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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