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Learning all about the Chinese wok - August 2011 Newsletter

If you ever had Asian stir-fry, chances are you would have had dishes prepared by this cooking vessel that chefs of Asian cuisine can’t do without. Despite the regional differences in Chinese cuisines and despite the variations in regional epicural cultures, the one thing you will find in almost any Chinese kitchen is the handy cooking utensil known as—the wok. 

For those unfamiliar with the wok, its appearance may seem strange. Rounded at the base, heavy and coarse in appearance, it seems more cumbersome as a cooking utensil than what chefs would prefer—something light weight, stream-lined and preferably non-stick. The wok seems counter-intuitive at first glance in a modern day kitchen with its clumsy appearance. 

What then, is the reason for its ubiquitous presence not just in Chinese family kitchens, but even in renowned restaurants across various kinds of Asian cuisine? What is the attraction for this round based and coarse cooking vessel that can explain its wide spread popularity? In this month’s newsletter, we seek to unravel the mystery behind the wok, going in depth into its construction, history, its charm, and most important how it is used.

All about the wok

Although it is unclear when the very first wok was invented, it is speculated that woks have been in use for over a thousand years. First said to have appeared somewhere in East Asia, some sources also claim that woks may have originated in Southeast Asia where metal works were more developed. 

The shape of woks with their wide rim and round base is a result of the shape of the pit stove of traditional China. Because the pit stoves were concave in the center for coals and firewood, the round base of the wok made it easy to fit on top of the stove. 

Contemporary woks are typical made from carbon steel or cast iron and they usually come in two forms—the looped handle form, or the pan or stick handle form. Today a variety of sizes and shapes are made available catering to different users from homemakers to chefs. With all these new options and variations made available, you can be sure that you can find a wok that will suit your need and purpose.

Choosing your wok

With all these options available, how should one go about picking out the perfect wok? We will start by discussing the wok material.

Today, woks are generally made from carbon steel or cast iron. Occasionally, in the Western market, one would also find non-stick Teflon coated steel woks and aluminum woks. 

Carbon steel woks are by the far most widely used woks. The reason for their popularity is because they are inexpensive, relatively light in weight, and have good heat conduction and durability. Most woks found in homes today are carbon steel woks. The downside to the carbon steel wok is that because of its material, carbon steel woks are more difficult to season and maintain. Because the seasons on carbon steel woks tend to be easily removed, food also tends to stick more easily to carbon steel woks.

Cast iron woks on the other hand are less commonly used now a days although in the past cast iron woks were widely used. Cast iron woks are heavier than carbon steel and less durable.  However, cast iron woks are easier to season and maintain. Two types of cast iron woks are typically available in the market, a Chinese cast iron type and a Western cast iron type. The Western cast iron wok is significantly thicker than the Chinese type and is more durable but they are slow heating and slow cooling and as a result controlling temperature is a challenge.  The Western cast iron wok is also difficult to wield because of their weight, making it hard for the tossing action used by many Chinese chefs.

Chinese cast iron woks are lighter in weight than their Western counterpart and have a better heat retention and uniform heat distribution property. It is also easy to season because they tend to have a more stabilized form of carbonized seasoning on the wok surface. As a result food are less likely to stick to the wok. However, Chinese cast irons are also known to be fragile. Their brittle surface means that they can easily be shattered when dropped.  But because the form of wok that is most closely kept in make to the traditional Chinese wok, many chefs still use Chinese cast iron woks. 

Today, you can also easily find Teflon coated woks with non-stick properties on the market.  The Teflon is convenient for use because one would not need to season woks before use.  However, Teflon woks are easily scratched and cannot be used to cook at high temperatures as the Teflon coating will melt and chemically breakdown in a vapor that inhaled would cause flu like symptoms.  As a result, Teflon woks are only good for light stir-frying and do not have the large versatility of carbon steel and cast iron woks.

Aluminum wok, less common in the market, is another option to consider when choosing a wok of your choice.  Aluminum woks are great conductors of heat, however they do not retain heat very well, and as a result is not a very popular choice. Furthermore the soft physical property of pure aluminum woks also means that they damage easily. 

Knowing the material that your wok is made of will help you choose the perfect wok that will suit your needs and purposes, but understanding the properties of the different wok materials is not enough, it is also good to understand the different types of woks.

The shape of things

As mentioned earlier, woks are largely divided two main types based on the shape of their handles. Most commonly found are two types of handles on woks. One is the looped handles that are usually found on both sides of the wok and are commonly used by chefs to hold onto for the tossing action famously associated with Chinese stir-fry. Because both the looped handles are usually made of metal, chefs usually use a towel to hold onto the handle so as to avoid burns.  It takes great skills and arm strength, but the effect is rewarding as the looped handled woks are also usually found on the deeper woks with a larger rounded bottom that is better suited to tossing and stir-frying. 

The stick handle is closer in concept to a frying pan. It is a perpendicular handle that sticks out and can be used for tossing actions. However, because most woks made from cast iron or carbon steel are heavy, the stick handle is not commonly used as it is unable to balance the weight of a large wok. Because stick handles are usually found in smaller, shallower woks, they are less popular as they do not have the same capacity as a large wok that facilitates tossing and stir-frying. 

Seasoning your wok

Once you have selected your wok and have purchased it, the next thing you need to do before you can start whipping up your favorite stir-fry dishes is to season your wok. The word seasoning is the name of a process of preparing the surface of a cookware so that it form a stick-resistant coating to prevent food sticking to the cookware during use. With non-stick cookware so easily available in the market today, not many people still need to season their cookware, but with a wok, this is often a must.

Unless you have chosen a non-stick Teflon coated wok, most other woks would require you to season your wok. To season your wok, begin by heating the wok to dry it and then coating a very thin layer of animal fat oil or vegetable oil onto the surface of the wok. This is to be followed by a process of heating. The wok should be heated so that the fat or oil layer can polymerize into a base coating. The wok is usually allowed to heat for half an hour to an hour.  This process of seasoning has to be repeated several times in order for a good coating layer to form. Usually, over time with constant usage, when one uses oil in a wok, the seasoning layer becomes more protected. 

Enjoy Stir-frying

Many Chinese chefs and culinary experts discuss this elusive thing known as “wok hei”. It can be translated into Wok-air, but it is a name given to the subtle taste that gives stir-fry dishes that added fragrance and flavor, as many believe from the process of using a wok. Often cooked over a high fire with vigorous tossing and stir-frying action, lovers of stir-fry dishes can attest to the unique flavor that using a wok gives their favorite dishes.

You can now try your hand at it too. At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen, we have various types of woks.
You can be sure to find one that will suit your taste and your preference. Beyond various kinds of premium woks, we also have all other wok accessories you may need from wok rings to wok scrubs, you will find them all right here.


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7 Piece 14 Inch Double Handle Pre-Seasoned Flat Bottom Wok Set (6182)

4 Piece 14 Inch Double Handle Round Bottom Wok Set (6208)

Wood Cooking Spatula (6176)

Reversable Wok Ring (6205)

Bamboo Wok Cleaning Brush (6206)

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