According to Grace Young, James Beard winner and, as food historian Betty Fussell calls her, “poet laureate of the wok,” the problem with your stir-fry might be solved simply with a sharp knife and a thirty-dollar wok. Young’s cookbook “The Breath of a Wok” will soon join the likes of Julia Childs' in the IACP Cookbook Hall of Fame, and is chock full of fresh insights into the art of the stir-fry, an incredibly common yet woefully misunderstood style of cooking.
“So many people want to stir-fry because they realize that it’s healthy, but they just have such horrible experiences because they don’t know the basics,” Young tells us.
We follow along with Young on her mission to debunk the myths and misunderstandings connected to the wok: an ancient, traditional and yet surprisingly versatile Chinese pan. Find out if you are using the wrong equipment, ingredients, cooking method, or cleaning method (or perhaps you’ve got it all wrong… only one way to find out.)
First things first… what makes a good wok, and why is this essential item so important to a delicious dish?
There are so many different kinds of woks out there. I recommend a 14 inch flat bottom carbon steel wok with a long wooden handle and a shorter helper handle. Traditional Cantonese-style woks have those short “pig ear” handles, but they are clumsy and the handles get very hot. I like the Westernized wok for Western stoves– you can grab them without potholders. The original Chinese wok is round bottomed, but on an American stove that’s not stable and will wobble, so a flat bottomed wok is another crucial adaptation. I find that for the typical American stove, a 14 inch wok is critical. A smaller wok crowds your food, and a typical American stove isn’t powerful enough for a larger one.
Shop Grace’s recommended Wok: https://www.wokshop.com/newstore/product/carbon-steel-wok-with-wood-side-handle-made-usa/
What other kitchen items are crucial to stir-frying correctly?
So if the first step is buying the correct wok, the second is having a high-quality, sharp knife. You’re going to be prepping and if you’re struggling with your knife, it’s much more work and it’s more dangerous. I have and love the New West Knifeworks Santoku, it’s a real beauty, a piece of art. A regular chef’s knife will work, too.
What about a traditional Chinese cleaver, do you suggest one of those as well?
I certainly have Chinese cleavers, but I try to make wok cooking as accessible as possible and I don’t want to alienate people by suggesting needing one; you really just need a sharp knife. Cleavers are nice because the surface area of a cleaver is so large that the moment you slice something, you can scoop it all up and transfer it to a wok or plate efficiently, which is useful. Sometimes I use it for smashing coins of ginger or cloves of garlic, but you can actually also do that with a chef’s or santoku.
The title of your book, “Breath of a Wok,” is your translation of the Chinese culinary concept “wok hay.” Can you tell us more about what that means?
“Hay,” in Cantonese, is the same as “chi” in Mandarin. It means vitality, or life force. When a stir-fry has been correctly made, they say that it has “wok hay.” Some say it’s the fragrance, the taste, or the mojo of a wok. A dish that has “wok hay” is a quintessential balance of texture, flavor, and seared aroma. When I was a child my father was obsessed with stir-fry’s and in San Francisco he knew all the great chefs, and we would just walk into the kitchens to order food. He would always say to the chef, “give me extra wok hay.” We always sat at the table closest to the kitchen door because he wanted the least amount of time to elapse from the food coming off of the wok and onto our plates. I translated “hay” to “breath,” and I had this vision of the breath of a dragon.
You explain that wok cooking should incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients because that’s the way the style was intended. Can you tell us more about that?
Everyone in China stir-fry’s, but the Cantonese are considered the great masters of stir-fry. The reason is because of the area– in Southern China it’s very hot and humid year-round, so no one wanted to stand over the stove for long periods of time, and stir-fry’s can be done in two minutes! Also, produce grows in Southern China year-round. They have access to rivers and all kinds of fresh fish, shellfish, pork, lamb, and beef. When you stir fry a dish correctly you use the freshest ingredients. The last thing you want to do, for example, is stir-fry asparagus in December when it’s out of season. Quick cooking and high heat punches up the flavors, and if you’re using something out of season there is no flavor to punch up. The Cantonese say that if you’re starting with super fresh ingredients to stir-fry, you barely need to season them because the ingredient itself comes alive in quick cooking over high heat.
What are some of your tips for cooking over high heat on the average American stove, which can be challenging?
You need to preheat your wok before adding oil, contrary to what a lot of wok recipes say. If you put oil into a wok and then heat it and add chicken, it’s guaranteed to stick. Chinese always heat the wok first, swirl in the oil, and then add ingredients. Preheating could take from ten seconds to three minutes depending on your stove. You want to heat the wok until you can drop a drop of water and it evaporates within a second. When you add the oil, there is a whiff of smoke, but if it smokes too much, you’ve preheated it for too long.
After adding the oil, add the aromatics (ginger, garlic, onions, scallions) and then the first ingredient. You should hear a sizzle, which tells you that the pan was correctly preheated. This technique is referred to in China “hot wok cold oil.” The oil has to have a high smoking point, so no olive or sesame oil as they are destroyed at a high temperatures. Use peanut oil, grapeseed, avocado, or even canola.
What about the actual stir-frying part, is there a certain technique you use?
Don’t put too much in the wok. I’ve found that when stir-frying you can’t add more than a pound of chicken, shrimp, pork, scallops, or lamb. For beef, and no more than twelve ounces or ¾ of a pound. Make sure every piece is touching the surface and let it sear for one minute, and then stir-fry. In China, people don’t do this, but Chinese home stoves have the same amount of heat as a Viking range, so they don’t need to. If you have a Viking or Wolf range you don’t need to, either. The stir-fry technique involves using a metal spatula to scoop and toss, allowing the ingredients to continually tumble in the wok.
Watch Grace’s video on common mistakes people make when stir-frying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qS0SGI2uAvw&t=2s
What else can you make in a wok besides a stir-fry?
People think of a wok as a stir fry pan, but it’s so much more. You can steam, boil, poach, pan fry, braise, deep fat fry, and smoke with a wok. You can use your wok for making popcorn, frying bacon, making a steak, roasting a chicken, and so much more.
Watch Grace’s award-winning video on using a wok for more than just stir-frying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT1XqpTse88
How should one maintain and care for a wok so that it imparts “wok hay” and lasts?
Washing your wok is a lot like washing a cast iron skillet. Some people only use hot water, and some only use soap. I prefer just hot water, but a little soap every now and again is perfectly fine. After rinsing the wok in hot water, dry it on the stove, like you would a cast iron skillet. You cannot dry it with just paper towels because the metal isn’t truly dry and could rust. The moment I’m done cooking, I cool my wok for 2-3 minutes, then place it in the sink, pour hot water into it, and let it sit for 5-10 minutes. I use the soft side of a sponge to buff it, and only if something is really sticking will I gently use the other side of the sponge. You’ll often see bamboo wok brushes for sale in Chinatown but those are really only for restaurant use, and they would scrape the patina off of your home wok. If you haven’t used your wok in awhile, give it what I refer to as a wok facial: the salt really scrubs it and the oil reinvigorates it.
Watch Grace’s “Give your Wok a Facial” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkctLt4BbDM
Upgrade your stir-fry with these 10 simple steps. Commit this to memory and start sizzling!
1) Buy a High Quality Wok: look for a 14 inch, flat bottom carbon steel wok, like this one.
2) Buy a Sharp Knife: …and keep it sharp. Grace recommends this knife by New West Kinfeworks.
3) Preheat your Wok: this can take from ten seconds to three minutes, depending on your stove. Scroll up in the interview to learn more.
4) Add Oil with a High Smoking Point: no olive oil! Use grapeseed, avocado, canola, or peanut oil.
5) Add Aromatics: ginger, garlic, onions, scallions, etc. You should hear a sizzle, which tells you that the pan was correctly preheated.
6) Use Fresh, Seasonal Ingredients: select veggies that are in season, aka don’t use limp asparagus that’s been sitting in your fridge for a week!
7) Don’t Crowd your Wok: a 14 inch wok should have plenty of room, but avoid the pitfall of adding too much meat. Read full interview for Grace’s guide.
8) Sear Meat before Stir-Frying: this isn’t the traditional way of doing things, but it’s necessary for the average American stove (unless you have a Viking or Wolf range, lucky you)
9) Proper Stir-Fry Technique: “stir” is misleading. It’s more of a scoop, toss, scoop, toss… and use a metal instead of wood spatula!
10) Take Care of your Wok: wash it every time like you would a cast iron, more details in full interview. If you haven’t used your wok in awhile, give it some TLC!
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