22 October 2009
The most useful piece of equipment is the wok. It can be used for many types of cooking such as braising and deep-fiying, and is particularly useful for cooking bulky vegetables like spinach, or to cook large quantities of food. It is best known, of course, as the ideal pan for stir-frying as it allows you to move the food around quickly without spilling it all over the place, and its shape spreads the heat evenly over the surface, thus making for the rapid cooking which is fundamental to stir-frying. When used for deep-frying, the smaller base of the wok requires less oil, but still provides the depth which is important to that technique.
In China most homes have round-bottomed woks which are set on top of charcoal braziers in which wood or charcoal is burnt to produce the high heat so important for Chinese cooking. The purpose of the traditional design is to concentrate intense heat at the centre, but living outside a Chinese kitchen requires some adjustment. During many years of teaching and demonstrations, I have found the most appropriate wok for a Western-type stove is one with a long wooden handle, about 12 ins (30 cm) in length and I prefer one that has a slightly flattened bottom which allows the wok to rest securely on the Western-type stoves, either electric or gas.
Choosing a wok
Choose a medium-sized wok, preferably about 12 to 14 ins (30 to 35 cm) in diameter, with deep sides, a long handle and a slightly flat bottom. Some woks on the market are too shallow or too flat at the bottom, making them no better than a large frying pan or skillet. Select one which has heft to it, and if possible choose one made of carbon steel rather than of light stainless steel or aluminium. The latter types tend to scorch and do not withstand the high temperatures required for this type of cooking. I do not like non-stick woks; not only are they more expensive, but they cannot be seasoned like an ordinary wok, which detracts from the flavour of the food. I also dislike electric woks because they do not heat up to a sufficiently high temperature and tend to be too shallow to accommodate a reasonable quantity of food.
Preparing the wok
Before using the wok, it is important that you first clean off the manufacturer's protective coating from the inside. This will not cause you any harm, but might taint the taste of food if not fully removed.
The easiest way to clean the bowl is to place the wok on the stove and heat it gently to soften the coating. Then scrub the bowl with a stiff pan brush or scouring pad until all the coating is removed and you have reached bare metal. Scrubbing or scouring can be as vigorous as you like, it will not damage the bowl in any way.
Once the bowl is free of coating, it should be washed well and then dried. The final drying, to remove moisture from the pores of the metal, can be done by placing the wok back on the hob to heat for a minute or two on a medium heat. The wok is then ready for seasoning.
Seasoning the wok
Rub the entire inner surface of the wok with a thick coating of corn or vegetable oil. Heat the wok gently until the oil smokes, then remove the wok from the heat and leave it until cold. Wipe off the excess oil with absorbent kitchen paper. Repeat the process two or three times. Your wok is now ready for use.
With continual use and seasoning, your wok will eventually become quite dark in colour and this will enhance the condition of the bowl. The Chinese contend that the blacker the wok the better the cook.
Cleaning the wok
Do not scrub a seasoned wok, just wash it in plain water without detergent. Dry it thoroughly, preferably by putting it over a low heat for a few minutes before putting it away. This should prevent the wok from rusting, but if it does, scrub off any rust with kitchen cleanser and repeat the seasoning process. If you wish to store it for a long while or if you live in a humid climate, rub the inside of the wok with a tablespoon of cooking oil for added protection before storing.
Wok stand This is a metal ring or frame designed to keep a conventionally shaped wok steady on the burner when you are steaming, deep-frying or braising. It is useful only if you are using a round-bottomed wok, which will usually come with its own stand.
Wok lid A wok lid is a dome-like cover, usually made from aluminium, which is used when steaming. Normally it comes with the wok, but it may be purchased separately from a Chinese or Asian market. Any large, domed pot lid which fits snugly over the wok can be used instead.
Spatula A long-handled metal spatula, shaped rather like a small shovel, is ideal for scooping and tossing food in a wok. Any good long-handled spoon may be used instead.