Everything You Need to Know About Cooking with a Wok
Wok cooking can be intimidating, but it can also be the most versatile and handy tool in your kitchen. Here, Andrew Zimmern gives his best tips on how to utilize your wok.
Wok cooking is intimidating. But it's the most versatile and handy tool in your kitchen. It can braise, fry, sauté, and even make a handy smoker (I use one of my woks fitted with a small inset grate to tea-smoke duck and squab all the time). Because of its unique shape, the wok requires some special cooking techniques and ideas.
Get a good one; I have several, including the one I designed for Chefs Catalog. Check it out at andrewzimmern.com. I use that wok for everything. Remember for stir-frying not to use a wok bigger than 16 inches. Once it has food in it, you won't be able to work very efficiently.
I also have several thin carbon-steel woks that I use exclusively for frying and smoking, all flat-bottomed with long handles.
Never overfill the wok, or the food will not cook quickly enough. More important, you need a sparse cooking environment to bring out the "wok hei" — the signature smoky, dragon's-breath flavor of good wok cookery.
Mise en place is everything. Prepare all of your ingredients before you begin cooking. Make sure they are organized at your work space and that you know what your moves are going to be. Separate the main ingredients from sauce ingredients and aromatics, if that helps. The wok cooks very quickly at high heat levels, so you need to be at the wok at all times. Prep is crucial.
Preheat the wok before doing anything. Even before you add oil to the wok, it should be preheated until it begins to smoke. A well-seasoned and properly cleaned wok will always have micro pores in the metal that hold some oil or food particulate, etc. — that's a good thing. Your wok will talk to you by smoking and tell you when it's ready, releasing the flavor stored in the wok before you add the oil. Once the oil is added, the pores will begin to close.
For wok cooking, use oils with a high smoke point and low polyunsaturated-fat content: grapeseed oil, peanut oil, etc. Sesame oil and olive oil will burn and taste bitter. Oils with high polyunsaturated-fat contents like soybean oil will also make your food texturally unpleasant.
The key to cooking with a wok is a lot of controlled, high heat levels. The heat must be very high so that you hard-sear the food. I recommend burners of 15,000 BTU to reach the right temps. With heat that high, you will be able to get the flavors and textures that can only come from a wok.
Gas burners are crucial; electrical elements don't cut it. With a gas burner, the flame can be adjusted and the effect of dampering heat is immediate; that allows you better control over your wok so that the food does not burn. Lower temperatures can be attained by moving the pan off of the heating source, but gas is quicker on the uptake.