Five Steps to Wok Star Status (and One Seriously Good Cookbook)

I have a confession to make. I had all but forgotten my wok skills. I lost my wok in one of many moves. I settled in to married life steps from Chinatown’s Paifang (gate) and it just always seemed easier to go to a restaurant than to get another wok, season it, then chop, prep, clean. It wasn’t until I began guiding tours through Chinatown with Boston Food Tours and launched my own cooking instruction business (Kitchen Confidence) that I realized I needed to get back to actually cooking with a wok and teaching others to do so as well. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be back at it.  I have Grace Young’s brilliant Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge to thank for it.  Click book to buy.

Five Steps to Wok Star Status

Wok cooking can be one of the healthiest, and quickest, ways to bring a weeknight meal together. Yet many people shy away from cooking in a real wok and default to their favorite sauté pan, or worse take-out food. What are the advantages of cooking in a wok? It’s lightweight, naturally non-stick, and efficient. It’s also very healthy, relying on high heat, little oil, lots of vegetables

Step One – How/where to buy a wok. For anyone near a Chinatown, you’re in luck. Many large suburbs also now have H-Marts or large cooking supply stores. I favor the lightweight, flat-bottomed carbon steel style wok. It cost me a whopping $11.98 at Sun Sun Market on Oxford Street. You can get a similar one online via Amazon or other such mail order shops. Even at double the price, it remains a bargain as far as cookware goes. Don’t bother to buy a nonstick wok! You will develop a natural nonstick surface quickly.

Step Two – How to season your new wok.

You’ll begin by scouring the wok with steel wool and soap. This is the one and only time these two things will touch your wok! You dry it carefully then season it by rubbing and pressing chopped scallion or garlic chives, ginger and peanut oil into the sides and bottom of the wok. After about 20 minutes of stir-frying the vegetables will be darkened and so will the wok. The pores of the wok have been opened by the heat and the metal will begin to absorb the fragranced oil.

Step Three – Tips for excellent results. Throughout the book, you’ll learn tips and techniques like how to cut the garlic, scallion or ginger that make up Asian “mirepoix”. Helpful substitutions included for those not near a Chinatown. For example, dry sherry (or my mother-in-law’s favorite Amontillado) make good substitutes for Shao Hsing rice wine.

Step Four – How to clean it and store your wok. Similar to cast iron skillets, you simply rinse with hot water, dry it, then store it. As mine is new, I often take a folded paper towel and tiny bit of oil or bacon fat to lightly coat the surface.

Step Five – Unexpected wok fun. Did you know popping popcorn in a wok is one of the best ways to develop the patina? (See below.) With only 20 minutes, you can season a wok properly and then it’s DONE. Each subsequent use improves the quality of your wok.  According to Grace Young, "Wok hei, or the breath of a wok, is the flavor and aroma that's produced if a stir-fry has been correctly cooked with super fresh ingredients over high heat---and it only lasts for a fleeting few seconds or minutes after the food has come out of the wok." 

I’d like to say I’m introducing a new technique and tool can energize your weeknight kitchen routine and inspire you to try new recipes. But in truth, wok cooking is as old as it gets. It may be new to you, but not for long.

One Seriously Good Cookbook: Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge

There are some books that are simply recipe collections. Others are travelogues, picture books, nice for the coffee table. Then there are books you want to devour. With your eyes, your senses, your heart. This is one of those. Grace Young combines everything we’ve come to expect from the best of our cook books:

  • Pictures that document step-by-step the key techniques
  • Heartwarming stories that tie personal moments and dishes that represent them to historical events
  • Techniques that will enable home cooks to get terrific results
  • Recipes that are both pleasing and fun to make, as well as delicious.

Like all my favorite cookbooks, this one is already dog-eared, splattered and tabbed. I removed the dust jacket for this shot.

My Wok, My Self

A seasoned wok is a work in progress, just like me.

As I eagerly flipped through the first few pages of my then-new book with my then-new wok, imagine how my heart sank when I go to page 23 Patience to Wok. Patience? Me?!

Only two pages later, I learn that one of my favorite snacks, popcorn, is perfect for boosting the wok’s patina. Like many kitchen lessons, these wok lessons translate to life lessons. Once in awhile, especially when your wok is young, you may find some food stubbornly sticking here or there. No problem! Woks, like cast iron skillets are nearly impossible to ruin. Young’s book even shows you how to give your wok a “facial” to restore the surface.

Soon you’ll see beauty in your imperfectly mottled patina. You’ll appreciate the quick-to-heat and quick-to-cool surface and you’ll definitely appreciate the lightweight nature of most woks. I find myself reaching for the wok as much or more than the large cast iron skillet these days. Even eggs won’t stick now.

Lessons from a wok:

  1. Stubbornness of youth can be overcome with some seasoning.
  2. Be as quick to cool, as you are to heat.
  3. Appreciate your imperfection.
  4. A tiny bit of TLC goes a very long way.
  5. Be giving.

To learn more: