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Woks And Whys

by Susan Asanovic

Equipment and Techniques

Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 19 and 21

Your wok is the ultimate multi-purpose cooking vessel. The only choice for an authentic stir-fry, it serves as a skillet, saute pan, steamer, and deep fryer. Thousands of years ago, early woks (which the Cantonese called kuo) were hammered in iron; the rounded bottom shaped to fit the well of primitive stoves. The latter were fired very hot with whatever combustible was available for fuel. Today, few of us outside restaurant kitchens can approximate these conditions, however, we do have a multitude of choices as to shape, material, coating, and heat source.

First decide how serious you are about tradition and authenticity of results. Gas versus electric? Although Ken Hom claims you can get your wok hot enough, with patience, on an electric burner set to high, this method cancels the flexibility of instant heat regulation. It also warps or destroys the finish of most woks. Frankly, I opt for gas heat. An ordinary household range does not offer the BTU power required by professional chefs, but one can buy an apartment-size professional range or a stand-alone propane-fired burner.

Tested at length were four basic wok types: aluminum, cast iron, non-stick, and steel, flat and round-bottomed, on electric and gas, with and without the wok ring.

The fourteen-inch Calphalon (Commercial Aluminum Company, Toledo OH) is spun aluminum with a sleek, stick-resistant anodized finish, and two stainless steel hand grips. It is well-balanced and the most aesthetically pleasing to use. A wok ring is very useful for stability on both gas and electric, but some cooks with a more flamboyant style, and a penchant for impending danger, may prefer to jerk the wok back and forth. The smooth rust-proof surface does not require seasoning as do iron or steel. You need only a minimum of oil for cooking. It can easily be cleaned with a sponge and water, powdered cleaner for serious burn-ons, and can be used with metal wok implements. The high-domed cover fits tightly for steaming.

The fourteen-inch round-bottomed Le Crueset, made of (very) heavy cast iron. It comes with a light aluminum lid (which arrived bent), and a neat little novice cookbook. I like its stability and feeling of very old tradition. This came with a one-hundred-and-one year guarantee, but no guarantee to outlive your wok. Once heated, it retains heat extremely well, too well for certain techniques, however. Its great for toasting nuts and seeds, dry-frying, and procedures which benefit from steady heat, such as deep-frying. The self-seasoning surface cleans very easily and so far hasn't needed any heavy-duty scrubbing. Chinese (and other) foods cooked in iron or steel absorb more iron than in other metals. In a recent study, whose source I could not locate, the iron content of carrots increased nine times, the amount of iron in the tofu six times, and the iron in the rice cooked in this type of wok increased two times. With more acidic foods the iron content increases even more. This can be a significant contribution to the diet. As a bonus, vegetables retain a maximum of their nutrients when flash-wokked.

A word about metal handles and grips: The Calphalon and cast iron Le Crueset have metal hand grips which become very hot; don't forget to keep pot holders handy if you use a pot with handles of this type. While wood and plastic handles do not conduct heat, they do have disadvantages. Remember, that when you toss oil into a superhot wok and add moist vegetables or wine, flames can engulf wok and contents for a few spectacular seconds. I have wood handles with battle scars; when not watching and controlling the height of the flames, they have caught on fire.

Settle for a flat-bottomed wok if you only have electric heat, or if you plan to use it more for sauteing, braising, and omelets than for lightening-quick, superior superhot stir-fries. The flat bottom automatically requires more oil to coat all food surfaces. It is a compromise and requires no wok ring. The best in this category is the Joyce Chen twelve-inch Peking Pan, which now has an excellent non-stick coating called Chencote II, a vast improvement over older models, but with a rather flimsy cover. Choose this light-weight wok if you have weak wrists, or arthritis, or if you store the wok on flimsy hooks. It is perhaps best used as a convenient, easy to clean saute pan and for one or two servings. It works well for scallion pancakes, pot stickers, and red cooking; but not for deep frying. I found the warning not to place a hot wok in cold water important and I did need to oil it after boiling or steaming, both inconveniences. You can not heat this wok, or any other coated pan, to the high temperatures required for great Chinese cooking. The same company does sell a fourteen-inch steel round-bottomed wok that does all of the above well.

If you're equipped with balanced chi and maximum BTU's, nothing beats the inexpensive fourteen-inch steel model which was the only choice available until rather recently. This is the wok I purchased over twenty-five years ago for a mere three dollars in Chinatown and the one I use most often. Our test models came from tag sales, not the manufacturers. Ask you favorite restaurant cook where he/she buys woks and other equipment.

Back to my winning steel special; requiring a preliminary scrub and one or two seasoning sessions, it then rarely, if ever, needs more than a rinse; it self-seasons with frequent use and good karma. This is the only choice for tea-smoking, which would warp or destroy the finish of fancier pans.

Should some inconsiderate guest (never you) accidentally produce burned-on food on any wok, carefully follow manufacturers cleaning suggestions. To re-season a wok, the best idea is to make scallion oil (see below) or indulge in a deep-fried dish.

Well-treated and properly used, all of the above are virtually non-stick. In sum, my number one choice for contemporary cooks is Calphalon; but my Number One Son prefers inexpensive steel (which he feels free to warp on an electric burner). My Number One Daughter opts for the lightweight easier to clean Peking Pan, and we all love the heavy cast iron wok because it feels so good to cook in and looks...well, authentic. Truthfully, I'll take one of each! And, I'd love a hammered copper wok to hang on display...and we can use it for mounting egg whites, but how do you bake a souffle in a wok?

This wok debate begs experienced restaurant chefs and inexperienced home cooks and all those in between to contribute their feedback to the wok debate. I'll convince the editor to include it in a separate column if enough of you join the foray.

In the meantime, if you want to make scallion oil, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo has a great Scallion Oil (Chung Yau) recipe. It follows:
Scallion Oil
2 cups peanut oil
3 cups scallions, cut into three-inch sections
1. Heat a wok over medium heat, then add the peanut oil. When add hot carefully put in the scallion sections. When they turn brown, remove oil from the heat source and cool.
2. Strain the oil through a fine strainer and store in a clean glass jar in a cool place for two days. After that, refrigerate the oil.

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