If you’re on the Pacific Rim and you cook much, you need a wok. The right kind is the cheap kind; makes it pretty hard to go wrong stir-frying.

We’d had various kinds of modern woks with anti-stick coverings and I’d generally had trouble getting the hang of it; they were kind of klunky and the coating always started wearing off, so cleaning them became a pain in the butt. But I like stir-fry, so I went to Vancouver institution Ming Wo for advice, and the nice lady said “Well, carbon steel of course, round bottom and you’ll need this ring here to hold it on your burner.” Price tag under $50, and I bet the total manufacturing cost was at least $5.

I took her advice but then read up on it and the experts seem to agree, this ugly lightweight construct is the way to go, it has negligible thermal mass so it passes the flame’s heat right through, then cools right off when the food’s done just right.

It’s pretty easy to season and then pretty easy to wash. You gotta dry it off right away though, or it’ll rust instantly. After you’ve been cooking with it for a few months, a wok achieves a magnificent level of textured ugliness, black on black on black on dark-brown. I’ve tried and tried to photograph this effect and failed every time.

When they say carbon steel I’m pretty sure they just mean “not stainless”; there’s no fancy metallurgy at work here.

The formula · You assemble your veggies and (optionally) meat and spend some boring minutes chopping it all up. I understand there are some who enjoy this part; how nice for them.

Cutting up prior to stir-frying

Then you fry while stirring, with a little oil (less than you’d think). Some advanced practitioners fry the meat and different veggies separately, taking them out again, then combining them all at the end. I’ve done that, but these days I just feed the ingredients in based on a judgment call about how fast they’ll cook. The meat and onions take more time than most of the veggies; among those, the carrots take longer than the mushrooms take longer than the peppers.

I don’t know about your household, but in mine the hardest part is getting the family to leave their computers and books and games and toys and come to the damn table already when the stir-fry is at its piping-hot peak.

Yakisoba and yakiudon · This is my favorite stir-fry variation. You can make it with white meat like chicken or pork, but tofu is fine as well. What distinguishes it is that after you’ve got everything else cooked, you toss in some udon (thick) or soba (thin) noodles for the last 90 seconds or so, and then some chopped-up cabbage for the last thirty seconds.

Yakiudon: The meat and onions

First the chicken and onions...

Yakiudon: Now with vegetables

... now with vegetables ...

Yakiudon: Now with udon

... then the noodles!

The matter of sauces · These go in at the last minute along with the noodles and cabbage. I mean the bottles full of opaque black fluid in the Asian-foods aisle at your supermarket. I confess to not being a connoisseur of the differences between the fish, oyster, hoisin, black-bean, and so on variations; but I do like a good honey-garlic sauce. I have sometimes resorted to pre-mixed “Yakisoba sauce” but on others mixed selections from the fridge door shelves pretty well at random, and I notice there usually aren’t any leftovers.

It’s nutritious, really tasty, easy to get right, and aside from the chopping, not much work. If you’re not doing the wok thing at home you might want to give it a shot.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Gary (Oct 27 2013, at 12:45)

I now feel self conscious about my heavy wok.

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From: Elaine (Oct 27 2013, at 13:20)

Do you have a gas or electric range? I've thought about getting a wok but wondered if it was worth doing on an electric range...

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From: Robin Wilton (Oct 27 2013, at 13:21)

I still have the carbon steel wok I bought in (London's) Chinatown in 1981. The only thing I'd change is from two steel hoop handles to one wooden handle. Unfortunately, they obviously hadn't heard of built-in obsolescence ;^\

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From: Gordon Haff (Oct 27 2013, at 14:22)

FWIW, Cooks Illustrated really preaches using a skillet rather than a wok. For my setup (a fairly output gas range), I don't really agree. But I can see their point for more mainstream setups--which is basically that most home ranges don't have enough heat output to use a wok like it's meant to be used. A wok never worked all that great with my previous smooth top range.

Stir fry also benefits from spending some time assembling all the basic ingredients (and ditching most of the over-sweet pre-made sauce concoctions that they have in the grocery store).

Those points aside, a do a lot of stir fry at home. I just wish I had someone do the prep work for me because the cooking itself is super-fast :-)

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From: James Fryer (Oct 28 2013, at 01:27)

Chop up garlic, chilli and ginger and put in the oil just before adding the vegetables.

After a couple of minutes add some light soya sauce and some rice wine.

Much better than shop sauces.

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From: Dave (Nov 03 2013, at 22:43)

If your stir-fry chicken ends up tough like mine does, google "how to velvet chicken", it's fantastic.

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From: Jason Yu (Nov 20 2013, at 05:15)

It looks delicious. Sometimes I will cook at home.

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October 27, 2013
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