From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Playing with Fire... (or at least WOKKING on it...)

WHOOSH!!! There is nothing more satisfying to me hearing the visceral roar of 90,000 btu's of gas powered flame leaping into the air and hitting the base of my carbon steel wok.  Or the sound of the sizzle that springs from the wok as I put the ingredients for the night's meal into the smoking (just barely) hot oil. Or the sound of forks (and chopsticks) hitting the plate, and mad slurping, munching, and chewing of crispy stir fried vegetables.  Or the satisfied belch that springs from my youngest daughter as she leans back in her chair after practically licking her plate clean.

Does anyone out there have a favorite restaurant in mind that utilizes open flame wok cooking?  For me, Golden Wok, Fire Wok, Fire Bowl Cafe and Pei Wei have the best and most consistent technique (although none of them could touch Chino's Cafe...)  My listing them, by the way, is by no means an advertiesment for these companies. 

For me, wok cooking is definitely my style of choice.  I have struggled (and failed) to cook a decent tasting stir fry dish, or good fried rice with a skillet, or even a float bottomed wok, and sadly, they never seem to come close to what the imagined final result is supposed to be.  The science behind it is basic, but the skill behind it is intricate.

Woks are the most versatile cooking implement out there.  I use woks most often for stir frying, but they can also be used many other ways, such as in steaming, deep frying, braising, stewing, smoking, or making soup. I use with my wok, a long handled chahn (spatula) or hoak (ladle). The long extensions of these utensils allowsme to work with the food without burning myself.

Classic woks are clearly identified by their distinctive shape - a wide mouth with a well rounded bottom.  (Remind you of anyone?)  There are some made and sold with a flat bottom, specifically for those who do not have gas stoves, or want to use them more in the frying capacity.  My favorite one is a carbon steel wok, 18" in diameter with a metal handle.  The one I use the most, however, is 14" wide, with a wooden handle.  I have learned through experience that this particular wok does not work well when trying to cook for the masses, as the wooden handle does not have the tensile strength to withstand as much action as a wok can be put through with nearly 2 pounds of food in it.  My wooden handled wok also presents a disadvantage as it has an additional handle (I guess for lifting) on the opposite side of the bowl.  This darned handle causes food to hit it and fly tangentally away from the rest of the portion, which adds to the mess that I create when cooking.

I am also challenged by conditions which we have no control over - I don't have a gas stove that belches fire at a rate that I need it to in order to best cook Chinese food - I have an electric range.  (I can already hear the gasps of horror, as many of you know that I am a HUGE proponent of gas cooking.)  Electric ranges simply do not provide enough heat at a fast enough rate to heat the sides of the wok, thus reducing the usable surface area with which to cook.

Successful wok cooks (like me, after 4 years of working on the mechanics) can turn and mix food with a flipping motion that tosses the food into the air over the wok.  This style of cooking means that the term "Stir Fry" is a bit of a misnomer, as the flipping of the food, while cool to watch, actually takes to food away from the hot 450 degree surface. 

Does "Flip Fry" sound good to you? Brings to mind much potential for a burger joint for the horizontally gifted crowd...

Teflon?  Who the heck uses teflon? You sure can't with Asian stir fry, as teflon scratches easily, and your complementary cooking utensils are metal ladles or spatulas... What were you thinking?!?!?

Basic Stir-Frying Tips (Best Practice)

Always start with a hot wok.  Hot.  Really.  Then add a small amount (1-3 tablespoons) of peanut oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, or canola oil. (Fresh chopped garlic and ginger can be added to the oil to flavor it, but must be quickly scooped out before burning or turning brown.) Add the first ingredient, usually sliced meat, and stir in the very hot oil until hot, then push it up the side to slow the amount of heat on the meat or cooking items. The meat may be returned to the oil and then flipped and pushed to the sides several times until the cooking is done. A well made wok will have ridged or dimpled edges to prevent the food items from sliding back down into the center of the wok.
Once cooked, scoop out the meat with a Chinese strainer (or any, really,) to a side plate then cook the next ingredient, usually vegetables, in the same manner. Strain out any excess cooking oil, and combine all your ingrediens, with sauces, seasonings, liquids, and corn starch slurry for thickening.  Continue stirring until your food has a nice glaze to it.   If done effectively, many portions can be cooked in a short period of time.
I usually try not to cook more than one serving, 2 at most, otherwise not all of the ingredients cook evenly or get hot enough.  I will also, when cooking for an army, as I am usually wont to do, pre-cook a lot of the meat, then cook the individual portions after having prepped all of the other ingredients.
Use extreme caution, when wok cooking over gas, to not allow water or juices to splatter over the sides of the wok when adding your ingredients.  This splatter could cause the hot oil to ignite and burn, which then could result in a charred, burnt oil taste. 

The visual effects are cool, but only if not actually cooking for someone.   I still enjoy going to Chinese restaurants that cook on display (interactive dining at its best) to watch the cooks do their thing.  Many Chinese restaurants have an open cooking line to enable their guests to see what is actually going on.  (Such transparency has become a staple of the dining experience now, as many restaurants battle to gain trust among people who have less and less disposable income to spend on dining out.)  I had actually dreamed of opening a restaurant on the Riverwalk here in San Antonio that had a glass frontage along the walkway for people to stand and watch the pyrotechnics, with master chefs hard at work.  Sadly, though, I have not yet won the lottery, so such dreams will have to be put on hold.

Until then, Good Eating...

Golden Wok Chinese on Urbanspoon
Fire Bowl Cafe on Urbanspoon
Fire Wok on Urbanspoon
Pei Wei Asian Diner on Urbanspoon
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