Choosing A Wok

Article excerpt from Kasma Loha-unchit
The wok has survived the centuries and traveled across many continents and oceans into the kitchens of lands afar. Its roundness, depth and balance make it one of the most well-designed, versatile and practical cooking utensils of all time. Though originally designed for pit cooking in China, it is easily adaptable to various types of stovetops, and people the world over who have learned to master wok cooking and care, find it hard to replace it with flat skillets for many kinds of stovetop cooking, from sauteing and stir-frying to poaching, braising and deep-frying.

The wok comes in many sizes and is made with many types of materials, from carbon steel that makes for easy seasoning, to stainless and state-of-the-art metallic alloys. It comes either with two short, ear-like handles, or with one long handle and one short one. It also comes in differing depths, from shallow to well-rounded and deep. But after surviving through the centuries with its quintessential round bottom, in very recent times, a flat bottom variety has emerged.

Flat bottom or round bottom, which is better? This is one of the major choice issues with which you are faced. The answer, of course, will depend on the experience and style of cooking of the chef and on the attributes that are most important to him or her. There are pros and cons for each, and therefore, varying preferences and opinions. That is why both types of woks continue to sell well in the markets.

In my opinion, there is good reason why the wok has made it down through the ages with its round bottom and I am not about to compromise away this most important feature that gives the wok such great versatility. I have come to this point of view not without first having tried out one of the flat bottoms. Initially, the flat bottom wok makes great sense to me. But after using one for a few weeks, I decided it just can't do as many tricks as my beloved round bottom and ended up swiching back.

Stir-frying is perhaps the single most important function for which the wok is best suited. The wide wok spatula has a rounded edge that fits the rounded contours of the wok, making it a breeze to toss and move about all the particles of food being cooked in it. When the stir-fry is complete, the spatula easily dishes out all the pieces of food from the wok surface, including tiny pieces of chopped garlic. Without any food particles remaining in the wok, it becomes unnecessary to wash the wok before proceeding with the next stir-fry, thereby saving precious time in cleaning, drying and reheating the wok.

With a flat bottom wok, the introduction of a slight angle where its bottom flattens out makes tossing with the wok spatula a bit more challenging and less fun, and often, food is less evenly cooked. Particles of food caught around this edge sometimes end up overcooking or burning, making cleanup more of a chore and increasing the likelihood of scrubbing off some of the precious, hard-earned patina. This slight angle also increases the likelihood of the wok spatula putting scratches in the area just above it in an attempt to turn the pieces of food evenly. Some people solve this problem by replacing the wok spatula with a wooden spoon with which to stir-fry, but tossing with a wooden spoon is much less efficient than with the wide wok spatula, and therefore, defeats the purpose of cooking with a wok.

Although the flat bottom wok is specially designed for better balance on flat American stovetops such as the electric stove, it can be a challenge to stir-fry food evenly in it as the flat bottom that sits directly on a coil heats up much hotter than the rounded sides above it. Food can easily burn if it is not tossed quickly enough and tossing is made more difficult for the reason mentioned above.

So even on an electric stove, I advise to use a wok ring to lift the wok slightly above the coil. The burners of most electric stoves do put out plenty of heat; even if the wok is slightly lifted from the coils, enough heat will be conducted upward with the proper wok ring for a successful stir-fry. If a wok ring is to be used anyway, then why not stay with the more efficient round bottom wok?

There are two kinds of wok rings: one that is made of thick wire with open sides and the other of enclosed metal with small holes for venting. The former is best suited for use on gas burners where flames can leap up the sides of the wok and good air circulation can be maintained for the flames to burn hot, while the latter works well on electric burners as it concentrates and conducts heat upwards. Use both types with the narrower end placed down, so that the wok sits on the wider end. This gives better balance to the wok and brings it closer to the source of heat (but not touching the coil on an electric burner).

I have never tryed using an electric wok, so I did some reaserch on the internet. Most of the information says electric woks are discouraged because the heat is difficult to control. I have read they are easy to clean. If you use one and wish to help out here please send me a e-mail

 

Seasoning and caring for a wok

Rinse away the oily factory covering of a new wok before seasoning with cooking oil. Make sure you season the wok well - the same way you would season a cast-iron skillet. Once it is seasoned it will have a wonderful black patina. Never scour a wok, as this will take away your hard-earned seasoning. Never use your wok for steaming, as this will quickly remove the patina. Re-season frequently, as necessary, until a permanent black coating is achieved.

Clean only with water and a soft sponge - do not wipe dry but dry instead with heat from the stovetop. If the wok surface appears dried out, re-season quickly before putting it away so that it will not rust.

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