A wok is all drama: the swirl and sizzle of screaming-hot oil, the scorch of the fire beneath, and the crash of vegetables and proteins as they tumble rapidly between capable hands wielding enormous utensils. It’s a sensory experience, delivered with such rapidity that you’re unsure exactly how all these things came to be set before you, fully cooked, ready to savor.
It’s no wonder that most people find wok cooking intimidating; I do, and not for lack of exposure. I spent more time around a wok than one might expect from a white kid growing up in the Midwestern suburbs, thanks to a best friend whose parents were second-generation Chinese-Americans who loved to cook. Elementary-school sleepovers included stir-frys and pot stickers, not pizza; on a few occasions, we dressed up and made our way into the dining room to eat Peking duck by candlelight. I was fascinated, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in love.
Unfortunately, that love doesn’t necessarily result in skill or confidence. For years, I’ve viewed wok cooking as something beyond the reach of my own ability, a task better left to professionals. At best, I would be a failure; at worst, a walking fire hazard – until I allowed myself to ignore my fear long enough to learn. On a quiet January morning at the Culinary Institute of St. Louis at Hickey College, I watched, listened, touched and tasted with a professional chef.
First up, a sheet pan of bowls, large and small, carrying aromatics, chopped vegetables, raw meat and rice. Next, a furiously hot fire that flung itself underneath the matte blackness of an impeccably seasoned wok. Finally, the crackle and snap of oil as it hit searing carbon steel, and in what seemed like moments, we had a finished dish that fell from the wok into our bowls. We ate, I asked questions and at the end of my time there, I felt my fears (most of them, anyway) fall away, too.
After that, I practiced. It was rocky at first, but my lack of knowledge was no longer part of the equation, and I eventually got the feel for it. You can, too – all it takes is common sense and practice. I can’t give you hands-on experience, but I can offer up what I learned, plus tips and tricks to get you started and build your confidence. It’s amazing how much less intimidating a wok becomes in your home kitchen if you’re armed with the right equipment.
Choose your wok carefully; if it’s cumbersome or you don’t like the feel of it, you won’t use it. Carbon steel works best for home cooks – it’s relatively light, inexpensive, and heats quickly and evenly. Pick one with heatproof handles, which won’t leave you scrambling for pot holders, and choose either the long- or short-handled style, according to personal preference. In terms of shape, flat-bottomed is best because it captures the most heat on electric or induction cooktops, is easy to maneuver and provides essential stability for things like deep- and shallow-frying or liquid-based dishes like soups or stews.
Caring properly for your wok is essential. Prep a new one by scrubbing with hot, soapy water to wash away the protective factory coating. After that, treat it much like you would a cast-iron skillet: To season it, heat a small amount of vegetable or peanut oil and a little salt in your wok over medium heat, carefully rubbing the oil into the wok surface as it heats up. Do this in 10-minute intervals, turning and tipping the wok as you go. Bring the wok back to room temperature between rounds until you’ve created your own “nonstick” surface inside. Don’t ever let soap touch it after the initial cleaning; scrub only with hot water – even burned bits should come off with ease – towel dry and season again over medium heat before putting away.
What you use in and around your wok are as critical to success as the wok itself. Invest in a chuan, or wok spatula (or two) and a hoak, or wok ladle, which are specifically designed to help you scoop and scrape your way to greatness with their sturdy builds and lengthy handles. Being able to move food quickly is vital, and proper spatulas will have you doing so with ease. If you don’t have one already, buy a Chinese spider strainer, a champion of lifting blanched vegetables and fried foods out with finesse. It’s especially useful in stir-frys for lifting cooked meat out before other ingredients take the dive. The number of things you can use a wok for is vast, especially to those who assume it’s limited to the flash-bang of stir-frying. It’s surprisingly versatile; a multitasker ready to conquer deep-frying, soup-making, sauce-thickening, vegetable-steaming and much more.
A FEW THINGS TO REMEMBER
Prep: Three critical words: mise en place, a French term for having ingredients prepared before making a dish – in other words, get your stuff together. Have every ingredient chopped, diced, sliced and marinated before you even think about heating the wok. Everything should be measured out into prep bowls, easily accessible – including all utensils – and ready to throw in at a moment’s notice because that’s exactly how long you’ll have once things begin.
Plan: Read through the recipe and distill it down to bullet points in your mind: what’s first, how long will each step take, what’s next and so on. Make your own list and keep it in front of you if you need to, or organize your ingredients based on the order they’ll be needed.
Heat and Move: A screaming-hot wok is a must, but you don’t want it to burn things on contact. Control the heat by lifting and tilting the wok as you need to, and use your spatulas to keep whatever you have in the wok moving around.
SPICE AND SAUCE PANTRY ESSENTIALS
Before you tackle the following recipes, make sure your kitchen pantry is stocked with these shelf-stable staples. Most items require only a quick trip to a well-stocked grocery; other items, like Chinkiang vinegar or shaoxing rice wine, can easily be found at international or Asian markets.
- Light soy sauce: This is regular soy sauce, not to be confused with the low-sodium variety you may refer to as “light.”
- Dark (mushroom) soy sauce: Soy sauce’s deeply earthy side, almost black in color.
- Shaoxing rice wine: Mildly sweet cooking wine, similar to cooking sherry.
- Rice wine vinegar
- Chinkiang black vinegar: A full-flavored, luxurious vinegar similar to balsamic.
- Potato or tapioca starch (flour)
- Sesame oil: For flavoring dishes, a little goes a long way, and it’s got a much lower smoke point than other oils.
- Peanut or vegetable oil: For cooking, frying and the like – both have a neutral flavor and a high smoke point that make them ideal for high temperatures.
- Dried Chinese chiles: Those wee leathery crimson peppers you see scattered through your Kung Pao chicken are most likely japones, also called Oriental or Chinese-style chiles, and are easy to find in most well-stocked grocery stores.
- Dried Chinese mushrooms: You can easily find fresh Chinese shiitake mushrooms at Asian markets, but the fresh shiitakes you see at mainstream grocery stores are a far less funky American version. A quick glance over to the dried mushrooms will get you the Chinese variety, along with others, like wood ear. Simply rehydrate them in hot water before using.
- Sichuan peppercorns
- Star anise pods
- Fennel seeds
- Red chile flake
- Chinese cassia cinnamon: Sweet and slightly spicy, cassia is hotter than standard Ceylon but sweeter than Vietnamese, making it perfect for sweet and savory dishes. Find it at spice shops.
- White peppercorns: A fruity, hot pepper integral to Chinese cuisine, used not for aesthetics (as it is sometimes used in the West) but for the flavor it imparts. It can be bought ground or in whole form. Opt for high-quality – it matters.
- Sesame seeds
- Hoisin sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Garlic-chile sauce
- Black bean sauce
- Chile oil
These recipes cover the basics to get you comfortable with using your wok, and they work up and out to help build your skill gradually. Each one introduces a slightly different way to use the wok by incorporating different techniques and ingredients. Cook at your own pace, and with a little practice, you’ll be a natural.