Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Versatile Wok

If you are just starting out in the kitchen and wondering what type of pans to buy, a is a great place to start. The traditional wok has changed very little over the centuries and its versatility today is as impressive as ever. One wok can do the work of at least three pans. It is quite literally the Swiss Army Knife of pans and can be used for , deep frying, or steaming. If you choose one of the more modern woks with a stainless steel or non-stick finish, it can also be used for braising, stewing and making any type of . Apart from stir-frying which the wok is known for, it can be used for Mexican, Italian and many other types of cuisine, frying chicken, boiling , and steaming pudding.

Choosing and caring for your wok
Woks are available in two basic shapes and a wide range of sizes. The traditional wok has a rounded bottom, reflecting its original use which was designed to be suspended in a brazier over a hot fire. However, a more modern wok is the flat-bottomed wok, intended to sit directly on top of a burner or element. You should purchase this style of you can't get a round-bottomed wok close enough to the heat source on your range.

Woks typically have two handles, one on each side often covered with wooden handle covers. If yours does not have these, invest in some potholders to move your wok when cooking, since the wok heats up entirely, including the handles. Some woks have a single wooden handle on one side and these are easy to move, but you should hold the wok on both sides if it is full of food or oil. Woks range in size from 9 to 30 inches, but the 14-inch size usually proves the best choice for most home cooks.

Once you have decided on a shape and size, you need to decide on which material your wok should be made of. Originally made of cast iron, many of today's woks are commonly made of heavy-gauge rolled carbon steel. Carbon steel woks conduct heat well, but they require seasoning and proper care to keep the surface in good condition.

To season a wok:
1. Before using the wok, wash with mild soapy water, then dry it directly over medium heat on your range until no moisture remains.
2. Rub the inside with 2 teaspoons of olive oil on a dampened paper towel, wipe of any excess with a clean paper towel.
3. After each use, wash the wok with warm, soapy water and use a soft non-abrasive brush to scrub off any sticking food, then rinse well.
4. Dry the wok on the range after washing, as the wok will rust if slightly damp.

Aluminum and stainless steel woks need no seasoning and will not rust, simply clean them as you would any other aluminum pan. These are a great all round pan, particularly good for steaming and stewing, and work well for stir-frying, though they do not distribute heat as evenly as carbon steel woks. Tabletop electric woks are also popular. They are especially good for poaching foods in hot broth and work well for steaming and deep frying, but because they recover heat more slowly after food is added, they are not quite as good for stir-frying. Cleaning should be carried out according to the manufacturer's recommendations.

Using a wok on your range
Woks can be used on either gas or electric ranges. Flat-bottomed woks are designed to rest directly on the cooking element of either kind of range, but round-bottomed types may need to be set in a ring stand. If you cook on a gas range, the wok can be placed directly on the metal burner support above the flame. For deep-frying or steaming you may need to stabilize the wok by using a ring stand. Place the ring stand on the range and set the wok on top. The bottom of the wok should be within 1 inch of the flame. If you find it is too far away, turn the ring stand over to bring the wok closer to the burner, or remove the burner support and place the ring stand directly on the range top. If you use an electric range, place the wok directly on the element. Again, a ring stand may be necessary when deep-frying or steaming. Invert the ring stand over the electric element, then suspend the wok in the stand so that it rests directly on the element or no more than 1 inch above it.

Wok accessories
Some of the most useful wok accessories are mentioned here.
1. A long-handled spatula with a wide, curved edge. The handle is often tipped with wood to prevent it getting too hot to touch during cooking.

2. A dome-shaped wok lid is helpful for stir-frying.
3. A metal or bamboo rack to hold food above boiling water when steaming (a round cake rack can be used).
4. A ring stand.
5. A wire skimmer or slotted spoon for removing bits of food from the oil.
6. A semi-circular wire draining rack that fits to the top of the wok.
7. A deep-frying thermometer.

Planning meals for wok cooking
Although the wok is an Asian invention, it can be used for many types of cooking, but keep in mind that it can't do everything at once! If you have a meal with a steamed dish, braised food, and a stir-fry to be served together, you'll need more than one wok and probably lots of helpers!