Ask Peter: Woks
I recently read your answer to someone looking for a new set of pots, but the one thing you didn't mention was a wok. I am in desperate need of one as I like to stir-fry my vegetables and meats for many different types of meals. I have only owned two in the last 21 years, neither of which were very expensive, both had lids (which was very useful for steaming my chicken at the end) and both were non-stick. However, in the past few years I have been reading that you should not use non-stick on high heat (and you said that too). But cooking my chicken I find that the hotter the pan the better to seal the chicken and really make it tender. I would like to get a decent one but cannot afford to pay several hundred dollars (one was recommended to me in a shop in Auckland but it was close to $500 on sale). What would you use?
I love a good wok and I have no idea why anyone would buy a $500 wok unless it comes with a chef. I assume it'll be a multi-clad wok whereby various metals (likely aluminium) have been laminated together for heat distribution etc reasons - but in my experience they are no better than a steel one.
I always buy my woks from Chinatown and they are made from thinnish carbon steel and have a single wooden handle. I also buy lids and racks as separates. As you say, a lid is a great bit of kit, but not all woks come with them.
The great thing about a thin carbon steel wok is that it heats up quickly, can be cooked over extremely high heat, but also importantly, it cools down quickly.
The reason I don't advocate cooking over high heat in non-stick is that it can, over time, stop them being so non-stick. I've never used a non-stick wok as I tend to use metal tongs and spoons in them and I wouldn't want to scratch them. Also, I've found that non-stick woks are thicker, heat up slower and are too heavy to toss around.
I always buy one-handled woks because you can toss and flip things in them fairly easily (with a little practice) and used in conjunction with a long handled "spoon" or tongs you can cook effectively and efficiently.
The other thing to consider is flat-bottomed or round-bottomed.
Flat bottoms work well on electric and induction hobs (not all woks will work on induction though) as the more surface area in contact with the heat source, the faster they'll heat up and stay hot.
Gas favours round bottoms when sat on a round ring that sits on the stove's trivets (although many have built in wok-rings now). You'll generally find the hottest point is right at the bottom, so keep this in mind when browning meat or vegetables.
One complaint I've often heard is that things stew in the wok. I've found that the reason for this is mostly because people overcrowd the wok. You're better to stir-fry vegetables in several batches over full heat, than to fry a whole lot at once.
So, choose one with a lid which is great for steaming - when you stir fry broccolini in sesame and ginger put a lid on and cook another 90 seconds to help it cook. Racks are great - some sit halfway across the wok and are priceless when deep-frying as a draining rack. Big wide spoons (sold with woks in Chinatown) are perfect when scraping or lifting food from them.
And remember, when you've finished cooking, scrub the wok with warm water and soft nylon, don't use detergent unless really necessary. Then rub the smallest amount of oil all over the inside to prevent them rusting and store the wok bone dry.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.