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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Which wok for you?

I've been getting many wok-related questions lately so here's a post to (hopefully) answer all your questions.

The first question is always what kind of wok I use. I use a simple carbon-steel wok I got from Chinatown for just about $15. It's a simple, hand hammered wok with hollow metal handle. The metal is very thin. It transfers heat well, but doesn't hold it very long. This is fine if you know how to work with it. I actually prefer using it over Western style pan with thicker metal that retains heat better, but only for stir-frying of course. That steel wok has been serving me just fine for a couple years now.

SteelwokMy best advice is to pop down to a Chinatown near you and find a carbon-steel wok that looks and feels good in your hand - make sure it's at least 13-14 inch wide, and light enough that you could pick up and shake it with relative ease. That pretty much rules out those absurdly expensive cast iron woks - the purpose of which so far eludes me.

If there's no good Chinatown nearby, I found two that you can order online. Amazon has one that comes with a lid, though the price is a bit steep at $31 - but the lid is handy to have and with Amazon Prime you could get it with free shipping. If not, I found one cheaper on a site selling Thai Tthaiwok ingredients, only $15, but with round rather than flat bottom. No idea what their shipping fees are, however. Check with them before you have it shipped to Alaska or don't come crying to me later.

A wok like these ones work best on a gas stove, especially if it has high BTUs. If you're not so confident with the power of your stove, or you have electric stove, a wok is not going to work very well. I once had to endure such a disadvantage, not for long mind you, but I suffered just the same. Anyway, let's not go into my past misery, let me tell you instead about how I worked around the problem.

First I can tell you what doesn't work well as a wok replacement, a regular size frying pan - say about 8-9 inch in diameter, and usually with a sloping side that doesn't come up high enough, or a straight side that's not conducive for tossing things. The operative word in stir-frying is STIR. You want to be able to stir, toss and move things about quickly. Try that in a small pan and bits of tofu will be flying across the room.

Cuisinartwok A good alternative I used for a while was a large All-Clad "Everyday Pan". It's basically a round, flat-bottom pan with a sloping side that goes up higher than on a regular frying pan. It's also quite a bit wider than regular pans, at about 13inch in diameter. I don't think All-clad makes it anymore, the nearest thing I've found was an Emeril-endorsed pan with the same shape and size but with a non-stick surface. I don't know about Emeril but I can tell you now I'm not suggesting you to buy a non-stick anything - that's just not going to happen. Any decent wok or pan, if used properly, is not going to stick. (All you have to do is get the pan hot first before you add oil.)

Calphalonwok Happily I found two alternatives that are close enough to that pan I liked. Calphalon makes a hard-anodized pan that's 12-inch, in that similar shape to my old All-Clad, and Kitchenaid makes a similar one but in stainless-steel. I've never used a Kitchenaid pan, so if pressed I'd say I recommend the Calphalon one - I've had good experience with their anodized material - but I'm pretty sure either will work just fine. Amazon happens to have pretty amazing deals on both pans at the moment. The Calphalon is down from $168 to just about $40, and the Kitchenaid is $25, a discount from the regular price at $50.

How to season a wok

There are many ways to season a pan or a wok, here's how I do it.

First, add to your wok one cup of oil -€“make sure you brush the oil over all the inside surface of the wok- and heat the wok until it is smoking. Tilt the pan around to keep lubricating the surface with oil and let it continues to smoke for a few minutes - make sure your smoke vent is running and all the windows are open, by the way. Remove the pan from the heat and dispose of the oil (properly).

Pour half a cup of kosher salt into the wok and, with a kitchen rag, rub the salt all over the inside surface of the wok. Throw out the salt, wipe the wok clean with a damp towel. You might need to wipe a few times to get all the black soot out. Pour a small amount of oil into a paper towel and wipe the oil all over the inside surface again. Your wok is now seasoned and ready.

How to clean a wok

I hardly ever use soap on my wok. I usually rinse it with very hot water right after use. I'm quite harsh on it actually. I use a copper mesh wire to scrub of bits that doesn't want to come out after the hot water rinse. I wipe it dry immediately, every time. The carbon steel rusts very easily. Occasionally I wipe a bit of oil all over the inside surface, but not every time. Usually just a rinse is enough.

I don't think you should bother buying one of those bamboo "wok scrubber" thingy that's always on sale with a wok. It's marketed more for its perceived authenticity than its particular usefulness. Get one of those copper mesh wire from the supermarket. When it gets old and got bits of icky food stuck all over it - which it inevitably will - you can just dump it and get a new one for pennies.

Now you've got your wok, happy stir-frying, and check out these wok-friendly recipes chez moi!

Pad Thai for Beginners
Pad See Ew for Beginners
Khao Pad Panang Goong
Noodle with green garlic, shitake, and crab meat

P.S. If I missed anything or if you've got your own wok-related advice you'd like to share, go ahead, tell us.


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