Monday, 16 March 2009

Wok special part I: How to choose, clean and maintain a wok

It was my brother-in-law's birthday yesterday and he asked for a wok as one of his birthday presents. In honour of his birthday, and to help him along with wok cooking, I decided to do a write up on wok cooking, as well as how to buy and care for a wok.

(The sheen comes from repeated seasoning of the wok. Read on to learn how to maintain your wok.)
Toasting sesame seeds

There is no other tool that does the job that well if you want to cook up a stir fry, as the dish and cooking method really make full use of the shape and size of a wok to help keep all the food in without having spillage over the sizes (always a problem with skillets!) while providing plenty of room for the ingredients to move around and cook evenly. I cannot imagine working in a kitchen without a wok, not only because it is an essential tool for the stir fries that I cannot do without, but also because so many dishes can be cooked in such a versatile tool. I stir fry, deep fry, braise, boil and even steam in my one wok. It is not just Chinese or Japanese dishes either, I also cook pasta dishes and ingredients for cottage pie in my wok (before transferring to an oven), just because it has so much room. A good wok that is well maintained will give you many years of use and also multi-task to reduce the need for other cookware.

Choosing and buying a wok:

Food needs to move around in a wok quickly in order to cook evenly and take advantage of the high heat cooking. So make sure you choose one that is sufficiently wide and deep for the amount you plan to cook. Also check that your cooker will accommodate the size that you want to buy. An 8-portions wok will not fit on a tiny cooker (especially if it is a gas stove with only small grate fittings on top).

You want a wok that is heavy enough to stay on the stove top without toppling over with all that stir frying action, but still light enough not to be unwieldy if you want to grab and flick the handle to toss the food around. Try to find a nice medium. A light or medium-weight carbon steel wok is relatively inexpensive and often the most popular amongst the Chinese and Southeast Asians. But more people are also opting for those with non-stick surfaces for easy cleaning and maintenance. Most traditional carbon steel woks are round at the bottom which requires a wok burner fitting on stove tops or a wok ring (a round band of metal that the wok sits on). If you don’t have a wok burner on your stove (which is not common outside of Asia), get a wok that has a flat bottom otherwise it will not sit properly on your stove.

Most woks come with a long handle (useful for holding on to for stability or tossing) or two round handles on the sides. Look for wooden handles or other material that will remain cool and safe to touch while the wok is hot.

If you have access to a Chinatown or oriental food store/supermarket nearby, that should be your first stop in wok shopping. They are cheaper and often better than the woks that you find in major department stores. There are still good woks available at major department stores and kitchen/homeware stores, as long as you keep an eye out for the weight and material.

How to clean and maintain your wok:

When new, wash with warm, soapy water and wipe dry. It is important to season your wok before first use, even if it has a non-stick coating. Open the kitchen windows, make sure the room is well ventilated. Heat the wok on high heat until excess water has evaporated and the surface is shimmering with heat. Remove from heat, apply some vegetable oil (peanut/corn/sunflower oil is good; olive oil has a low smoking point and will create too much smoke) and spread a thin film of oil all over the inside with a paper towel (held with tongs or wooden chopsticks if you want to be safe). Be careful not to burn yourself as the wok will be very hot.

Place the wok back onto heat for a few minutes until the surface is smoking slightly. Then remove from heat and allow the wok to cool completely to room temperature. Heat up the wok again and repeat the above steps, applying oil and allow to cool down again, another 1-3 times (more if it doesn’t have a commercial non-stick coating, in order for the wok to develop its own protective layer). Once completely cool, clean the surface lightly with a paper towel to absorb excess oil and it is ready for use.

After cooking, wash the wok with warm water and use a spatula, or non abrasive sponge to scrape off any bits that are stuck (they should come off with little force). Use little or no soap as it will remove the protection oil coating. Dry the wok with a cloth or by heating on the stove (to evaporate moisture) before storing.

Your wok will require more attention when new but will developed a good coating over time through repeated use. Re-season your wok from time to time, especially after using it for steaming, to maintain its shiny and protective coating and you will have a versatile pan that should last for years.

To use your wok as a steamer, for example, buy a deep wok with a lid, and place a metal trivet at the bottom for food to stand on. Place your ingredients in a heatproof dish and place it on the trivet. Pour about an inch of boiling water into the wok until it comes to just below the bottom of the dish. Cover the wok with a lid and simmer on low-medium heat, following the recipe instructions.

Wok as a steamer

In the next post, I will offer some tips for improving your stir fry technique.

Some people have raised the question of wok cooking on electric hobs instead of gas (with actual flames). I have the same problem of having to cook on an electric stove top (woe is me...). They are terrible for proper stir frying because they just do not provide the high and sustained temperatures as one would get from a gas stove. Unfortunately that is something I have to live with at the moment, so it is possible to use a wok on them - just painful... If you are on the market for a rented house/apartment, new property, or remodelling your kitchen, please, please get a gas cooker (if possible) if you plan to do any wok cooking. You get much better performance from gas stoves anyway, even for general cooking.

If using an electric stove, all is not lost. Preheating the wok helps, even if it takes longer to heat up on an electric hob. Just be patient and leave it to heat up on maximum setting before adding oil and so on. Otherwise any food that you put in there will just stew and simmer. It's not going to be perfect on an electric stove, but possible as long as you cook on high heat with enough time for the wok to preheat. My stove settings go from MIN, 1 through to 8 and then MAX. I usually heat up my wok on MAX, and when that is hot enough, cook on 8.


VeggieGirl said...

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS!! I ruined my last wok, haha.

danny kwok said...

Is these tips for non-stick pan as well? my current pan got burnt out too :(

Amy said...

I have a question about woks. I am a keen reader of your blog and love your recipes.

Is it possible to use a wok properly on an electric cooktop? It seems to me that woks work best on a direct gas flame, but some of us don't have gas cookers. I have one of those completely flat, glass-top stoves and it seems it just doesn't conduct heat to a wok properly.

Are those of us without gas lost?

Food For Tots said...

A very informative post! I learnt something new today.

Woolly said...

Hi there, I too have a problem with my wok sitting on an electric cooker hob. The eggs were always stuck to the bottom. I wonder what's the problem.

Nilmandra said...

Veggiegirl: Time to get a new one then :)

Danny: Yes, you can do the same for non stick frying pans or woks, unless the instructions specify not to season or use cooking spray. I have seen some non stick pans/skillets with those instructions, as some types of non stick surfaces do not take well to seasoning. It builds up a layer that interferes with the non stick function, instead of enhancing it. If there are no instructions that say so, you should be able to season your pan too.

Amy: I have the same problem having to cook on an electric stove top :( They are terrible for proper stir frying because you just don't get the high and sustained temperature from them as from a gas stove. Unfortunately that is something I have to live with at the moment, so it is possible to use a wok on them - just painful...

Preheating the wok helps, even if it takes longer to heat up on an electric hob. Just be patient and leave it to heat up on maximum setting before adding oil and so on. Otherwise any food that you put in there will just stew and simmer. It's not going to be perfect on an electric stove, but possible as long as you try to cook on high heat with enough time for the wok to preheat.

Food for Tots: Thanks!

Woolly: See my comment above to Amy regarding electric hobs. But I think your problem can be addressed with seasoning the wok to help build up a non stick coating. Don't use harsh detergent to wash/clean your wok; it will remove the protective coating. Just warm water, or slightly soapy water will do. And (I hate to say this because people are concerned about fat/calories these days but...) a little more oil in cooking will probably help too.

April said...

perfect timing for this! i was just looking at my wok this evening wondering if i needed to season it!!

noobcook said...

Love your post... so informative! I am starting to use my wok for almost everything (stir frying, sauteing, boiling etc) and I kind of abused it, hehe

JT said...

Hi, I am looking for a wok too. Not the non-stick one. Any brand to recommend? Thanks.

Nilmandra said...

April: No harm in doing it if you've not done it for a long time :)

Noobcook: Thanks! I use my wok as lot as well. They do take a lot of abuse, but also benefit from some seasoning to sayang a bit ;)

JT: I don't have particular brands in mind. I think the no brand ones probably work best; because the traditional Chinese woks that worked so well over the years never did come from established cookware brands that we see now! Better value for money too. The branded ones tend to be very heavy, and with lots of funky non stick coatings that might not even take well to seasoning.

The important thing is to lift the wok and see how it feels in your hands, how are the handles, how it might sit on your stove top, whether it is big enough for how many portions you want to cook. Not too heavy and not too light. You've just got to shop around and see and feel them for yourself to find what works for you. Hope you find a good one soon!

Zoe said...

1. i didn't know about that oil-ing thing!

2. i don't use a wok now...cuz hob looks so cramped.

3. i don't cook that much nowadays anyway.

Nilmandra said...

Zoe: But but but... you actually have gas! So wasted... :p

Nic said...

I am thinking of investing in a new wok, as the last one has got all burned bits on the bottom! Just wondering if a round bottomed wok would sit on a gas hob or if I would need to buy a flat bottomed one?

Nilmandra said...

Nic: Unless your gas hob has a wok burner stand (it looks like a big band of metal that would hold up the rounded base of a wok), which I doubt, you would need a flat bottomed one. In any case, a wok will definitely sit better on a the grate of a gas stove, compared to an electric or induction hob. So, lucky you! :)

Sangeeta Chaubal said...

Interesting post..came out pretty helpful and informative..

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