All cooks agree on the virtues of cooking with a Wok. It’s easy, fast, but it is mostly the best way of cooking to preserve the nutrients of the food. Many cookbooks are related to wok cooking but one of the best remains Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore.
So before checking our best wok sets selection, let’s get into the Asian fashion and learn to cook in a wok…
The origins of Wok
The first Woks seem to age from the Han dynasty –from 206 BCE to 200 CE–. They were probably made of cast iron, and carried two handles on the sides.
They played such an important role in the everyday life of the Chinese at the time. It was commonly found into the “Han” tombs for the use of the deceased in life after death…
The today’s woks are little changed!
The wok: a pillar of chinese kitchen
What you should know about Asian food is that it is varied and healthy when using traditional ingredients. And there are no secrets for a healthy cooking: a lot of fresh vegetables, little meat, lots of fish, spices, seaweed and rice.
Everything is cooked in Wok, similarly to stir frying or sauteeing, according the 2 wok-cooking schools in China. These cooking methods preserves the taste of food.
The Wok looks like an hemisphere, usually made of metal or ceramic, with two handles or a unique handle. The spherical shape of the Wok requires very little fat. In fact the device is simply coated with a drop of oil to prevent food from sticking. The Wok is held in contact with the heat source by a small conical removable base which ensure the stability. So to summarize, here are various kind of wok:
- Cast iron wok, with two handles. It’s heavier and we will stir food with a spatula to cook it. Chinese cooks use a towel to handle the wok and shake it off, but it requires some strenght and can damage you stove if it’s not robust!
- Carbon steel wok with single bamboo handle and a flat or rounded bottom: it’s lighter and allows to make the food “jump” into the wok. I find you have more control over the cooking using this kind of utensil.
- Contemporary electric wok: it becomes more and more popular and suits various cooking methods.
Its size depends on the number of servings you want to prepare. But opt for a large wok (30 to 35 cm in diameter) because if it is too small, food is likely to pile up and the heat is not evenly distributed. Know that even with a large wok, we can cook for only 6 people maximum. The largest woks can measure about 90cm diameter but are reserved for community cooking and restaurants for rice or boiling water. if you plan to buy you first wok set online, just check our wok selection here.
The accessories needed for wok cooking:
- Support: a wok rack or ring to stabilize a round-bottomed wok on the stove.
- The lid: domed and often made of aluminum, the wok lid is great for simmering or steaming food.
- Spatula and ladle: they are medium to long handled utensils made of wood (bamboo) or stainless steel to mix to food for stir frying or serve.
- The grid: to keep the ingredients out of the water (for steam) or oil (to drain fried foods).
- The knife: ingredient need to be well chopped to properly cook them in the wok as the cooking time is short.
- The board: made of wood or white polyethylen, to cut ingredients.
- The bamboo basket: for cooking with steam.
Cooking in a wok requires a technique that we can acquire quickly. The ingredients are sometimes not easy to find so if you do not have Asian shops near you, consider Internet.
However, it is possible to cook properly and so keeping your Chinese recipes authentic, by working with a limited number of ingredients and retaining the rule of thumb: combine ingredients that have little taste but a lot of structure with other ingredients that have great taste but little structure.
Some typical ingredients when cooking with a wok
- Small onions: They have a sweet and delicate taste. Their green part is often used in the wok too.
- Peppers: They are the parents of spicy peppers, they give their zest to dishes.
- Lemongrass: It is a ring-like plant which is used as the bottom, tender, just above the root. It gives a lemony flavor and fragrance.
- Shiitake mushrooms: They have an intense aroma.
- Tofu: It is a staple food in Asia. Made from mung bean curd, it is rich in protein and low in cholesterol.
- The Wan-Tan: They come from China, are squares of dough made with wheat flour and eggs. They are found frozen in stores specializing in Asian products.
- Bamboo shoots: These are the young shoots of bamboo. They are cut like asparagus when they reach 30 cm in length. You can easily find them canned.
And many others, it is up to you to discover! In addition, you can get The Breath of a Wok book on Amazon for 25$.
What about your favorite wok recipes? Please share your best wok “specialities” in the comments below.