You know that phrase “don’t try this at home”? There should be signs to that effect in Asian restaurant kitchens beside the hot-hot burners where wok masters do that impressive ‘food in the air’ flip with their big, blackened pots.
Not because it’s dangerous. Not because it takes years of practice to get it right. But because you don’t need to.
“It looks good on telly when people are tossing a wok and everything’s flying up into the air, but the domestic burner is four or five times less powerful than a commercial one, so most wok cooking has nothing to do with stirring or tossing, but rather letting it sit there until it’s charred enough to get that good wok hei flavour,” says Adam Liaw.
Wok hei, Adam? “There are different translations from different dialects, but it’s the ‘spirit of the wok’,” he explains.
The wok gets an entire chapter in the Destination Flavour host and 2010 MasterChef winner’s new book, Adam Liaw’s Asian Cookery School, but we put Adam on the spot and asked for his top tip for anyone who thinks they can’t use a wok.
“Just one? Okay, if I had to pick only one, it’s don’t overcrowd the wok. That’s the number one thing. Even if you do everything else right, and then overcrowd the wok, it’s going to turn out awful. If you do a bunch of other stuff wrong and don’t overcrowd the wok, you’ve got a pretty good chance of it turning out okay.”
Want better than okay? Here’s some of the Adam’s tips from his new book, and five of his great recipes.
CHOOSING A WOK
When choosing the size of your wok don’t think about how much food you want to cook, think about the size of flame you’re going to put it on. The bigger and stronger the flame, the bigger the wok you can handle. While woks used over large commercial burners can be around 50 centimetres in diameter, for home use a wok around 35 centimetres in diameter is a good choice, even over the very largest of domestic burners. Even if you’re only cooking for one, the wok’s curved shape allows very small amounts of food to be cooked even in the largest of woks.
Woks are generally made of cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel or aluminium and are very thin at only around 2–3 millimetres in thickness. My choice is carbon steel. When very thin, cast iron can be brittle and crack if not handled with care. Stainless steel can lose its seasoning quickly. Aluminium is soft and can easily dent and deform, and is reactive to acidic foods. Carbon steel is durable and easy to care for.
I avoid non-stick woks as they are often designed for medium heat rather than the high temperatures of wok cooking. They also tend to be thick and heavy, giving less control over heat zones. And nothing sticks to a well-seasoned wok when used correctly.
Woks may have a single wooden stick handle, protruding from the wok like the handle of an ordinary frypan, or double loop handles on opposite sides of the wok. Loop handles are metal, will get hot during cooking, and must be held with a folded damp cloth. For domestic-sized woks I find the stick handles most useful, as the wok can be tossed in the same manner as a frypan.
Woks have either a curved or flat base. A curved base is more traditional and easier to cook with, but needs a wok ring or trivet to keep it steady during cooking. A flat-based wok gives less control over heat and liquid, but it can be placed directly on a flat gas stove. For flat electric or induction stoves, flat-bottomed woks can be used but their small point of contact means that only a small amount of heat is transferred. On these stoves my advice is to avoid woks altogether. Excellent results can be achieved in a large, good-quality frypan.
SEASONING A WOK
Seasoning a wok is a process of burning thin layers of oil onto the surface of the metal, making the wok easier to use and protecting it from corrosion. To season a wok is simple, and all you need is a wok, a roll of paper towel and a bit of vegetable oil.
1. Wash the wok in warm soapy water and rinse it thoroughly. Dry the wok well.
2. With paper towel, wipe a very thin layer of oil all over the inside of the wok, removing any excess with clean paper towel. If you use too much oil, it will not oxidise well and will become sticky.
3. Heat the wok over medium heat for about 10 minutes. It may smoke quite a lot so open your doors and windows. Rotate the wok over the heat so that it heats evenly. Remove the pan from the heat and wipe away any burned oil with a clean paper towel.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 at least three times until the wok takes on a dull black appearance.
CLEANING AND MAINTENANCE
Clean your wok straight after using it by brushing out any solids and excess oil with a stiff brush under running water while the wok is still hot. Return the wok over heat to dry it completely and burn away any residue. You don’t need to use detergents, as heating the wok will kill bacteria and burn away excess oil.
Some call it ‘stir-frying’ but the technique of frying in a wok involves almost no stirring at all. Wok-frying is more about moving the wok and using its curved shape to toss ingredients, and the goal of good wok technique is to achieve that characteristic wok-fried flavour known in Cantonese as wok hei. A curved ladle or flat spatula are often used, but most of the motion is caused by tossing the wok itself, with the tools just used to keep control.
Wok hei (also called wok qi in certain dialects) translates as the ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’ of the wok, but it isn’t as mystical as the name may suggest. Wok hei refers to the slightly smoky, slightly umami taste of food that has been fried over high, dry heat.
When cooking with your wok at home, you don’t need to copy the theatrics of Chinese chefs in commercial kitchens, tossing woks at speed with a clatter of metal and ingredients flying in constant motion. In fact, if you do so, you probably won’t get the result you’re after. The heat output of a commercial wok burner is four or fi ve times greater than the stovetop wok burners we use at home. Heat that high will brown meat, caramelise sugars and vaporise liquids in seconds for perfect wok hei, but in a domestic kitchen we need to take a slightly different approach to get it right.
Firstly – and most importantly – never overcrowd the wok. Meat, seafood and vegetables all give off liquid when they are cooked, and in an overcrowded wok that liquid will not evaporate quickly enough. The ingredients will steam and stew instead of frying. Fry individual ingredients in small batches if you need to, combining everything at the end for a complete dish.
Remember also that you don’t need to toss the ingredients constantly. Tossing the wok stops ingredients from burning in contact with the wok. This is very important against the heat of commercial woks, but at home the challenge is the opposite. You want ingredients to brown and slightly char for your wok hei. Pieces of meat will brown faster if spread out in a single layer for as much contact with the wok metal as possible and left there for a while rather than fussing over them and prodding and poking at them. Only toss the wok when you need to.
Don’t add liquids too early in the process. Many of the seasonings used in wok cooking are in liquid form, so it’s often best to fry other ingredients first, then add liquid seasonings towards the end of cooking.
Cook the book
Recipes and images from Adam Liaw's Asian Cookery School (Hachette Australia, $49.99 hbk, $17.99 ebook).