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Wok cooking : hotter equals better?

Dabbling around here and there in wok cooking, I've gotten the perception that the general consensus about cooking in a wok (at least for stir frying) is that the hotter and faster you can cook food without burning it to a crisp, the better it is, and the more "wok hei" it has. It seems this way since I've seen lots of videos of wok chefs putting the rounded piece of metal over enormous swirling jet flames and food spontaneously igniting while stirring. Of course I have alot of practicing to do before I can get to that level and cook food fast enough without burning it.

However, I have a feeling the adage that "hotter is better" seems to be a little oversimplified. Am I anywhere close?

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  1. I'm just a home cook, so take this for what it's worth. But when you're cooking on a typical residential range, getting enough heat to the pan is the biggest obstacle to making good stir-fry. Dishes tend to steam slowly as all the moisture seeps out of the ingredients. Not tasty.

    Now if you have access to Chinese-restaurant-grade firepower, then controlling the heat (instead of just maximizing it) becomes an issue. I have 30k and 60k btu burners set up on my patio, and although I'm a long way from mastering the art of the stir fry, the results are consistently better than anything I've been able to do inside. Spontaneous combustion and all.

    So in answer to your question, "hotter is better" is a fair statement for stir frying on a residential cooktop. But it's probably an oversimplification once the equipment improves.

    6 Replies
    1. re: alanbarnes

      I just wanted to add my own personal experience this week, regarding more heat and Wok cooking. I did a batch of fried rice over a white hot charcoal fire in a traditional Thai portable stove, which is basically a clay-lined bucket which is meant for cooking in a round bottomed pan like a wok. Simple but effective. Previously, I never had much success in getting that wonderful, almost caramelized (but not scorched) quality to the rice on a normal stove burner. With the charcoal fire, which I bet you could have forged metal in, I had tremendous success, but it required extremely quick action, and organization to keep things moving while ingredients were added so as not to completely blacken and scorch something.
      That said, yes, the more heat the better, but with it goes increased demand for good technique, which I am still working on!

      1. re: klieglight2

        I've heard very good results from charcoal stoves, mostly because it heats the entire bottom with a steady even heat. Do you know here to get one of those stoves?

        I've been having alot of trouble with my propane burner because it produces hot spots. Usually that shouldn't be a problem since the stirring of the food stops it from burning, but the problem is that when you preheat the wok, the hot spots start to burn off the seasoning. Also, the food sometimes sticks, especially with starch products, which is such a pain.

        They say the perfect test to see if your pan is at optimal temperature and has the perfect seasoning is to drop a little water in the pan. It should form into a perfect little motionless bead that just slides along the pan. It is actually the water droplet floating on its own steam!

        1. re: klieglight2

          kleiglight, is your thai bucket stove like this one?: http://www.crest.org/discussiongroups...

          could you use it like a tandoor for meats on skewers?

          1. re: alkapal

            Alkapal and takadi, that stove is pretty much the same as mine, although it seems like numerous cultures around the world have used very similar portable cooking appliances.
            I think I may have posted this in a thread a while ago re: wok cooking over charcoal, but I got my stove here:

            http://grocerythai.com/thai-charcoal-...

            Works great, and cheap. The heat is absolutely blistering with a good fire using lump charcoal, but very even. Due to the wide heating area, the "hot spot" may extend up the sides of the wok more than you are used to.
            Disclaimer, of course, do this outside only, but I have a circa 1700's working walk in fireplace in the kitchen that I use it in when the weather is bad.

            (you could do meat on skewers with a smaller fire, and perhaps a grill put overtop if necessary, a-la-yakitori, but an actual tandoor is a deep, barrel shaped clay oven, I believe)

            1. re: klieglight2

              klieglight2,

              Great information. The item you referenced looks perfect and I've ordered the one that is 12" wide. What size wok do you recommend using? I have a very large steel wok. It is really too large and unwieldy to use. I also have a smaller, flat bottomed one that I use on my stove, but I'm concerned that the non-stick coating on it will scorch right off when subjected to some real heat.

              1. re: scoooter5

                I think my wok is a fairly cheap, ancient 15" hammered carbon steel model with a single (pan style) handle, which I strongly prefer over the small loop style handles found on some woks, so you can have something cool to hold on to while vigorously stirring etc. I would certainly caution against the non-stick wok, as the coating probably would not hold up, as you suggest. With a well seasoned steel wok, I have not had things stick at all with a little bit of care.
                I agree with the suggestions as far as technique is concerned, as discussed further down in this thread, but believe me, I am still learning myself!

      2. Yes, hotter is better. But with standard home equipment a work around that gives pretty good results is to do each ingredient separately, then combine at the end.
        Cook the meat and remove from pan. Do dense veggies and remove from pan. Do light veggies last, then quickly add other ingredients back in.

        1 Reply
        1. re: hannaone

          While cooking with the Fuchsia Dunlop books last month, this was the technique that worked the best for us. The mise en place was key.

        2. Yes.

          Cooking with a wok is the stir-fry equivalent of searing meat on a hot grill.

          1. I was just looking through last month's Gourmet magazine in which cooking vacations are featured. One of the ones on Asian food said that one of the tricks to cooking with a wok is to let it heat way, way up, then put in the oil and immediately turn down the flame. Unfortunately, that's all it said because the piece was more about the vacation than the techniqes used but maybe this will give you some good ideas.

            3 Replies
            1. re: erzuli72

              The problem with letting it preheat up all the way is that the seasoning flakes right off. Are woks that are used in such high heat applications not even meant of have seasoning?

              1. re: takadi

                There should be no flaking, at least not with a quality wok.

                1. re: takadi

                  On a big burner, "preheat" takes but a few seconds. More likely, you'll be wanting to throw on some water to cool off the wok a bit.

                  Wok should not be hot enough to burn off seasoning. A few seconds to heat, a few seconds to heat the oil after you throw it in, etc.

                  Watch a professional chef at work:
                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8FDKL...
                  (and other videos by the same poster

                  )

                  Not sure what a "quality wok" is. Anything cheap you can get in Chinatown is what the restaurants use - carbon or stainless.

              2. Here's a thread from the Cookware board that has some helpful suggestions for wok cooking outdoors over high heat.

                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/512531

                1. My FIL rigged up a propane tank to a metal stand that holds the wok and they do their wok frying, when they need the higher temperatures, outside on the drive way (I'm sure the neighbors love it). I wonder about the safety of a home rigged one but can purchase one:

                  http://www.lalagniappe.com/mall/lobby...

                  1. What are you cooking?

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: dublinchef

                      I'm mostly cooking fried rice or noodles like beef chow fun.

                      1. re: takadi

                        The btu on a home burner is way less than that of a professional stove. You know when your oil is hot enough to start cooking when you see your first wisp of smoke. I use peanut oil when I use the wok and it has a higher smoke point. Also keep moving your ingredients around the wok as you will get hot-spots.

                        1. re: dublinchef

                          I recently bought the cheapest wok burner from outdoorstirfry.com. Haven't been able to get good results yet, and I'm not sure if it has to do with my technique, or the actual burner.

                    2. i was thinking about using my outside turkey fryer propane base to set a big wok upon. anyone done this?

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: alkapal

                        Most of the cheap wok burners out there are basically just propane turkey fryers with a metal ring to support the wok over the flame. Just make sure the turkey fryer is balanced and that the wok can fit snugly over the flame without wobbling.

                        1. re: alkapal

                          It works well, but be careful. Most turkey fryers are pretty low to the ground, and you don't want to be bending down with your head over a very hot wok (even if you're not wearing combustible hair products a la Michael Jackson's Pepsi commmercial).

                          Also, make sure either that your wok is stable, or that you have a good grip on it. And if you're holding on to the wok, especially if it has loop handles as opposed to a long handle, a welding glove is a good idea. Don't ask me how I know this, but those burners put out more than enough heat to ignite a regular oven mitt.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            thanks alan, those sound like good tips -- esp. the pepsi flame hair issue and the welding gloves!

                            1. re: alkapal

                              alkapal,

                              Do you have an outdoor BBQ grill? I've used a restaurant sized wok with great success on those grills. Looks weird, but works good, and tastes great.

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                i do have an outdoor gas grill, but i don't think it has enough firepower to give me a good wok experience. the tureky fryer propane ring, however, has distinct possibilities....

                                you have a resto sized wok? wow, isn't that like two-and-a-half feet across? do you set it on a ring, and on what type of grill?

                                1. re: alkapal

                                  My family is in the restaurant business so I have access to lots of woks and can season them properly when needed.

                                  It's a good sized wok, but I have an outdoor BBQ gas grill in my loft that heats up to something like 75,000 btu.

                          2. re: alkapal

                            Absolutely the turkey fryer. The $50 multipurpose solution. 40K btu will give you wok hei if managed carefully in small batches.

                            To elevate to proper height, I simply cut some landscape timbers into 2 foot lengths, and built a log-cabin style base, three logs high. So, add 5 bucks.

                            Don't screw around with "designer woks". Carbon steel only, with long handle. Hemispherical only: Flat bottom woks are an artifice of consumerist marketing upon a trend.

                            Must have the curved face spatula to match or approximate the radius of the wok. Go for the singing sound of steel upon steel with quick deep confident strokes.

                            Peanut oil.

                            Fry in small batches. Veggies first. Go for 1 charred blister per square centimeter of veggie. Remove quickly to bowl, repeat with new batch. Do the meat last, again small batches, drained of all steam-producing marinades.

                            If doing a cornstarch sauce, return mixed meat and veggies to wok, again keeping it small.

                            Be prepared for neighbors on their evening stroll to catch a sniff, then groan and howl in ecstasy, similar to the cries of a hungry cat who sees you reaching into the cabinet for a can of tuna.

                            Cover the fryer setup with plastic or a tarp during the winter, making for easy quick removal and use during the blizzard season. Chances are good that you will be going for wok hei in mid winter.

                            1. re: FoodFuser

                              good on you, food fuser! nice information!

                              1. re: FoodFuser

                                Just a note on the flat bottom stir fry pans. These work well on electric home stoves, giving more available heat to the dish.
                                You just need to adjust the technique to the equipment, as I described for the lower heat above.
                                The standard wok is great for those who have the high heat gas or coal available to them. For those who don't, alternatives are required.

                                1. re: FoodFuser

                                  Small batches are only needed for a lowish BTU wok burner so you have some chance of keeping the temp up.

                                  Restaurants with big burners throw it all in.

                              2. Close, very close ... the home "alternative" to a massive restaurant-style flame is to collect the heat you have with a heavy cast-iron wok (I get along fine with cast-iron skillets).

                                True, I have to replace my skillets every couple of years, but I get some great results (I'm not one of those "baby your cast-iron and pray to it now and then" owners, I treat 'em mean.)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: wayne keyser

                                  I actually have my eye on the lodge pro-logic cast iron wok, but I'm just not willing to spend over 40 or 50 dollars on bare cast iron.

                                2. Yes hotter is key, but so is carbon steel- or cast iron metals that conduct heat and hold the heat it as well. But what I need most, beause I've tried and ended up with gummy fried rice, is a large wok. When I've tried to make the same recipe in a smaller non stick there is just not enough surface area for the ingredients to cook separately without steaming. Not to mention making a mess.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: chef chicklet

                                    Rice for fried rice works better when it has dried out a bit - overnight or longer in the refrigerator with no lid.

                                    You need a big burner more than a large wok, since you can make smaller batches.

                                    Traditional woks don't have a lot of thermal mass. They heat fast without much thermal buffer over a big flame.

                                    1. re: cheongi

                                      Also the rice needs to be rinsed several times in cold water to drain most of the starch off. This makes for fluffier rice. Save the drained water to water house plants or for the garden.

                                      1. re: scoopG

                                        cheongi and scoopg, I must of been asleep when I wrote that.
                                        I meant to say, is that I find that using a carbon steele wok is the way to go. I make great fried rice in mine and have for years ( its seasoned well).

                                        I have tried the skillet when I was in a hurry, maybe some people can and do use them but, it never worked for me, and I do get great heat from my front gas burners.
                                        Sorry my input was misinterrpreted.
                                        And here is mine, gosh I could eat this anytime!
                                        http://www.flickr.com/photos/7220939@...

                                  2. Yes I think that's right. Home cooked chinese is not the same as restaurant cooked chinese, without a commercial grade wok stove.

                                    Watch a professional chef at work:
                                    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8FDKL...
                                    (and other videos by the same poster

                                    )

                                    With a hot wok, speed is essential. Did my first stir fry on the new medium pressure wok burner recently. (Similar to this one http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?s...) Flavours are similar to restaurant quality. Need more work on ingredients and proportions.

                                    In the super hot wok, oil takes seconds to heat. I probably had it a bit too hot, but the pros have ready access to water and a sink for controlling temperature. Chopped garlic is done in 3 seconds. Small ingredients go in fast, larger ones take several seconds to cook. All ingredients go in fast compared to western cooking and the whole dish in done in a couple of minutes.

                                    A few weeks ago, I tried to do fried rice on a normal gas stove in a Scanpan wok. Hopeless - just not enough heat - took probably 20 mins for the rice to heat up. Never again!

                                    The medium pressure wok burner will be great with a 20+inch wok for sunday lunch.

                                    The burner I have looks very similar to this:
                                    http://www.manniu-gasburners.com/sdp/...

                                    The local company probably has them contract manufactured in China - complete with very cheap looking brand stickers.

                                    Had no trouble at all seasoning the 17inch stainless wok, despite what people say about carbon vs stainless. Temperature seems critical - probably about 300degC. Much hotter than that turned the seasoning in the middle of the wok to flaky charcoal.
                                    (Guessing temp from steel colour http://www.muggyweld.com/color.html/

                                    )

                                    Still having trouble trying to find out exactly what the chemical/physical process of seasoning is. Wikipedia calls it patina. I presume it is some sort of chemical bonding between the oil and the metal.....still looking.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: cheongi

                                      I have a more rustic version of the burner you refer to. Got mine in Thailand It is very heavy and puts out the huge amount of heat needed for quick stir-frys. The patina on a wok is not a chemical bonding, simply a thin physical layer formed from the heated oil residues.