Essential Kitchen Equipment

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 and launched my own cooking instruction business 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:

Essential Kitchen Equipment: A Stock Pot

In my Essential Kitchen Equipment series, I'm going to share overviews of what I consider to be the items no kitchen should be without. I'm not talking about the latest gadget. I'm talking about maybe a dozen or so simple items you must have to make your kitchen hum.

Of course one could spend endless amounts on all sorts of fancy equipment and gadgets. Most of those will not make you a better cook, these will: The Sharpest Knife in the Block.

What are the basic pieces of equipment that will serve you well? Sometime people think the reason they can’t or don’t cook is for lack of fancy equipment. Listen, you’re not ordering take out (again) because you don’t have a sous vide machine or slow cooker.

With a very few items you can make delicious, home-cooked meals for one or for a family. You can choose better ingredients, use healthier amounts of fat and salt. You can enjoy cooking and enjoy the results.

Today we’re going to tackle stock pots: what they are, or aren’t, materials they are made from, pros and cons, features of each and I’ll end with some tips.

What is a stock pot?

A stock pot is designed for making stock. What is stock? Simply put, stock is the base for soups and sauces. Broth is “no bones” and stock includes bones. A good stock pot is designed to heat rapidly, to simmer long and evenly. It should be large enough to cover a whole chicken and lots of veggies with room to spare, for example. Boiling lobsters or a large batch of corn on the cob are two other commonly purposes for a stock pot.

Stock Pot

What is the difference between a stock pot and soup pot or a Dutch oven?

Stock pots may, or may not, serve double duty as pot for making soups or stews. The deciding factors will be how much storage and budget you have to devote to cookware and what you plan to use your pot for. The critical difference is the material the pot is made of, and especially the base of the pot. (A Dutch oven is heavy and used for long braises in the oven. We’ll cover those on another day.)

A soup pot must have a heavier base that heats evenly so a thicker soup (think peas or squash) or stews won’t burn as easily. Since your stock pot is typically designed for a higher liquid content the base can be thinner and the material lighter. In general though, go with the heavier, best material you can afford.

Decide whether you will want to use your stockpot most often for stocks, for soups, stews, chili and this will help you determine what sort of stock pot to buy. In my kitchen, I have both a Dutch oven, a pasta pot (which can double as stock pot for many cooks), and a brand new stock pot which I highly recommend.

Shape, Material, Features

Let’s start with shape. Many stockpots are quite tall. Tall is better in as much as the narrower surface of a tall pot will allow less dissipation of water from the stock.

If you’re short like me, tall is also cumbersome. We want to make our lives in the kitchen easier, not harder! Also, if you’re thinking of a tall pot, imagine the heat source at the bottom and how different the top of the pot and the bottom of the pot will heat. Imagine standing at your stove and stirring or picking up and pouring the contents of the pot.

Choose a stock pot that has the volume you desire and the shape that works for you. I’ve seen some that have a flared base, sort of eggplant shaped. I don’t know if it purports to have any benefit but it certainly will take more space to store. Go straight side especially if you don’t have oodles of extra space. Likewise you will find oval pots in many lines. I find it difficult to get even heating end to end since my burner is not oval shaped.

The material from which your stock pot (or any cookware) is made is probably the most important feature in my opinion. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages   and the choice is yours, people who cook a lot are usually pretty devoted to a type.

Here’s a quick overview of the key choices:

 

Material Advantages Disadvantages
  • Copper
Beautiful, heats rapidly and evenly.$500+ Prohibitively expensive, constant upkeep; if you want a show piece and have a housekeeper to polish, polish, polish for you...
  • Aluminum
Heats quickly, cheaper models available in hardware, home goods stores.$21 w/o cover Earlier research seemed to suggest aluminum and Alzheimer’s connection. FDA FWIW does not currently say it’s a risk. Does not heat as evenly as stainless and will react with some foods discoloring and changing flavor.
  • Stainless steel
Lightweight, heats rapidly evenly, sturdy without being too heavy.As low as $10 Caveat emptor.
  • Anodized aluminum
Heats fairly evenly and quickly. Brands like Calphalon are well made.$125-200.  Anodized aluminum is expensive. You cannot wash in the dishwasher.
  • Coated Carbon Steel, enameled
I had an 8 Qt stock pot Le Creuset (best known for their enameled cast iron Dutch ovens) for years. Lightweight.$80.00 Enamel coating can discolor. The size was not large enough to suit me. The lid sputtered. Paint can chip.
  • ★ Stainless Steel w/aluminum or copper core base
With rapid heating of either aluminum or copper sandwiched in the base, surrounded by stainless steel, you get the best of both worlds. Easy cleaning and clean cooking of stainless.$59.95 Copper core bumps you into triple digits price range. Save copper core for sauce pan. For stockpot, unnecessary.

 

 

Features:

  • Vented lid. Genius. My old stock pot would bubble and spit leaving a fine spray all over the stove top. The new one has a small hole in the glass lid with a grommet.
  • Sturdy handles bolted on not simply pressed and adhered on. Remember you’re going to be picking up a heavy pot with hot liquid.
  • Lids can be glass or made of the same material as the pot. Glass has the advantage of allowing you to see the progress of your stock. If you plan to use the stock pot as a Dutch oven, be sure your lid and your handles are oven safe.
  • Curved interior base rather than absolute straight side makes less likely small bits will stick in perimeter.

Size Matters:

  • A 4 or 6 Qt pot will be sufficient for making soup.
  • 8 Qt is good for poaching a chicken, but can be small for making large quantities of stock.
  • 12 Qt is a good size for home cooks who will be making stock, boiling the occasional lobsters.

Stock Tips:

  • Roasting bones (turkey wings or beef or veal bones) in the oven prior to using for stock makes a richer, deeper stock. In addition to developing fond (foundation, the little sticky browned bits) and flavor, it also yields collagen which makes a richer stock with better mouthfeel. Stock Tips of the Culinary Kind: Wonderful Thanksgiving Gravy Begins Here.
  • When straining stock be sure to place a large bowl or pot under your colander! More than one cook (ahem) has simmered a beautiful stock for hours only to watch it flow right through the colander they placed in the sink, and down the drain.
  • Using an egg white raft to clarify stock is a very cool thing to learn and produces a deep, rich, elegant consommé from a humble stock.

 

My recommendation:

The Chef's Catalog 12 Qt Stainless Stock Pot, a great value for the price. So far has performed really well and cleans up easily.

 

12 Qt Stock Pot Chefs Catalog