Woks have been synonymous with Chinese cooking since the emergence of Chinese cuisine. They have been used for some 3000 years in China for a variety of cooking methods, including stir frying, boiling, and steaming. A wok is a large, thin-walled, round-bottomed, metal cooking pan, and shaped like a shallow bowl with handles. The addition of a wooden rack and cover transforms the wok into a steamer. Although woks come in sizes ranging from 10 to 32 inches in diameter, a wok that’s 11 to 14 inches should suffice for use in a household kitchen.
With the increasing popularity of Chinese cuisine, there are now many “Westernized” versions of the wok. There is the addition of a metal ring, which is set on top of a gas or electric stove to hold the wok to prevent tipping. Some have a small flat bottom instead of the traditional round bottom, for the same reason. The new versions will get the job done, but the “traditonal” large round-bottomed woks are still, by far, the preferred wok of choice.
Since the essence of Chinese cuisine is to achieve food tenderness through quick cooking to retain the natural taste, flavor, and color of the ingredients, the wok’s ingenious unique design makes it a perfect fit in Chinese cooking. Its bottom concentrates heat to achieve 2 objectives: 1) to direct the heat at the food, while sealing in the flavors and allowing food to be cooked evenly, and 2) to allow cooking food quickly with very little oil. The stir fry cooking technique shifts food around the wok quickly, coating it with oil during cooking, as opposed to using a flat frying pan where a lot more oil is required. Consequently, cooking with a wok is essential for a healthy diet. It also has curved sides to keep in food that is being tossed and flipped during stir frying. Food, when cooked, may be moved up the sloping side of the wok to stay warm without cooking further, while other food is cooked at the bottom. It is also ideal for deep frying as it requires less oil than any other kitchen cookware to do the job.
Next, in Part 2 of Wok this way!, we’ll go over selecting a wok.