WOK: What and How to Cook in an Asian Pan

By  //  October 28, 2021

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In Asian kitchen traditions, a wok is as indispensable as a frying pan in Europe. Fried rice, Vietnamese nema pancakes, Pad-Thai, Chinese funchose, and other types of noodles – the list of dishes that are traditionally cooked in a wok can be continued indefinitely. Today, this is more than cookware, but a whole culinary genre, which means everything is cooked in a certain Asian way.

What are the features of the wok and how does the principle of frying on it differ from a regular pan? Does it make sense to have this cookware at home? Here is a detailed instruction from the chef on how to use a wok.

How is a Wok Different from a Regular Frying Pan?

Originally, the wok is a large communal pot that was specially designed to quickly feed an entire Chinese village. Actually, since then its main purpose has not changed: preparation of the maximum amount of food in the shortest possible time.

Therefore, each black carbon steel wok on https://yosukata.com/carbon-steel-woks/black-carbon-steel-woks/ has a unique shape.

The main criterion for choosing a professional wok is the following: the thinner its walls, the better the quality of the dishes. Typically, woks are made of 2mm stainless steel. This is their fundamental difference from a conventional frying pan, which has a thick bottom.

Thanks to its thin walls and a spherical bottom, which increases thermal conductivity, the wok quickly heats up and gives off the heat just as quickly. The item should be light – then it will be easier for the chef to handle it.

Another feature is the spherical shape, which allows you to create several temperature regimes on the frying surface at once: high heat on the bottom and several less hot zones higher.

This principle of organizing the space allows you to use a minimum of oil and fats, as well as to achieve that fine line between raw and ready, which is impossible to catch in an ordinary frying pan.

The only downside – the thin-walled wok has a short service life. With good traffic in a restaurant, any wok lasts no more than a couple of months. 

How to Cook in a Wok?

The typical method for cooking food in a wok is to quickly fry with constant stirring. This technique is called stir-frуing. Since it is impossible to be distracted from the process and it is important that the chef’s hands are free, all the necessary products are cut in advance into small pieces of equal size, so they will be cooked faster and evenly.

You only need to put anything in the wok when it is heated to the maximum: cold walls are dead food. The second rule: the dish is cooked inside and out in the same dish and over high heat all the time. Seven to ten minutes – and you’re done.

First, a little oil is poured into the bottom of a hot frying pan, you need just a little, it is better to distribute the oil in a thin layer along the walls.

Next, you need to take the following actions: 

  • first, onions, ginger, and garlic are sent to the pan so that they give a smell; 
  • Then, fish or meat are added; 
  • Then, more tender ingredients like pak choy cabbage or seaweed are added; 
  • Next comes the sauce, which evaporates in seconds, enveloping everything that got into the wok before it and gathering all elements into a single dish.

Adding sauce is the most crucial and even dangerous moment. Only liquid sauces are suitable for wok, in which there is about twice as much water as sauces intended for other kitchen operations.

Touching the hot surface and boiling oil, the water evaporates and gives off a powerful burst of hot steam, which, penetrating into the ingredients, further accelerates the cooking speed and brings them aroma. It looks spectacular but is rather dangerous. 

Dry spices are practically not used when cooking in a wok – they will simply burn out from heating. In addition, this is generally typical for Asian cuisine: the whole palette of additional flavors is precisely in the sauce, which is why Chinese sauces are so strong and spicy. If the dish requires fresh aromatic herbs, cilantro, or parsley, they are added at the very end.

The last to be put into are ready-made foods – rice or noodles. For half a minute, this side dish will have time to warm up and also become part of the overall picture.

But this is not an axiom: in Asia itself, rice is often served separately from the wok, and they are mixed already on the plate. For example, the Chinese style of Gohan just implies only this kind of serving: everything that has been fried is served separately from steamed rice without oil and salt, which acts as an indicator of pure taste and an Asian alternative to bread. 

Is a Wok Suitable for Only Quick Frying?

On the contrary, you can cook anything you want in it. In Asia the wok is universal: it replaces all kitchen utensils because you can boil, smoke, stew, and fry in it.

In China, a wok is also used for ramen or in Vietnam for pho soup. Uighurs even make pilaf in it – that is, a wok can be not only a frying pan, a saucepan, but also a cauldron. Another thing is that a wok has no competitors in fast frying: only in a wok, pieces of meat or fish are fried in seconds, covered with a crust, and, at the same time, remain juicy with a minimum amount of oil. 

Over the past 15 years, a new wok modification has appeared – the so-called European wok. It can be cast iron, copper, with a heating indicator, and with a flat smoothed bottom: this wok can be put on a regular, gas, electric, and induction stove. So, feel free to purchase it and enjoy Asian dishes at home.