Stir-frying in an enamel clad cast-iron wok. Twenty-five year old carbon steel wok rests in foreground.
At my Hakka cooking party, I brought woks for stir-frying. Although we could have used a 12-inch frying pan, I find the wok far superior. With its bowl-like shape and great heat conductivity, the wok is one of the most versatile pans there is. Use it for stir-frying, braising, deep-frying, steaming, pan-browning, boiling, and smoking.
My friends questioned me about the woks. Many had admitting once owning a wok, but gave it away. Think of a wok like a cast iron frying pan. You need to scrub it, then season it with oil to seal the pores. Use it often and it develops a non-stick patina. Once you get the hang of it, you will use the wok for everything. Besides Chinese stir-fries, I use the wok to make spaghetti sauce, stews, and even popcorn. It will last forever. It’s the best pan for camping trips, versatile and rugged.
“Which wok should I buy,” they asked. The wok should measure about 14-inches across. This is a good size for most home ranges. With gas burners you can use a flat or round bottom wok. Round bottom woks need a ring to stabilize the pan when used for steaming or deep-frying. With electric burners, choose the flat bottom wok.
I brought two woks. One is a traditional carbon steel round bottom wok with one long wood handle and a short handle on the opposite side. The long handle is easy to grasp when stir-frying and sits on my gas burner. However, for most people a flat bottom version of this wok might be preferable. My wok is more than twenty-five years old and has a dark patina from frequent use. About seven years ago, Tane Chan of The Wok Shop in San Francisco gave me a two-handled enamel-clad cast iron flat-bottom wok which I use almost everyday. Both are priced under $25.
To season these woks, scrub them well, inside and out. Coat the surfaces (no need to coat enamel exterior) with a light film of neutral flavored vegetable oil. If there are wood handles, remove or wrap with a damp cloth and foil. Bake, upside- down, in a preheated 425° F oven for about 20 minutes. To remove the metallic taste, place wok over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil and cut-up onions or Chinese chives and stir-fry, pressing vegetables into the pan, until about two-thirds of the pan turns black, 10 to 15 minutes. Throw out vegetables. Wipe off excess oil and you’re ready to stir-fry.
You need to use your wok, preferably often, to develop a patina. People give up on woks too soon. Don’t scrub it too hard or you will remove the seasoning. Simply soak the pan until stuck-on food is soft, then wipe off and rinse. I dry the pan over a hot burner to make sure it is thoroughly dry. Storing a wok damp may cause it to rust. A wok should not be shiny and bright like a stainless steel pan. It’s a work in progress. The color of your pan will change as it is used and eventually develop dark color and natural nonstick finish.
An easy way to restore the patina is to pop corn it it. Simply place the wok over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, Add about 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 1/3 cup popcorn kernels. Cover the pan and shake pan often until popping subsides, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour out popcorn. The popcorn spreads the oil all over the pan evenly. Repeat, then wipe out excess oil. Your bonus is popcorn to snack on.
When buying your wok, also get a domed lid, curved wok spatula, and if buying a round bottom wok, get a wok ring. A good source to buy your woks is at The Wok Shop which is also online. My friend Tane Chan can guide you.