How to Cook with a Wok
If you love Chinese food (and who doesn’t?) then for a fast and tasty meal, a stir fry has to be up there with the best. But to get that stir fry absolutely spot on, you find your usual pan doesn’t quite cut it. The secret to the perfect stir fry is high heat, the right oil and plenty of fresh ingredients – which is where a wok comes in. Made from the optimum materials and shaped to effectively harness all that heat, a wok is a speedy way to healthy, fast food suppers. But if you have never really tried cooking with a wok, how do set about it? We take a look at how to get the very best out of this traditional Chinese cooking pan and give you our starter guide to wok cooking for beginners.
Pick the Right Wok
When choosing a new cooking wok, always consider the heat source you have. Gas works best as you have a heat source you can fine-tune and control. Woks for gas cookers will be the traditional round-bottomed style, whereas for electrical hobs, you will need a flat base for stability. The material used for the wok pan also makes a difference. Carbon steel is a good choice as it heats up evenly and quickly and nice and durable. Stainless steel looks the part but can be very heavy and cast iron is sturdy but takes longer to heat up. Size matters too as you don’t need a wok that’s too large to handle in a domestic kitchen – a 12- to 14-inch pan size is a good choice for home wok cooking.
Whether you prefer carbon steel or something less traditional, check out our best woks guide for some great tips on choosing the right wok.
Seasoning Your Wok
Seasoning a new wok protects the pan and builds up a natural nonstick surface. It also removes any preservative oil the manufacturer has placed on the surface. Your new wok should come with instructions on how to correctly season it, but as a guide here’s what to do.
- Wash your new wok with soap and warm water. Rinse thoroughly and wipe.
- Place the wok on a low heat and leave for a few minutes to thoroughly dry.
- While the wok is still warm, apply some oil to the surface. Use an oil which has a high smoke point such as grapeseed or canola and smear on a light layer, using a pastry brush or paper towel.
- Heat the oil for several minutes until it gets ‘smoking hot’ then allow to cool. Use a paper towel to wipe away any excess oil.
- Repeat several times until the paper towel wipes clear with no color. You now have a seasoned wok and you’re good to get cooking!
How to Make Stir Fry with Your New Wok
Now your wok is ready, here’s how to stir fry in no time:
- Pre-heat your wok
Before you add any oil, pre-heat your wok until it begins to gently smoke. The secret to a tasty stir fry is speed and high heat and the smoke from the wok is telling you the pan is ready. The heat also opens the tiny pores in the dry wok’s metal, releasing the flavor of the seasoned pan.
- Use the right oil
Only once your wok is hot enough do you add your cold oil. But it can’t just be any old oil, it needs to have a high smoke point and can take the heat. Peanut oil, which has a smoke point of 410°F is ideal, as is groundnut and grapeseed oil. These oils also have a low polyunsaturated fat content, meaning they won’t burn and make your food taste bitter.
- Add your dry ingredients
With your wok and oil ready, it’s time to add in your stir fry ingredients. When it comes to what can you cook in a wok, there are so many vegetables, meat and seafood that taste delicious stir fried so make sure you use some of your favorites. The key to a crisp and tasty stir fry is to only use dry ingredients at the initial cooking stage as damp or wet will alter the high temperature and cause your ingredients to steam instead of sear. Now quickly turn up the heat to get all that delicious food stir frying – and don’t let a little bit of smoke or cooking noise put you off!
- Master the wok toss
The art of stir frying is found in the way the pan can be used to evenly cook the food so work to master the tumble and toss movement to turn over your ingredients. To toss the food, simply hold the handle and push the wok away from you, raising it at the same time to flip the food towards you. A little practice and you’ll soon be wok-tossing like a stir fry pro!
- Don’t overload your wok
The secret to cooking a stir fry is to never overload your wok as this will just lower the high temperature you need to get everything cooked to perfection. A wok that drops below the optimum heat to sear the food will result in too much moisture, meaning your ingredients will braise instead of stir fry. A good tip is to never cook more than a pound of meat at a time in your wok and consider batch cooking if you need larger quantities as they will always come together deliciously in the pan when you add your sauce at the end.
- Other ways to cook with your wok
Once you get the hang of wok cooking, you don’t have to limit it to just stir fries as there are other ways of cooking with a wok. A wok is an economical way to deep fry food such as chicken or shrimp as you don’t need as much oil as a conventional deep fat frying pan. You can also use your wok to steam food by popping a bamboo the steamer into the center of the wok, add water around it and leave steam your food. Alternatively, use a small metal trivet tray to hold your food, add water to the base of the wok and cover with a wok lid, leaving to steam. This is a simple yet delicious way to cook fish or vegetables. And you can even use your wok as a way to hot smoke food by using layered foil, smoke ‘seasoning’ such as sugar, tea leaves or aromatics and a little flour. Heat up the seasoning until it is all gently smoking, pop in a small rack with the food you want to smoke on top, place on the lid and you are now hot-smoking, wok style.
After creating all those delicious stir fry food recipes, the beauty of wok cooking is that it really needs very little ‘aftercare’. Wipe away the excess food and wash in hot water, then leave to dry. Re-season every now and again, with a little very hot oil and your wok will keep on cooking super-tasty meals as if it was brand new.