A wok is a very unique bowl-shaped frying pan with Chinese origins dating all the way back to the Han-Dynasty. This pan may have a small flat bottom and wide, sloping edges or it could be completely rounded (i.e. the traditional Chinese design). Woks are often made of carbon steel, an almost indestructible material that can and really should be pre seasoned.
This seasoning, referred to as the patina, functions to make a wok virtually nonstick and to prevent rusting. Like the seasoning on a well-loved cast iron pan, this seasoning also imparts flavor into dishes. You can develop a wok’s patina by coating the cooking surface in a thin layer of oil over high heat and using the pan regularly.
Other types of woks that you may find? An all electric wok is a great alternative to a stovetop wok, but the heat distribution less preferable than rangetop configurations. In addition to carbon steel woks, you may also find anodized aluminum woks. Stainless steel woks are also gaining popularity, but they can be cost prohibitive depending on the brand you choose. Last but not least, you can invest in an all ceramic wok like Xtrema's 11-inch Versa Wok - a flat bottomed wok made of all natural materials, absolutely perfect for family stir frys (and dishwasher safe to boot).
In the right hands, a wok can be infinitely useful and go far beyond strictly Asian cooking (though you won’t find a better pan for preparing Asian dishes than a wok). Here are seven great ways to use a wok.
One of the most obvious uses for a wok is to stir fry. This method of cooking entails adding ingredients to a stir fry pan with a small amount of oil over high heat. A wok’s large surface area and ability to heat evenly make it perfectly suited to fast-paced stir frying.
Many stir frys include a protein such as tofu or chicken, several types of vegetables such as broccoli and bok choy, and a combination of condiments such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, or gochujang.
You always want to have your ingredients prepped ahead of time, a French technique called mise en place, when stir frying. One important thing to keep in mind when making a stir fry is that less is more. If you add too many ingredients, they will start steaming together rather than browning and cooking quickly.
Kick your wok-cooking up a notch by using your pan to deep fry. The high sides of a wok and long handle make deep frying safer and easier than other pans, and you don’t have to worry about damaging a wok with too much heat.
You can test the temperature of your oil by splashing a drop of water in. If the water quickly evaporates and steams, your oil is hot enough to fry. Work in small batches to maintain your ideal cooking temperature and cook your food evenly.
When using a wok to deep fry, be sure that you are using an oil that can withstand very high heat. Otherwise, you’ll end up with burnt oil and this can ruin your food.
When you just want to develop a deep golden color or crust on an ingredient before fully cooking it, you want to sear. And when you want to sear, you should reach for your wok.
Woks and searing are a match made in heaven because woks can easily withstand the high direct heat searing requires. You can control how much direct contact your ingredients have with heat from the stove by adjusting where you place them in the wok (at the bottom for intense heat, higher up the edges for less intense heat).
Try this for yourself with steak or your mushroom of choice—portobellos, oyster mushrooms, and king trumpets love to be seared.
Woks can also double as smokers in a creative cooking technique known as tea smoking, and it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Tea smoking is a traditional Chinese cooking method that uses tea leaves, rice, and sugar to smoke food right in a wok, no fancy equipment required.
To use a wok to tea smoke, just prepare your tea smoking mixture. You can find many recipes for this in cookbooks and online. Green tea and black tea are popular choices for the tea, but nearly any aromatic tea will do.
Add this mixture to the bottom of your wok, heated to medium, and place a steaming rack over it. Then place whatever you’re smoking on this rack and put the lid on your wok. Reduce heat to low when you see the first tendrils of smoke.
This can all be done safely indoors as long as your pan doesn’t get too hot.
You don’t need to put your wok over high, intense heat to get the most out of it. This pan is also useful for steaming, a gentle cooking method that uses trapped moisture to cook ingredients through convection.
You can use a wok to steam with a bamboo steamer basket or, if you don’t have one, a metal strainer or aluminum pie plate. Add a small amount of water to your wok and place whatever you’re using to steam above this. Then cover your steamer (or wok, if you’re not using a bamboo steamer) and heat over low until ingredients are cooked through.
Try using this method to steam dumplings, vegetables, and breads (like bao buns, the pillowy soft bread used to cushion tender meats like pork belly or duck).
Most woks are oven-safe, making them great for braising. Braising describes the process of searing ingredients to develop color on them before submerging the ingredients fully or partially in liquid, lowering the heat, and finishing cooking.
Woks are excellent for braising because they are deep and wide, giving you plenty of surface area for high heat cooking and more than enough space for liquids. Just about anything can be braised. Try making a vegetable curry or meat stew using this two-step cooking technique.
Last but not least, woks can be used for boiling. Though this cooking technique may not highlight a wok’s best features like stir frying, searing, and steaming do, it is a valid use for a wok nonetheless.
This technique is straightforward and needs no explaining. Whenever you’re getting your wok wet with water or liquid, make sure you dry it completely before storing, just as you would your favorite cast iron pan.