• 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.
By
Seraphina Seow

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

--- Join Nadia Sawalha to enjoy favourite recipes from around the world in Nadia’s Family Feasts, Mondays 8.30pm from 23 November to 25 January on SBS Food ---

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."

WOK MASTER
Top wok tips with Adam Liaw
Here's everything you need to be a wok master (even if you've never, ever used one), from buying the right wok to why you don't want to be a tosser. Adam Liaw shows us how to do it right.

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.

WHOLESOME
Episode guide | Adam Liaw's Road Trip for Good
Small towns are at the heart of regional Australian life. At the beginning of 2020 the worst bushfires Australia had seen in a century devastated many of these areas, but now they are recovering and rebuilding.

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.

HEATING THINGS UP
From wok to roll: Luke Nguyen shows us the basics
With a few tricks up his sleeve, Luke Nguyen's masterclass is hitting all the right notes.

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.

MEAL OF STEEL
Wok-tossed beef with edible flowers

The beautiful edible flowers in this dish are the specialty of the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

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. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @s.seraphina.

WOK IT RIGHT
Wok-fried lobster with ginger, shallot and cognac

This lobster is deep-fried in oil first before being wok-tossed in stock, sugar and aromatics for a few minutes. A little potato starch will thicken the sauce and last but not least, cognac to cap off this dramatic dish. Food Safari Water

Turmeric-boost & curry leaf wok-charred prawns

Fresh turmeric is not just for adding to smoothies. You can use it like you would ginger in stir-fries and curries. 

Sichuan salt and pepper king prawns with wok-toasted chilli and garlic

An extremely popular dish with universal appeal. It serves four as an entree or two as a main course.

Oodles of Noodles: a month of slurping, chewing, wok-tossing excitement
From 31 brand-new recipes to a guide to noodle soup etiquette and the best places in Australia to eat pho, we're getting our noodle on throughout August. Join us as we celebrate the noodle!
Chicken in a wok (karhai chicken)

This is a typical karhai (formerly balti) dish prepared at Mumtaz restaurants in woks set over very, very high heat. The stoves in the kitchens here noisily shoot out vertical jets of flame like the tail ends of rockets, allowing the staff to cook very quickly.
The curries are made in an almost upside down manner: the oil is added after the ingredients are practically cooked. This technique relies on a very high cooking heat to dry off the cooking liquids, leaving just the oil to brown the meats and seasonings.