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11.08.2004

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wok this way
wok cooking 101
by Yee-Fan Sun |
1 2

When you grow up in a Chinese-American household, you take a few things for granted: rice must be eaten with chopsticks, and no kitchen is complete without a wok. The popularity of bad Chinese take-out means that you can generally scrounge up at least a couple of pairs of leftover disposable chopsticks in your average non-Asian person's home, but woks remain less prevalent. The first time I ever tried to treat a friend to a proper home-cooked Chinese meal when I was living at a guesthouse in Florence, I nearly called the whole thing off when I realized that, duh, this being Italy, the communal kitchen lacked a wok. I settled for a skillet, but it just wasn't the same: without the high sides of a wok to offer me plenty of room in which to work stir-fry magic, I felt reined-in, unable to toss and turn and those ingredients anywhere near as vigorously as I was used to. Sure, it's possible to stir-fry without a wok. But frankly, it's just nowhere near as fun.

buying a wok
Stir-fries are such a staple of contemporary cooking that you can pretty much find woks at any store that sells pots and pans. But the best places to score a good deal on a wok are still Asian markets. You'll generally find better prices and a much bigger array of size options -- from cute 10"-diameter versions to 18"-plus monstrosities, though a 12"-14" wok will probably be most useful to your average home cook. And as an added bonus, you can pick up all manner of tasty Asian treats while you're shopping at the Asian market.

Traditional woks are made of carbon steel and have a rounded bottom, a design that allowed Chinese cooks from days of yore to cook food quickly and evenly over the high heat of a fire pit. For the round bottom to work on a modern-day stove, these sorts of woks generally require an additional metal ring that allows them to balance properly on the burner (although sometimes, gas stove grates will work okay sans ring). Clever species that we humans are, we've also designed newer-style woks that have a built-in flattened bottom; these woks also frequently come with a nonstick coating. Whether you prefer the time-tested, old-fashioned woks or the higher-tech varieties is mostly a matter of personal preference; the nonstick, flat-bottomed types are probably a little easier to use and care for if you haven't had much experience with wok cooking before, but in my experience, I've found that the round bottom gives you a little extra depth and smooth curves in which to toss your stir-fries with wild abandon, and that sticking isn't a problem if you know how to properly use the wok. And hey, I figure centuries and centuries of Chinese cooks can't be wrong, yes?

seasoning the wok
I've always been jealous of my mom's wok, which boasts a beautiful, blackened finish thanks to decades of near-daily, loving use. That patina is the mark of a well-seasoned wok, and ensures a perfect non-stick cooking experience that beats the pants off any manufactured coating you could possibly find. And maybe it's just my imagination, but I could swear that food cooked in my mom's wok just tastes better than in my own younger, less well-used version.

Seasoning a wok is a somewhat long, tedious process, but if you go through the bother, trust me: your efforts will be rewarded with many years of easy, non-stick wok cooking. If you've decided to go with one of the new-fangled, Teflon-coated woks, ignore this section. But if you've gone the traditional route with your wok, a little pre-cooking prep is in order.

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