The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Big Green Egg - Pt 17 - Stir Frying on the BGE

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This blog entry does have some Big Green Egg specific information, but it also has lots of information that applies to wok cooking or wok cooking on a grill. One surprise about my new Big Green Egg has been the versatility of it. I am now not just grilling and smoking on it, Ive been baking on it and now as of yesterday Stir-Frying. If you told me back in August I’d be baking on the new Big Green Egg, I might have said: “OK why not, I baked a couple things on my gas grill too.” If you had said I’d be stir-frying I would have laughed at you. I don’t stir-fry on anything, never had and I figured I never will.. But it turns out the Big Green Egg excels in wok cooking due to the high heat it can bring to the table. This blog will be about my first attempt at stir frying and what I have learned. I will divide this entry into two parts. The first will cover the big picture.items like why you would want to stir-fry on the Egg, what you need to get, and getting started. The second entry will talk about my first wok cook. Also please note that I am not suddenly declaring myself an expert on using the wok on the Egg. I am just trying to pass along what I have picked up so far, which will hopefully help some other folks who are thinking about trying this too.

So why use the Big Green Egg (or any other outdoor grill) for wok cooking. The main reason the Big Green Egg excels at wok cooking is the high temperatures it can bring to the table. Lump burns at around 1200 degrees (650 C) and the BGE can leverage most of that heat for cooking. While I don’t plan to go anywhere near that high, I can easily go higher than the glass top electric stove in my kitchen. Another reason the BGE is good for wok cooking is the cooking method. The ideal shape for a wok is totally round. But with that glass top electric range I would really need to use a flat bottom wok, which isn’t ideal. By using a wok ring to hold the wok on the Egg I can use a bigger, round wok and I am getting the heat directly under the entire wok, not a smaller confined area like you have with a glass top electric range. This allows me to use a bigger wok and get even heating across more of the wok than you can on the stove. Another advantage I hadn’t thought of initially is doing the wok cooking outside keeps the Kitchen from getting smokey. This occured to me when curing the wok proved to be a smokey process.

After seeing many pictures posted of tasty and colorful stir-fries posted to the Egghead Forum I was convinced that I wanted to try my hand at this. I posted some questions to the Egghead forum and got very helpful replies covering 4 areas:

  1. What I needed for my Egg to use a Wok
  2. The wok I should get for my BGE
  3. Other Accessories
  4. Wok Cookbooks
  5. Some advice on technique.

The advice I got on the Egghead forums and from the Stir-Frying cookbooks saved me from making lot’s of common mistakes and freed me up to possibly find new mistakes. But seriously, there is no point reinventing the wheel when getting set up.

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The Ceramic Grill Store makes a metal ring with 5 legs called a “Spider” for the Large and the XL Big Green Egg. Like the platesetter you can install the Spider legs up or legs down to change the height of the ring above the coals. When installed legs down the piece looks rather like a spider-hence the name. The Large Spider sells for $24.99 as of this date. You will be asked to pick a 3 leg or 5 leg Spider. The newer fire rings have 3 notches, the older ones have 5. You should look at your Egg’s fire ring to determine which model you have. The Spider is simple, but it does it’s job well. I find it holds the wok very securely so that it rarely moves. Not having to hold the wok with one hand while I stir fry with the other has proved invaluable. It frees up my other hand for other activities like: taking pictures, picking up the recipe, setting timers and adding other ingredients while stir frying. The Spider can be used for a variety of other tasks which you can learn more about on the Ceramic Grill Stores website: SPIDER FOR BIG GREEN EGG.

Handle Styles:
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The resident wok expert on the Egghead forum told me for a Large Big Green Egg, which has about an 18” diameter grilling surface (46 cm), I should get a 16” diameter (40.6 cm) D-handled wok. There are two handle styles typically found on woks. The first uses a single long main handle just like a regular pan you’d use on your stove. Due to the large size of some woks there may be a small D-handle on the opposite side of the wok from the main handle. This long long main handle is useful for lifting the wok and using a forward and backward thrusting motion to flip the food. The secondary D-handle is useful when lifting a heavy, hot wok filled with food. The second type of wok uses 2 D-handles on opposite sides of the wok, useful for lifting the wok and moving it less useful for tossing the food. On the Big Green Egg the long handle would stick out too far and you wouldn’t be able to close the lid. At this point I don’t know why you would need to shut the lid on the Egg for wok cooking. I will say I do preheat the wok and the oil with the lid closed, because it does heat up faster.

Body Styles:
There are two “body styles” to choose from: Round Bottom and Flat Bottom. The round bottom is the classic wok shape and works best for stir-frying, but is less than ideal for cooking on a range. With the round shape you get a more evenly distributed range of heats. You can push some of the foods up the curved sides of the wok to get a bit less heat and slow down the cooking of some of the foods. There are wok rings that you can set the round bottom wok in while cooking on a stove, but these can introduce problems of their own if they aren’t the best size for your burner size and type. Also only one point on the wok is direct contact with the heat source. For use on range tops there are flat bottomed woks, these conduct the heat better on a range but they are less than ideal for stir-frying and moving the food around. Since I would be using the Spider to suspend my wok on the Egg, a classic round bottom wok was the natural choice.

You also have two materials to choose from: Carbon Steel and Cast Iron. Without going into great detail, the Carbon Steel wok will tend to be thinner, lighter and respond to temperature changes quickly. The downside to Carbon Steel woks is thinner and lighter also means more fragile. You can potentially bang one of these woks and crack it. The Cast Iron wok, which is more popular in America, is heavier, takes more time to respond to temperature changes and tends to retain the heat longer. Normally this is ideal, but in Wok cooking you are working at a high temperature and when you reduce the temperature you want the wok to respond quickly. Chinese made cast iron woks tend to be lighter than American made cast iron woks. There are several other wok materials such as aluminum and non-stick, but from my reading, it seems serious wok chefs do not take these other materials seriously at this time.

Manufacturing Methods:
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There are many ways of manufacturing woks. Newer woks tend to be machine spun or machine hammered. I am not going to go into depth here, the cookbooks I will mention cover the manufacturing in depth and there is much information to be found online. The hammered woks are distinguished by the circular marks left by the hammer. The surface looks like a larger smoother version of a golf ball. My wok is a traditional hand hammered carbon steel wok. The hand hammered version of a wok is typically thinner than a machine hammered version, making it more responsive to temperature changes.

These are some other accessories I ordered from the Wok Shop when I ordered my wok:

Wok Ring:
Is intended for supporting a round bottomed wok on an electric or gas range while stir frying. While I don’t need a Wok Ring to cook with the Spider on my Big Green Egg, they also come in handy for supporting a hot wok and keeping the wok from touching a counter top.

Wok Lid:
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I purchased an aluminum wok lid which has a high temperature plastic handle. The wok lid is 14” (36 cm ) x 3 1/2” (9 cm) high, with the rule of thumb being your lid is 1” smaller all around than the wok you will set it in.

Wok Spatula aka Wok Chuan:
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Unlike a western spatula the Wok Chuan features turned up sides which help gather the food. The front edge is also curved to better fit in the sides of the curved wok. This is very useful when stir frying where you are often holding the spatula nearly vertical and pushing the food around the wok. The curved surface insures little food is left behind as you push or pull it around. The wok chuan I bought is 19” (48 cm) long and is made of heavy gauge stainless steel. The length helps keep your hands back from the intense heat. A lot of heat wraps up and around the curved surface of the wok and this long handle keeps my hands back from this heat so I usually don’t need to wear gloves while stir-frying. There is a wooden handle that inserts into the end and serves to keep the handle end cool.

Wok Ladle aka Wok Hoak:
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This Wok Hoak is quite a bit like the western ladle with the exception of the angle between the bowl and the handle. The bowl is almost but not quite in-line with the angle of the handle. A western ladle has something closer to a 90 degree angle between the bowl and the handle so the bowl can be lowered deep into a high-sided stock pot. The wok has much lower sides and this almost flat angle of the Wok Hoak is ideally suited to that shape. This tool is 10” (48 cm) like the Wok Chuan and is similarly constructed, with a 19” (48 cm) long handle with a wooden insert just like the wok spatula.

Oil Canisters:
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This is less a necessity than a convenience. This 8 oz. (1/4 L) stainless steel canister has a thin spout and a handle to make pouring small amounts of oil into the wok. Most stir frying seems to be done using relatively small amounts of oil relative to the size of the wok. The typical amount of cooking oil is a tablespoon or so (15 ml). The small sized spout allows you to swirl a small amount of oil around the sides of the wok in a controlled fashion.

The Breath of a Wok
by Grace Young and Alan Richardson
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This cookbook is a thorough documentation of the wok: the history, culture, manufacturing techniques and yes recipes for cooking in a wok. I enjoyed all of the additional background information about the culture of the wok, to me it does help understanding the process of using a wok. Some folks seem to be put off by all this background information, but you can always skip ahead to the recipes. Grace Young travelled to the various wok hotspots around the world to learn more about wok cooking. There are stories and recipes from regular people, relatives of Grace Young and also professional chefs. The book is easy to understand and has tips for Westerners (like me) who are unfamiliar with the ingredients and the cooking style. The first item I made from this book: CHICKEN WITH GARLIC AND SNAP PEAS was easy to follow and came out excellently. Grace Young is considered one of the foremost authorities on this style of cooking and I can easily see why.

Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge
by Grace Young
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Now some truth in advertising here: While I own this cookbook in Kindle form, I haven’t yet read it. This book was recommended to me by the resident Wok guru on the Big Green Egg Egghead forums which is good enough for me. It also is a James Beard Award winning cookbook and is constantly mentioned in articles about Wok cooking. I started with the Breath of a Wok cookbook first, because it was the older of the two Grace Young cookbooks. Reading breath of a Wok got me excited about wok cooking and the recipes looked so good I just wanted to jump in with both feet. I plan to start reading this cookbook real soon. Where her first cookbook got me jazzed about wok cooking and wanting to get started ASAP, I am looking forward to getting into this cookbook too. From what I understand this book is a similar to The Breath of a Wok in terms of what and how it covers the subject. Where Breath of a Wok was about 50 percent recipes, this book is about 75 percent recipes. Another big difference between the two cookbooks is this one is also available in a Kindle edition, which may or may not be a big deal for you.

One of the advantages to wok cooking on a grill and the Big Green Egg in particular is you can use a higher temperature than you can use on an indoor stove, particularly on an electric stove. But you may not want to go there, at least at first. Here is some off the advice I got researching the subject on the Egghead forum. Some of this was in answer to my specific question and some was information from prior posts.

I was told I should start off at a lower temperature such as 500 or 550 degrees (260-288 C) and get my feet wet. Once I’ve learned a little more about the techniques of stir frying, I can start bumping my temperatures up to 700 or 800 degrees (370-427 C).

Preheat the Egg normally to the cooking temperature and then lift the lid and put the Wok on. From this point on you are using the lower damper, the so-called sliding draft door, to control the temperature. Once I planned to continue with the lid up, I shut the lower draft door down to 50 percent of the setting I’d just been using. I”d found this 50 percent reduction worked well to hold the current temperature when I was sauteeing veggies while cooking soups or stews in my Dutch oven. It seemed to work equally well here.

Long Handled Tools:
You will be cooking at very high temperatures and need to work fast. Wok tools with long handles allow you to work without gloves and this also allows you to work nimbly. Working with gloves is rarely as easy as working without. Another problem you may have is there is a great deal of heat coming up and around the rim of the wok and spreading out for several inches as it clears the wok. The tools I bought have 18” (46 cm) long handles which keep my hands out of the hot zones over and surrounding the wok. This also kept me back from the hot zone, which I’m sure will be important in the hot weather. An added bonus to this, was I could stand back and stir fry with one hand and hold my camera with the other. I really didn’t think I’d be able to get many pictures with these quick cooks, but I can stand back far enough to easily do both.

Testing for Temperature:
Have a small bowl of water handy. When you think the wok is hot enough, splash a few drops of water on the wok. They should vaporize in a second or so.

Cook Using Hot Oil:
Always allow enough time for your oil to heat up. Do not try to cook with anything less than hot oil. Your food should sizzle when you add it to the wok.

Have Long Handled Gloves:
When you do need to use gloves, have a pair long enough to cover your forearms. It does no good to cover your hands when you can’t hold your arms where you need to.complete your task.

Have Two Sets of Gloves:
At the extreme temperatures you will be cooking at, the metal D-handles of your wok will get as hot as branding irons. Have and use a second set of gloves or a some thick pot-holders when you need to move the wok.

Don’t Throw Out That Wok Ring:
My wok came with a wok ring used for steadying the wok when used on a stove. I don’t need a wok ring because I have the spider for holding my wok on the Big Green Egg and I won’t be using it on the stove. But the wok ring is also great for steadying the wok when you need to land it on a counter.

The Food Continues to Cook:
One thing I discovered is the food continues to cook after the wok is removed from the heat. Ideally it should get transferred immediately to a serving platter. In the cold weather I don’t want to have the serving bowl out at the grill with me being chilled to below freeing while I cook. Alternatively, there is no time when stir-frying that I can run in and grab a room temperature serving platter from the Kitchen. So I have to bring the wok into the Kitchen, set it on the Wok Ring and transfer the food to the serving platter. I have to allow for this additional 30 seconds to 1 minute of cooking when stir frying in the cold weather.

Here is a link to Part 2 of this Blog entry where I describe my first stir-fry on the Big Green Egg and a link to the picture entry for this cook.
  BIG GREEN EGG PT. 18-FIRST STIR FRY - Part 2 of this Blog entry on stir-frying.
  CHICKEN WITH GARLIC & SNAP PEAS - Picture entry for my first stir-fry.

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