Jane Says: It's Time to Buy a Wok

With the right equipment and simple ingredients, this Chinese cooking method can produce a multitude of meals.

Cooking with a wok. (Photo: Kirk Mastin/Getty Images)

Feb 5, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
“I’m trying to save money by not eating out, but I really miss Chinese food! What do I need to know before I attempt stir-frying at home?”

—Mary Burton

I can’t think of a more healthful way to kick off the Year of the Horse than learning how to stir-fry. There’s no better cooking technique for transforming small amounts of humble ingredients into delicious, harmonious abundance with minimum fat, time, and cooking fuel. In other words, once you know how to stir-fry, you’ll never be at a loss for a quick, economical meal again. And there is no reason you have to plan and execute an entire Chinese meal; stir-fried broccoli and carrots, for instance, are just as delicious with your favorite roast chicken recipe as they are with kung pao.

I was also delighted at the opportunity to reach out to stir-frying authority Grace Young. “There's nothing like a home-cooked stir-fry,” she emailed back. “It's far superior to anything you can eat in a restaurant.” Young crisscrosses the country—more correctly, the world—teaching the tenets of stir-frying and being an all-around wok ambassador. Her most recent book, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, is definitive without being intimidating; the heady, illuminating mix of history (both ancient and modern), methodology, and foolproof (i.e., meticulously tested) recipes practically impels you into the kitchen. Young’s search for recipes evolved into a global look at the Chinese immigrant experience, and dishes such as Jamaican Jerk Chicken Fried Rice and Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp serve as mouthwatering reminders that fusion food is nothing new.

Why You Need a Wok—and What to Look For

“All pans are not well suited for stir-frying,” Young wrote. “It's essential to use a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok.” That sounds a little nitpicky, but Young has her reasons: A 14-inch wok is the size you need for a main-course stir-fry for two people or a side dish for four (see “Don’t Crowd the Pan,” below). Carbon steel heats up and cools down quickly, and a wok that’s flat-bottomed can sit directly on the burner, allowing it to get hotter than a round-bottomed wok perched in a wok ring for stability. (Not convinced? OK, your next-best alternative is a 12-inch heavy-duty stainless-steel skillet such as All-Clad, but more cooking oil will be required to prevent food from sticking, and you risk spilling out an ingredient that has volume—spinach or watercress, for instance—while cooking it.)

Buying a wok is a great reason for a trip to Chinatown (especially if you leave enough time for dim sum); one terrific online source is Tane Chan’s Wok Shop in San Francisco. Avoid a round-bottomed Chinese cast-iron wok, the style beloved by Cantonese home cooks; it retains heat and in less-than-expert hands, it can easily result in overcooked food. Avoid, too, nonstick models, which don’t caramelize ingredients properly; a recipe simply won’t taste the same. Instead, spring for a carbon-steel wok that’s been adapted for the Western kitchen with a long (removable) wooden handle and a small helper handle. At the Wok Shop, such a pan is a bargain at $24.95, and they're available for even less in a Chinatown department store. As for seasoning a wok, Chan’s method couldn’t be simpler: She oils and bakes the wok just once, then adds a bit more oil and stir-fries a generous handful of garlic chives until they are well and truly charred.

If you live near an Asian market, you’ve probably seen garlic, or Chinese, chives—the long, narrow, flat leaves are sold in fat bunches and are delicious steamed, sautéed, or in a Korean pancake. If you can’t put your hands on them, though, don’t let that stop you. Scallions will do, and once you char whatever it is you use, you’re in business: The wok is ready to go, and it will continue to season itself (and become more beautiful) each time you cook in it.

While you’re wok shopping, pick up a shovel-shaped wok spatula (wok chuan) too. It costs about five bucks, and its contours give you great control as you repeatedly push the ingredients up onto the wok’s high, sloping hot sides—which function as an extension of the cooking surface—and let them tumble down.

One item you should pass on, however, is a stiff bamboo brush for cleaning the wok. Meant for restaurant use, it will take the seasoning right off your wok. Grace Young just puts hot water into her wok, lets it sit about 10 minutes, and wipes it out with a sponge. To remove any sticky bits, she uses the rough side of a sponge recommended for cleaning nonstick cookware. Then she dries the wok completely over low heat.

A few Notes on Ingredients

Avoid buying meat precut for stir-frying. You don’t know what you’re getting, and odds are it’s sliced all wrong, which can make even a tender cut tough. Flank steak is a good case in point: Because of its long fibers, it’s critical to first cut the steak with the grain into 1½- to 2-inch-wide strips, then cut each strip across the grain into ¼-inch-thick (i.e., bite-size) slices; if you cut the bite-size slices on the bias, there will be more surface area to sear.

As for vegetables, they should be absolutely bone-dry before they’re added to the wok; they should crackle in the hot oil, and their aroma should bloom. If they’re still wet from rinsing, the wok’s temperature will drop, and the vegetables will steam instead of stir-fry in that excess moisture. “Most of all, remember that stir-frying accentuates the flavor and texture of super-fresh, seasonal ingredients,” Young wrote.

And because a stir-fry takes virtually no time at all, have all your ingredients chopped and close at hand. Once you start cooking, you won’t have the time to prep as you go.

Preheating Is Key

In her classes and demos, Young never fails to emphasize that intense heat is the secret to a great stir-fry. What most people don't realize, though, is “the wok must be preheated on high heat before adding a high-smoking-point oil such as peanut or grape-seed.” So crank up the heat and place your hand about an inch above the bottom of the pan. In about 10 to 60 seconds (depending on how powerful your stove is), it should feel like a hot radiator, and a drop or two of water sprinkled into the wok should vaporize immediately.

Don’t Crowd the Pan

The instant raw meat or poultry hits the searing-hot pan, it should start to sizzle, and that sound should remain constant throughout the stir-fry. That’s why you shouldn’t overcrowd the wok with too much food, Young stressed. “More than one pound of chicken or meat will crowd the pan and take down the temperature, turning your stir-fry into a soggy braise.”

Don’t start stir-frying immediately; let the meat get a good sear on before you begin channeling your inner Iron Chef. Otherwise, it will turn gray and stick to the wok; trust me, it’s as unappetizing as it sounds.

Have Everything Else Ready to Go

Stir-fries are meant to be eaten immediately to best appreciate the quality of wok hay—the elusive, ephemeral seared taste and aroma prized by generations of Chinese cooks. So have the table set and a pot of rice cooked.

You’ll find any number of stir-fry recipes online, including these from Grace Young. Several of them would be especially appropriate for the Chinese New Year: One last look at Sky’s Edge revealed that chicken symbolizes a proper beginning and end; scallions, intelligence; shrimp, happiness and laughter; pork, bounty and family unity; and cilantro, compassion. Happy trails!