It’s too painful. I ruined the best part of my life, and cooking in a wok reminds me of what I lost.
Nearing two years ago, I wrote this poem in a creative writing class.
Everything I wrote in the class was forced and trite, but I grew to like this poem. I like the repetition. There is much repetition in stir-frying. And it’s about cooking for friends!
What’s the point of cooking if not for friends?
Yeah, that, too.
Stir-frying has many qualities that make it excellent. And although it isn’t a particularly difficult or demanding cooking method, there are some basic steps that every wok chef needs to take in order to ensure that those excellent qualities are realized. Some of these steps can be altered; I don’t claim to know the best way to do anything, but these techniques have worked well for me during the creation of many stir-fry dishes that included the combination of vegetables, a protein, and a sauce.
The first step I take for any stir-fry recipe is to measure any seasonings and make the sauce. Don’t be arrogant. Stir-frying is a simple process, but because of its ability to quickly reach a very high temperature, it requires much attention. There won’t be any time for measuring ingredients after you start cooking.
Then, I go ahead and cut up all of my ingredients. You’ll need to try to achieve a uniform cut to help the ingredients cook evenly. If the ingredient is going to be eaten, cut it into bite-sized pieces—just for the protection of you and your guests. If the ingredient is an aromatic only used to season the wok, be progressive and demonstrate your tolerance for diversity.
There’s absolutely no reason that you shouldn’t marinate your protein. Soy sauce is my favorite marinade for stir-frying, but the options are plentiful.
In some situations, it can be helpful to read a recipe and line up your ingredients in the order they will be used. To reduce the risk of making a mistake, you should read the recipe, but the ingredients will almost always be added in this order: oil, aromatics, protein, vegetables, seasonings and sauce. Sometimes, I omit this step; I’m no square but the paragon of spontaneity.
Now, it’s time to preheat your wok. Always remember: yeet wok doong yul! That’s Cantonese for “hot wok cold oil.” This is important because adding oil to an unheated wok will decrease the effectiveness of the oil’s ability to keep food from sticking to your wok. Turn a burner on medium-high heat and place the wok on it. Depending on your stove, it could take as much as three minutes or as little as ten seconds. When a single bead of water evaporates within 2 seconds of being dropped into the well of your wok, your wok is hot enough to add oil.
Most recipes will call for 2 tablespoons of oil. The preferred technique of adding oil is to slowly pour it around the sides of the wok, lifting and tilting the wok as needed to coat the entire surface. Most recipes include the addition of aromatics in the directions. Most of them say to use garlic, ginger, and green onion. So, if the wok-seasoning process has been left out of your selected stir-frying recipe, just remember the three G’s: garlic, ginger, and green onions.
When the aromatics have started to burn, remove them from the wok and add the cut protein. It’s important to spread the pieces of meat evenly throughout the well of the wok. You don’t want half of your chicken burnt and the other half raw. Overcooked chicken is dry. Undercooked chicken is deadly. Without stirring or moving it around at all, cook the meat for one minute, or until it starts to sear. Then, stir the meat around, cooking it evenly until it seems to be approximately three-fourths done. Then, remove it from the wok and set it aside. Some recipes won’t call for the chef to remove the protein, but it’s usually a safe decision to make because an overcrowded wok loses its heat.
Before you add your vegetables, it may be necessary to add just a little bit more oil to the wok. Not everything can go as planned. Trust yourself, and I promise we can make it through this together.
Dry vegetables are essential to an adequate stir-fry. To avoid a soggy dish, make sure you remove any water from the surface of the vegetables. Then, add them to the stir-fry. Immediately start to stir the vegetables around, making sure they cook evenly.
When the vegetables are approximately three-fourths done, stir your protein back into the mixture. See all those juices that escaped your protein while you were working away on your vegetables? You should definitely put those back in there.
I know your dish already looks and smells amazing. But we’re not finished yet; it’s time to add the sauce and seasonings. Pour the sauce slowly down the sides of the wok—just like the oil. If you dump the sauce into the well, your wok will lose much of its heat. Now, sprinkle in your dry seasonings. It’s possible that your stir-fry is ready to be plated and enjoyed. Or, your protein may need a few more seconds in the wok.
I’m sure you’ve realized that these basic steps are guidelines that can be followed without a premade recipe. You can follow these steps, using your favorite meats and vegetables, to create your own recipes. Once you’ve read a few professional recipes and have an understanding of how to use seasonings and create your own sauces, your friends and family will surely mistake you for a master chef. The wok is a truly exciting tool for the creative culinarian.
Do you have your wok? Have you named it yet? Just kidding.
The first step a new wok-owner should take is to remove the anti-rust coating that protects every new carbon-steel or cast-iron wok. Most wok chefs agree that the best way to remove this coating is to scrub it off with soap, hot water, and a stainless-steel scouring pad. Scour the inside of the wok with hot soapy water, rinse, and repeat the process four or more times. You can’t be too thorough in removing this coating.
Is your arm tired from all that scrubbing? Take a deep breath; that was the last time you’ll ever scrub your wok with soap.
After you’ve rinsed the wok for the last time, put it on a burner on medium heat and let it heat up for three minutes. It’s likely that, not for a lack of trying, you’ve left a slight amount of residual oil on the wok, which will produce smoke and a faint smell while being burned away. Now, let the wok cool.
Congratulations! Your wok is clean and ready to be seasoned.
The importance of seasoning a wok cannot be overstated. Most woks manufactured today are made of carbon steel, which is porous and will absorb water, causing the wok to rust. By seasoning your wok, you’re filling the pores in the carbon-steel with oil and specific aromatic ingredients, which prevents rusting, creates a non-stick surface, and seasons every meal.
There are many different ways to season a wok; including one that requires rubbing a peeled ginger root all over the inside of the wok, one that requires removing the handles from the wok and placing it in the oven, and one lazy option that only uses oil. I’ll explain my favorite technique: one that doesn’t require the disassembly of the wok, but depends on more affection than simply adding oil to a heated wok.
First, cut up some slivers of garlic, green onion, and ginger. It doesn’t really matter how you cut them; they won’t be eaten.
Now, heat the wok over a burner on medium-high heat. The most common method that wok chefs like to use is to drop a bead of water into the well of the wok. If the water evaporates within two seconds, the wok is hot enough. This will be a method you use for almost every dish you cook in your wok.
Once your wok is heated, coat the entire inside with oil. The best way to do this is to ball up a paper towel, grab it with some tongs, dip it in oil and rub it across the entire surface of the wok. Then—just for good measure—drop another teaspoon of oil in the well of the wok and swirl it around. Because of the wok’s ability to get very hot very fast, the best oil to use is that with a high smoking point. The best oils to use are corn oil and peanut oil; both have a smoking point of about 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Olive oil typically has the same smoking point as corn oil and peanut oil, but it’s pricey and will not augment your wok or any dish you cook in it more than the less-expensive alternatives.
Now that your wok is coated with oil, throw in the garlic, green onion, and ginger and start stirring it around. You can use anything you want to move the ingredients around the wok, but experienced wok chefs use a wok spatula, or chuan. A chuan is very similar to the spatula we’re familiar with in the west, but its sides have raised edges, perfect for scooping. You want to stir the ingredients so that they spend time on every inch of your wok’s surface.
Once you’ve stirred them around for a minute or two, any friends or family members in the house will start to peak their heads into the kitchen asking “what is that sensational aroma?” Just stay silent. The beauty and complexity of the process exceeds the ancient technology of language. They will have to wait, in salivating expectation, for your first stir-fried creation.
Continue stirring the ingredients around for eight to 13 minutes, or until they’re burnt. Remove the wok from the burner and let the mixture cool down. Then, scoop them out with your chuan and throw them away.
Well done. Your wok is now seasoned and ready to unite your favorite ingredients in culinary matrimony.
Now, it’s time to learn how to properly clean your wok. The cleaning process is an important one because it can affect the taste of the ingredients cooked in it. If you’re going to cook in your wok now, then wait until you’re done cooking to clean it.
Although it’s an important process, cleaning a wok requires minimal labor. It’s the method you will likely use after every use of your wok. Using a soft sponge, rub the entire surface of the wok with hot water. Don’t use soap. That first time you used soap to remove the antirust coating was the last time you’ll use soap on your wok. If soap is used after the wok is seasoned, it will cause food to stick and taste like soap.
Wipe the surface of the wok with water as long as needed, then put the wok on a burner on high heat to evaporate the remaining water and sanitize the surface. Let the wok cool and hang it up!
It may seem like the maintenance of a wok is demanding, but woks are forgiving; if food is stuck on the surface of your wok and can’t be clean, or you’ve allowed your wok to gather some rust, both can be scrubbed off using oil, salt, and hot water in a process many call the “Wok Facial Scrub.” And that is a lesson for later post.
Don’t forget to turn off your stove.
Two years ago, my girlfriend’s mother bought me a wok and all the necessary utensils, such as the shovel-like Chinese metal spatula, from a website blamelessly named The Wok Shop. Because of the importance of a well-developed patina, it’s easy to become attached to a wok. No, not a wok—YOUR wok. Since that glorious day when I removed my brand-new wok—still coated in its factory oils—from its box, my passion and my patina have been excitedly evolving.
The wok is the most common cooking device in East and Southeast Asia. It’s easy to see why. It has seemingly endless capabilities; you can steam, stew, sear, boil, braise, poach, deep fry, pan fry, and stir-fry, all in a wok. But the wok’s true vocation is the alchemic, seemingly magical stir-fry.
Stir-frying enhances ingredients in a way that no other method can. Their textures are augmented. Their flavors are heightened through a distinct process of caramelization. Vegetables become glorious and more flavorful than ever before. Through browning, meats become succulent, plump and divine. (And then there’s velveting, an art, a science, a delicate technique I have yet to master, but it’s worth the efforts.)
Let the meats and vegetables be combined and “married,” instead of meeting each other for the first time when served on the table in their respective confirmed bachelorhood and unspoiled virginity, and you will find that each has a fuller personality than you have ever dreamed of.
I love that quotation. If that doesn’t get you in the mood to wok it out, I don’t know what will.
The Chinese word for “stir-fry” is chau in Cantonese. But to chau is not actually a stirring motion. It’s more of a flipping, or scooping motion that’s performed continuously, making sure that each bite-sized ingredient spends the same amount of time in the well of the wok, producing a uniform mixture.
The tools you’ll use while stir-frying will seem familiar: ladles, spatulas, knives, and a wok skimmer. The utensils are slightly different than their western counterparts in shape, size, and function. For example, the wok ladle, or hoak, is longer than most ladles we’re familiar with. They range from 14 to 18 inches long and have a wooden handle with a deep, round bowl. Home cooks sometimes use the ladle to serve soups and sauces from the wok, but master chefs use their ladles in a different way, one that requires a level of coordination and expertise that only comes with time and practice. As an expert wok chef stir-fries, she or he uses the hoak to push the food away from the chef while simultaneously using the other hand to shake the wok in a circular motion, continually tossing the mixture.
Next time, I’ll explain the process of cleaning, seasoning, and properly maintaining your precious wok. Then, one day, we’ll get to some recipes.
Go buy a wok! www.wokshop.com