A wok is a thin-walled cooking pan. It is shaped like a shallow bowl with handles and is widely used in Asian cooking, especially Chinese and Indian. The wok has a round bottom that helps heat to concentrate, thereby helping to cook food quickly with relatively little oil. The intelligent design of the wok allows food, when cooked, to be moved up the sloping side of the wok to stay warm without cooking further.

Developed as an implement to conserve scarce fuel, the wok is generally made of iron, carbon steel, copper, or aluminum. 

The first recorded use of woks age from the Han dynasty of China –from 206 BCE to 200 CE. They were probably made of cast iron and carried two handles on the sides. Woks played an important role in the everyday life of the Chinese at the time. It was commonly found in the Han tombs for the use of the deceased in life after death! From that, we can deduce how vital the wok has been to the Chinese and, now, the Asians.

Asian cuisines comprise a diversity of other cuisines, depending on their region of origin. The wok is common to almost all kinds of cuisines of Asia – be it Thai, Japanese, Indian, and, of course, Chinese. Moreover, the wok can be used to cook a variety of dishes  – beef, pork, egg, stir-fried vegetables, noodles, or Thai curry. Just gather all your ingredients and let the wok work its magic!

wok fried potatoes
The wok is arguably the most versatile cooking utensil | Source: Markus Distelrath from Pixabay
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Things You Need to Know Before Cooking in a Wok

A wok is preferred over a traditional frying pan because a wok distributes heat a lot more evenly. This is possible due to the concave shape of the wok with sloping sides, as well as the nature of the material that is used to make woks. An even heat distribution ensures that there are fewer hot or cold spots, thereby, ensuring that everything in the wok is cooked at the same time. Also, because of its shape, tossing food such as stir fry is a lot simpler and allows for the ingredients to fall back into the wok.

While most commonly used as a utensil to stir fry (meat, fish, vegetables, noodles), a wok, given its unique design, can also be used for a vast array of cooking Asian foods. The wok is deep and, so,  it can be filled with water to boil foods or filled with oil for deep frying. If you add wood chips and a rack, a wok can also be used as a smoker for meats and cheeses. With a lid on, the wok can also be used for steaming vegetables or seafood.

Best Oils for Wok Cooking

Choose your wok oil carefully. It is advisable to use an oil with a high smoke point. These are oils that require a high temperature before they begin to smoke. With low smoke point oils, you risk burning your oil and tainting the flavor of the entire dish. The best wok cooking oils are:

  • Canola oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Olive oil

Adding Ingredients to a Wok

  1. Aromatics are the foundation of flavor for any dish. In wok cooking, add them first. Once the wok and oil are hot, add in your garlic, onions, herbs, and other aromatics for your specific recipe.
  2. Add in any protein that is required in the dish. Get a good sear on one side before flipping to the other. Cook the protein until it is approximately 75% complete. Remove all of the contents of the wok to a separate plate to be added back in later.
  3. Add the vegetables last. In order of longest to shortest cook times, add vegetables to the wok to begin cooking. Typically, root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes, take the longest, while soft vegetables, such as tomatoes and corn, take the least amount of cooking time.

Wok Hei

The trademark smoky flavor that is associated with wok cooking is created by wok hei. When translated into English, wok hei means "breath of the wok", which is the effect that causes the wok to flame up and result in caramelization and the Maillard reaction. The reason this happens is that the oil from the wok, when tossed, drips down into the open flame and causes a flare-up that comes into direct contact with the ingredients.

Wok Accessories

Wok Rings

The natural round shape of a wok has a tendency to wobble. A wok ring prevents such an occurrence, making for much more sturdy cooking. Many rings have holes to allow heat to transfer up the walls of your wok for overall increased heat.

Wok Covers

Choose a good wok cover to not only prevent hot oil and juices from splattering outside of the wok, but to also keep food hot through greater heat retention. Available in all shapes and sizes, most wok covers are domed to allow for proper air circulation and to lock in moisture.

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oil
When cooking with a wok, you won't really need as much oil | Source: congerdesign from Pixabay

Asian Recipes in a Wok

There are many simple Asian recipes that one can prepare with the wok. Superprof suggests these 3 easy to make recipes of Asia, ideal for beginner users of the wok, but with a very particular taste. Learn how to make optimum use of the wok in the kitchen and make tasty and light dishes at the same time.

Wok-Fired Okra Sambal

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, plus more for frying
  • 1/4 cup sambal oelek (Asian chili paste)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 pounds okra, trimmed and cut on the bias into 2-to-3-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons oyster sauce
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fried shallots
  • Julienned red fresno or jalapeno chili pepper, for topping

How to Make

  1. Heat the peanut oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the chili paste and fry, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons salt and all but 1 teaspoon of the sugar and cook until the sugar begins to caramelize about 5 minutes.
  2. Heat about 4 inches peanut oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers 375 degrees F. Working in batches, fry the okra until bright green, about 30 seconds, then remove with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon and shake off the excess oil. Add the okra to the wok with the chili sauce and toss for about 1 minute. Add the oyster sauce, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and the remaining 1 teaspoon sugar, and toss 30 more seconds.
  3. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the shallots and chili pepper.

Chicken and Broccoli Stir-Fry

Ingredients

wok tossed
There's nothing stopping you from cooking your usual food in the wok | Source: Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

How to Make

  1. In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with the scallion whites, sugar, sesame oil, sherry, soy sauce, about half the garlic, half the ginger, 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon salt. Marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes. Mix the remaining 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1/3 cup water in a small bowl and reserve.
  2. Heat a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil and heat. Add the broccoli stems and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the florets and the remaining garlic and ginger, 2 tablespoons of water, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and some black pepper. Stir fry until the broccoli is bright green but still crisp, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
  3. Get the skillet good and hot again, and then heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the chicken and red pepper flakes, if using. Stir fry until the chicken loses its raw color and gets a little brown, about 3 minutes. Add the hoisin sauce, return the broccoli to the pan and toss to heat through. Stir in the reserved cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil to thicken. Add more water, if needed, to thin the sauce. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if you like.
  4. Mound the stir-fry on a serving platter or divide among 4 plates and garnish with sesame seeds. Serve with rice.

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Chicken in a Wok Indian Style (Kadhai Chicken)

Ingredients

  • 0.0kg Chicken
  • 3.0 Medium Tomatoes, Diced
  • 1.0part Ginger Garlic Chili Paste
  • 1.0tsp Heaped Red Chili Powder
  • 1.0tsp Turmeric Powder
  • 0.0tsp Indian Allspice (Garam Masala)
  • 2.0 Green Chilies Julienne
  • Oil
  • Salt to Taste
  • Water, as required
  • Coriander, to garnish

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How to Make

  1. Heat oil in a wok on medium heat.
  2. While the oil is heating, dice the tomatoes and keep them aside.
  3. Add the chicken to the wok and shallow fry till it turns white. Make sure the chicken does not stick to the bottom of the wok by constantly turning the pieces.
  4. When the chicken turns white all over, empty about a third of the oil in another vessel and keep it aside.
  5. When the chicken is white all over, add the paste. If it starts to burn or stick to the bottom of the wok, reduce heat slightly. Alternately, keep adding water and letting it dry out a little at a time.
  6. In the removed oil, add the turmeric and chili powders. The chili powder is mainly for color and does not make it spicy. If your powder is spicy, then you can skip the green chilies.
  7. Add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly.
  8. As the tomatoes start to cook, their water is drained which helps form the gravy. Cook on medium heat till the tomatoes soften up a little.
  9. When the tomatoes start to turn a little mushy and the water consistency goes down a bit, add the oil and powder mixture prepared and mix to infuse the color and flavour. Add some water, if necessary.
  10. Add the allspice mixture and cook for 5–10 minutes. Garnish with coriander before serving. Goes well with white rice or Indian flat-bread.

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wok fried prawns
You can prepare some delicious prawns using your new wok | Source: Sabine Felidae from Pixabay

Asian Wok Food 101

The wok can cook practically everything – white meat, red meat, fishes, shellfishes, and vegetable. Additionally, the wok is a great utensil for experimenting with your cooking.

Stir Fry

This is the most common and perhaps the simplest type of cooking. Very little seasoning is required to stir-fry the ingredients in the wok. The incredible non-stick nature and the oval structure of this saucepan allow food to be cooked in very little time. Cut all the ingredients into small pieces and pour them according to the cooking time they need. Remember to always use a wooden or plastic spatula to stir fry. This helps you to avoid spoiling the non-stick base of the wok.

Stew Cooking

Effectively double cooking, stew cooking involves the first phase of stir-frying followed by slower cooking in a liquid (water or broth). Prepare delicious meat stews in a wok with this type of cooking.

Fry

The wok can help you prepare crispy fried meat, fish, or vegetables, perhaps with a delicate batter made from rice flour. Remember to use less oil than you would in a common saucepan. The wok can, in fact, cook fewer ingredients at a time and, therefore, use up less oil.

Steam Cooking

The characteristic shape of the wok allows this saucepan to be used for steam cooking. Use a grill to be placed on the wok and half fill the wok with water. Once the water starts boiling, place the food you want to cook on the grill and cover everything with a lid. If you are using a multi-layered grill, remember to place in the lower layer the foods that need more heat intensity such as vegetables and starchy foods, and in the higher layer the foods such as meat or fish.

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Shreyanjana

Shreyanjana is an archaeologist who ironically finds the written word to be the most powerful means of storytelling. A travel buff and a photography enthusiast, she has been writing and sharing stories of all sorts ever since she can remember.