• Cooking with a wok involves a certain level of technique. (Yun Huang Yong/Flickr Creative Commons)Source: Yun Huang Yong/Flickr Creative Commons
Cooking with a wok involves technique, but top chefs Adam Liaw, Jeremy Pang and Harry Quay divulge how to do it like a pro.
Seraphina Seow

11 Dec 2020 - 8:40 AM  UPDATED 14 Apr 2021 - 11:07 AM

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At its most basic, cooking with a wok requires you to understand how to move air around it as you cook over high heat, says Jeremy Pang, founder of the School of Wok in London and guest chef in Nadia's Family Feasts. 

Pang likens the way that the hot air moves to a hurricane: the eye remains relatively calm.

"You're moving that high heat around the wok and within the food itself while combining the effect from this with the calmer air in the middle," says Pang. "So you're getting searing and an initial ignition of the ingredients around the edge, but keeping the crunchiness of the vegetables or whatever it is that you're cooking intact."

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How to choose a wok and care for it

Adam Liaw, the host of SBS Food program Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good, says there are a few aspects to consider when choosing a suitable wok, including its size, its material and base shape, and how to ready it for cooking.

Your wok size should match the size of your flame. For example, if you have a big flame, get a big wok. Liaw also recommends a carbon-steel wok, which is stronger than thin, cast iron and aluminium.

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Harry Quay, the founder of the 40-year-running Harry's Chinese Cooking Classes in Sydney, says that new woks, especially iron ones, often have a thin film of oil to prevent rusting. You need to remove this.

Quay recommends adding a couple of tablespoons of bi-carb soda to hot tap water, and letting this bubble away on the stove for around five minutes. Rinse and add more hot water while scrubbing with a brush. Rinse the wok again then dry it over high heat.

Each time you wash your wok, Quay recommends drying it completely over the stove for five minutes instead of with a tea towel to prevent rusting. When the wok is taken off the heat and cooled, use paper towel to wipe the inside with vegetable oil.

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Best oils to use

There are certain types of oil that chefs recommend for cooking. "You want to use oils with high smoking points," says Pang. These include vegetable, sunflower, groundnut, corn and avocado oils. Avoid olive, sesame and coconut oils. 

Jeremy Pang's 4 wok-manoeuvring techniques

Because cooking with a wok predominantly involves high heat, you need to quickly move ingredients around while also bringing the heat down at certain times.

"What I'm teaching here is cooling your wok with a circular movement, no matter how you're moving ingredients around the wok.

"When you're going from hot to cooler and back up to hot, you sear the outer edge of the ingredients while keeping the moisture of the ingredients inside. And the cooling effect is so that you don't burn the ingredients," says Pang.

Pang employs the following four techniques each time he cooks with a wok, albeit sparingly. 

Technique 1: Stirring

Move your spatular or ladle in a circular motion from the wok's centre and expand it outwards. You might need to fold the ingredients back in and repeat.

Technique 2: Pushing and Folding

With your spatula or ladle facing downwards, push and fold as if you are folding a cake mix.

Technique 3: Wok Toss

Push the wok forwards with a long movement, and as you pull the wok back, flick up and back quite quickly, much like you would if you were flipping a pancake.

In Liaw's book, Adam Liaw's Asian Cookery School, Liaw recommends only tossing when you need to.

"You want ingredients to brown and slightly char for your wok hei," writes Liaw.

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Technique 4: Tummy and Head

Remember when your 'coolness' as a kid was determined by your ability to pat your head while simultaneously rubbing your tummy? This technique requires the same thing but incorporates a wok.

As you use your spatula to stir with one hand, the other hand moves the wok backwards and forwards from its handle. 

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