The 10 Commandments to Cooking With a Wok


Wok cooking is all drama—high flames that curve around the underside of the dome-shaped pan as fragrant clouds of smoke cloak the stove, while vegetables and meat soar through the air above the pan, propelled by the chef’s practiced toss. Barely a minute or two passes before the finished dish is scooped out into an awaiting bowl. 

With the busy cook’s obsession with quick meals, it’s no wonder that the speed of wok cooking has captured the attention of most home cooks in the West.

“A wok distributes heat very evenly from the base and up the sides, and because of the steep sides, you can move food around in it,” explains Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China as well as several books about Chinese cooking. That means you can crank up the flame, get the pan really hot, and, by moving the food speedily around in the scalding pan, turn ingredients into dinner in almost no time.

But stir-frying isn’t all a wok can do, Dunlop wants us to know. “It is the main cooking pot in a Chinese kitchen,” she says. At a Chinese meal, there are many different types of dishes on the table at one time, and, “probably most of them will be done in a wok.” Stewing, steaming, boiling, and deep-frying are all in the wok’s wheelhouse.

Here, we’ve got Dunlop’s wide-ranging wok expertise down on paper, so you’ll know all about the crucial components of wok cookery when you shop for and cook with your pan. 

1. Season every time you cook.

Dunlop says: “Season the surface before you begin. The most annoying thing that can happen when you’re stir-frying is that your chicken sticks, and then you scrape it off and you have this stuff sticking to the wok that will burn before the dish is ready. It changes the flavor and makes it hard to move food around. The way to avoid that is to put in some oil and swirl it around the cooking surface of the wok and let it get smoking hot. Then pour that off into a heatproof container and put in fresh oil for cooking. That’s how to make a wok into a nonstick pan.”

2. Pour the right oil.

Dunlop says: “You want something with a high smoke point, so groundnut oil is very good. Rapeseed [canola] oil is very good.”

3. Look beyond stir-frying.

Dunlop says: “The wok is not only for stir-frying—it’s used for pretty much everything. It’s very economical. Deep-frying in a wok, you need much less oil than in a regular saucepan. You can put a bamboo steamer in the wok, fill the base of the wok with water and steam like that, or get little metal trivets in the bottom, lay a dish on the trivet, and cover with a wok lid. You can also use it for boiling and making stews, or even as a smoker—you cover the base of the wok with several layers of foil, and then you put some sugar and tea leaves and some flour. Heat it up until the sugar is burning and everything is smoldering, and you can put food on a rack, put the lid on, and do hot-smoking like that.”

4. Figure out the right wok for you.

Dunlop says: “When you’re choosing a wok, you need to think about what kind of cooker [stove] you have. If you have a gas flame, you can have a traditional round-bottomed wok. But if you have an electric cooker, then you do need the kind of wok that has a flat bit at the base. You can get woks made of different materials—I favor the Chinese carbon steel ones, which heat up and cool down quickly.

They have different sorts of handles. Some have one long handle—that is the easiest thing if you want to toss your food around. Other woks will have two ear handles. The good thing about those woks is they’re very stable, so for boiling or deep-frying, you do want it to be safer. A wok with about a 13-inch diameter wok is very nice for a home cook.” 

5. Crank up the heat.

Dunlop says: “Classic stir-fry is often done at very high heat. The Cantonese talk about the wok-hai, the fragrance of the wok from that kind of searing. You can have a bit of drama, a bit of hissing, a bit of smoke when you’re stir-frying. But you don’t want to heat the oil up too hot before you put in your aromatics. Season the surface and get the wok really hot before you begin. Then put in your cooking oil and pretty quickly put in garlic or chiles or sensitive things so the oil isn’t burning hot when you begin. You can extract the flavor without discarding or burning them. For the smoke, you do want a really good extractor fan.”

6. Get a brush, scoop, slotted spoon, and ladle.

Dunlop says: “A wok spatula with a long handle is very good tool for scooping off the base of the wok when stir-frying. That’s what Chinese home cooks use. The other thing that’s useful is a Chinese ladle, whose bowl is at a different angle than the Western soup angle. You can use it for scooping up oil, stock, or water, or for mixing up sauces before adding to the wok. A scoop with holes in it is good for scooping food out of oil or sauce. A bamboo brush whose bristles won’t melt is essential for cleaning the pan in between dishes while it’s still hot.”

7. Learn the toss.

Dunlop says: “You just push the wok away from you and raise it and flip the food towards you. When you want to cook food very rapidly, it’s a way of moving it around. It’s always a good idea to practice without too much food and oil first. You could even practice with just some salad in it off the heat.” 

8. Don't double the recipe.

Dunlop says: “If you want to make more food, it’s better to not just double the quantities for a stir-fry. If you try to stir-fry too much food, you won’t get that searing heat. There will be too much liquid and too much stuff. It's better to do two different dishes, or to do the same thing twice. When you plan a meal for friends, don’t make every dish a stir-fry or you’ll be very tired: do some cold dishes and a stew and have the rice cooking separately.”

9. Tweak the timing.

Dunlop: “If you have ingredients that cook at different rates, do them separately and incorporate them at the end and they’ll both be perfect. For example, say you’ve got some crunchy vegetable and some slices of pork or chicken. You want the chicken to be really succulent, not dry. Begin by stir-frying your slivers of pork or chicken until they’re just right. Take them out and put them in a dish. Then cook the vegetables, and when they’re just right, you put the pork or chicken back in the pan. That way, you don’t get the situation where something is raw and something else is overcooked.”

10. Relax about wok care.

Dunlop says: “Relax about wok care. Woks are practically indestructible. If the wok needs a good scrub, give it a good scrub. You just clean it and then you re-season it: After cleaning, heat the wok very hot, then rub it with a thick wad of paper towels and some oil. Let it get very hot and then let it cool again. It may even get a bit rusty. But it doesn’t matter! Just rub away the rust with wire wool and then re-season it with a bit of fresh oil.”

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