined her Facebook group called "Wok Wednesdays" and it has been nice getting feedback directly from her and the others in the group.

 

That being said, the book was written for a standard home stove, not the outdoor high power burner. She has already given me ways to adjusting the recipes in terms of how they will react to the high heat. Things like not needing to have very dry vegetables, not needing to sear meat for a minute in a single layer, not adding the aromatics first as they will burn, etc. I find the books show me the order I need to build my stir-frys and obviously provide recipes as I'm unfamiliar with some of the building blocks of stir-frying. Like others said though, it's about doing it over and over when it comes to stir-frying and learning how to build each dish, what goes in when, etc. etc. I'd recommend both books. They both offer a lot of background insight and other useful information. Breath of the Wok is probably the one to start with if you only get one. I initially got SFTTSE figuring it was the newer and better version, and it is great, but I'm finding BoaW to be more of an education.

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On 3/18/2019 at 9:35 AM, Robenco15 said:

This is an interesting topic as I just bought a 160k BTU outdoor wok burner and a round bottomed wok. I've been using it for about 2 weeks now with a lot of success and some burnt rice. I purchased Grace Young's Breath of a Wok and Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge and both are very helpful. I also joined her Facebook group called "Wok Wednesdays" and it has been nice getting feedback directly from her and the others in the group.

 

That being said, the book was written for a standard home stove, not the outdoor high power burner. She has already given me ways to adjusting the recipes in terms of how they will react to the high heat. Things like not needing to have very dry vegetables, not needing to sear meat for a minute in a single layer, not adding the aromatics first as they will burn, etc. I find the books show me the order I need to build my stir-frys and obviously provide recipes as I'm unfamiliar with some of the building blocks of stir-frying. Like others said though, it's about doing it over and over when it comes to stir-frying and learning how to build each dish, what goes in when, etc. etc. I'd recommend both books. They both offer a lot of background insight and other useful information. Breath of the Wok is probably the one to start with if you only get one. I initially got SFTTSE figuring it was the newer and better version, and it is great, but I'm finding BoaW to be more of an education.

Grace Young is a great educator. Sounds like she gave you good advice about how to vary her recipes for high btu cooking.

 

The best thing I learned from her was the need for careful balancing of flavors and textures for success. Dishes often come out ok when you leave out an ingredient or vary a technique. But if you follow her well developed recipes to the letter the result is often sublime. 

 

The Chinese pantry is full of overpowering uber-umami things but in the right amounts it's wonderful.

 

I cook on a butane stove and have taken to using velveting a lot. I can cook 24oz of chicken and a big pile of veg in a 14" wok great results.

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2 hours ago, catdaddy said:

Grace Young is a great educator. Sounds like she gave you good advice about how to vary her recipes for high btu cooking.

 

The best thing I learned from her was the need for careful balancing of flavors and textures for success. Dishes often come out ok when you leave out an ingredient or vary a technique. But if you follow her well developed recipes to the letter the result is often sublime. 

 

The Chinese pantry is full of overpowering uber-umami things but in the right amounts it's wonderful.

 

I cook on a butane stove and have taken to using velveting a lot. I can cook 24oz of chicken and a big pile of veg in a 14" wok great results.

Yeah in my haste to reply I skipped over how useful the velveting technique is. Not complicated either. 

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