MY WOK SITS permanently on my stove. Does that tell you something about how often I use it?
If I had to choose only two pieces of kitchen equipment, they would be a sharp chef's knife -- or perhaps a Chinese cleaver -- and a wok.
That the wok is such an indispensable tool shouldn't surprise anyone. It's only been around for a few thousand years.
But a wok can be used for more than just stir-fried beef and broccoli. As a matter of fact, the wok can be used for a lot of food that isn't even Asian.
My wife and I cook bacon in it, toss spaghetti carbonara in it, deep-fry calamari in it and steam tamales in it. We stew garlic for pizza topping in it, braise winter greens in it and steam fish wrapped in corn husks in it. About the only thing you can't do in a wok is bake a cake.
Woks come in all sorts of styles and materials. There are aluminum woks, copper woks, iron woks, stainless steel woks, electric woks, Teflon-coated woks and woks with long wooden handles.
My wok is a traditional one made of rolled, tempered or carbon steel. That provides good heat distribution at a reasonable price.
Woks also come in sizes from 9 to 30 inches in diameter. I think my 14-inch wok is the perfect size, large enough for most chores but no so big that it dominates the kitchen. If you're undecided between two sizes, take the larger size. You can always cook small in a big wok but you can't cook big in a small wok.
There are several attachments you'll need. The most commonly used one is a wide spatula or turner for stirring and scraping. My wok ladle has a handle that is parallel to the bowl rather than perpendicular to it but any style is fine. I also have a brass wire skimmer used for scooping up deep-fried foods. Any slotted spoon will work but the best option is a mesh skimmer that will remove not only the fried food but also loose food particles that can burn and ruin the cooking oil.
A domed cover is essential for braising and steaming.
You can steam with a cake or wire rack that fits inside the wok above the water with the lid closed or you can use a bamboo steamer with its own lid. Buy two bamboo steamers because they're light and stackable. In China, I've seen as many as 10 steamers stacked over one wok.
My wok, like most woks, has a round bottom but some have flat bottoms. The round-bottomed woks sit in a perforated ring stand that fits over the burner support and holds the wok steady on top of the stove. Flat-bottomed woks were designed to fit directly on the cooking surface like a fry pan.
The conventional wisdom is that flat-bottomed woks should be used on electric ranges because they cook more efficiently that way. But I've used my round-bottomed wok on an electric stove and I think it actually worked better than when I used it on gas ranges. It really doesn't make any difference what heat source you use. When I was in China I saw the most primitive wok hookups imaginable, fired by wood and coal.
The key is how you adjust the ring stand. You may have to remove the burner support and place the ring stand directly over the burner for a snug fit. The ring stand has a larger opening on the bottom than on top. By inverting the ring stand, it puts the bottom of the wok closer to the heat source, which may be a good thing if your stove is lacking some heating oomph.
If you buy the rolled or carbon steel wok I recommend, treat it like your mother's cast-iron skillet. First wash it in mild, soapy water, rinse and dry it thoroughly by heating it for a short time. Then, rub the inside of the wok with several thicknesses of paper towels soaked in corn or vegetable oil. Wipe with a clean paper towel and you're all set. A properly seasoned wok prevents food from sticking.
Never use harsh chemicals or abrasive scouring pads to clean your wok. Generally, woks come with a bamboo brush for scrubbing. In Chinese restaurants, cooks pour hot water into the wok, swish it around with the bamboo brush and they're ready to cook the next dish.
Most of the time I just wipe my wok clean with a paper towel, just the way Mom does with her cast iron skillet. To clean stubborn food particles, rinse in hot water and use a nylon scrub pad, or a bamboo scrub brush. Always wipe the wok dry with a paper towel or it will rust. If you have to scrub the wok, it's best to season it again with a thin coating of flavorless oil after it dries.
*Frying: Most everyone knows about stir-frying -- cooking over high heat in a small amount of oil. But you can use a wok at almost any temperature with varying amounts of cooking fat.
Deep frying is quite common in a wok. If you maintain a steady temperature of 325 to 350 degrees, food will emerge relatively grease free.