Three kitchen items are essential for true Chinese cooking: A wok, a rice cooker, and a cleaver. Here are a few tips on how to select and care for your new wok.
If you're new to Chinese cooking, then you may benefit from a wok set, which should include a wok, lid, ladle, strainer, heat ring, and a long-handled scoop/turner. A bamboo brush, which is used to scrub the wok, may also be included. Woks are made of different types of metals and are even Teflon-coated. Woks made of carbon steel are the best heat conductors and those with a rounded bottom are highly recommended. Cooking the Chinese way means spending much time preparing and chopping your food, while actual cooking time is quite fast. Therefore, your food must heat quickly and be done within a matter of minutes. The long-handled Chinese wok scoop is designed with curved sides to toss food about from the center of the wok and around the sides.
Wok size varies a little, but the 14-inch or 16-inch diameter is best for cooking up to four servings with plenty of room for mixing the meats and vegetables.
Treat the carbon steel type of wok much like cast iron: it must be seasoned beforehand. You should only clean it with, at most, a plastic scouring pad or the bamboo brush. If any bits of food remain, add a bit of water, place it back on the burner and let the steam cook off the leftover food.
Newer wok designs include a flat bottom and work well on electric or flat-surface burners. However, stainless steel and Teflon woks with flat bottoms may tend to cook food unevenly, heating up the bottoms while the sides remain cooler. The rounded bottom carbon steel wok allows heat to radiate up the sides, thus cooking more evenly.
The heat ring aids in containing and radiating heat, but you can experiment cooking with and without the ring. On electric stoves, place the smaller opening on the burner; the wider mouth holds the wok. On a gas range, the wider opening should be placed around the burner, as you may want to raise the bottom of the wok to benefit from the hottest part of the flame. Some stovetops, such as those with cast iron elements, will simply not work with the rounded bottom wok. An electric heating element, purchased separately, may solve the problem. Gas stoves, of course, provide the perfect setting for a rounded bottom wok.
You may want to experiment with the different styles, as most woks are reasonable in price. However, to maintain the true tradition of Chinese cooking, the rounded bottom carbon steel variety can be the most fun to master.
When to season your wok
Your wok will arrive with a coating intended to prevent rust. Similar to treating cast iron, you should wash with liquid detergent once. If this does not remove the coating, boil a baking soda and water solution in the wok.
Coat your work with oil and put it on a burner or over a flame at the highest setting. When the oil begins to smoke, lower the flame and let the oil cook in for at least twenty minutes. Occasionally baste the oil around the upper sides of the wok for even seasoning. For a deeper seasoning, do this in the oven at 150 degrees for at least three hours.
Season the lid at the same time, but be sure to remove any wooden parts first.
After preparing a few meals, your wok will develop a dark brown coating, which means it's completely seasoned.
On occasion, you may want to re-season your wok.
Only iron and steel woks require seasoning. Remove the coating on your stainless steel wok, but do not season it in the same manner. Because of its composition, food may have a tendency to burn more easily. Use a heavy layer of non-stick cooking spray before cooking.
Wash the wok in hot water after each meal. You may wish to apply a thin film of oil before putting the wok away.
The wok can be awkward to store. If you have a pantry or out of the way place, you may want to hang the wok on a wall. Most woks have longer handles on one side and a shorter one for gripping on the opposite side.
Your wok will last for many years to come and with some experimenting, you will find that many other types of foods can be cooked in a wok, including omelets!
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