Wok Talk - Hitting a Comfort Zone
This blog will cover some of the initial discoveries I’ve made dipping my toes into wokking waters. I have reached an initial comfort level far quicker than I ever expected and I have been extremely happy with every wok cook I’ve done so far. Now before you think I feel like I am some sort of expert, that is far from the truth. I am just sharing what I have learned so far and I am well aware I still have LOTS to learn. Since it is more general knowledge than Big Green Egg specific, I will not include it in my series of Big Green Egg blogs. There will be a small amount of BGE specific info, but most of this will apply to wokking on a grill.
Wok Seasoning: One of the big keys to success is having your wok properly seasoned. In my previous entry BIG GREEN EGG - PT. 18 - FIRST STIR-FRY, I covered the initial seasoning of the wok using the oven and then stir-frying some Chinese chives to finish the job. After the initial seasoning I had some minor bumps in the road, but now my wok seems to be quite well seasoned. So what happened? Well my second wok cook removed some of the black seasoning and left several quarter sized areas where there was little to no seasoning. The rest of the wok seemed to be darkening nicely, so this was a surprising setback. I posed the question to the wok eggsperts on the Egghead forum and their answer was a bit surprising, but easy enough to do. They said just keep cooking on the wok and the problem will solve itself. I will admit to being a bit skeptical, but the advice I’d receive from these folks had been right on up until now. Sure enough the next day I cooked two dishes on the wok and by the end of the second stir-fry the bare spots had disappeared. Since then the color has deepened and the wok is getting truly non-stick. I noticed a few days ago that the food wasn’t tumbling off the wok when I plated it, instead it was sliding off in one piece. This meant none of the food was sticking to the wok surface. So after a dozen cooks my wok has a nice non-stick finish on it. The key is to keep cooking on the wok on a regular basis.
Learn Your Grill Warmup: I can usually get my grill up to 550 degrees (290 C) in 30 minutes or less. I swirl the charcoal around in the firebox to try to clear out any ash and small piece of lump and clean out the ash drop every time I do a stir-fry. But every once in a while the holes in the ash drop may be clogged or something else happens where it takes the Egg a bit longer to hit the desired temperature. So as a result I use 40 minutes for the time I need for warmup. At 40 minutes I always have a stabilized grill at 550 degrees (290 C). Often it is less than 30 minutes, but there is no harm having the grill stabilized for the extra 10 minutes. When warming up the grill, I keep the lower draft door fully open and I don’t use anything over the top chimney.
Learn Your Grill - Cooking: Once the grill starts getting close to my target temperature of 550 (290 C). I start closing down the lower draft door to try to coast up to 550 (290 C). One thing that often happens is the temperatures rise slowly until the Egg hits 400 degrees (205 C) and then they begin to climb rapidly after that. I try to not overshoot and let the Egg get to about 500 (260 C) at which point I move the lower draft door from fully open to about 2” (5 cm) open which is usually the right opening to hold 550 degrees (290 C) with the lid closed and no top damper. You can overshoot by a little, but try not to overshoot by a lot.
If you overshoot by too much, you will have to close the lower draft door down almost completely as opposed to the 2” (5 cm) I get by coasting up to 550 (290 C). If the lower draft door is almost closed you run the risk of choking out the fire and you don’t have much room for adjustment. My goal is to have the Egg stabilized at 550 (290 C) with the lower draft door open around 2” (5 cm). Once I open the lid and keep it open to cook I close the lower draft door down to round 1” (2.5 cm) or 50 percent of my previous setting. This helps keep the temperatures from climbing because the lid is now open and more oxygen can reach the fire.
Temperature: I did my first wok cook at 550 degrees (290 C), my second cook at 600, with my intent being to increase the temperature a little at a time until I hit around 750 degrees. I figured as my experience increased, I could deal with the higher temperatures. After my second wok cook I changed that thinking. My second wok cook was where I lost some of the seasoning and had some food sticking issues. I also had a problem where the food continued cooking in the 30 seconds it took me to get inside and I came close to overcooking the food. So I have rethought my temperature for now.
Everything seems to be coming out good at 550 (290 C) and the cooking times are very close to those called for in the recipes. I haven’t had issues with burned on food or burned off seasoning, so for now t least I am going to use 550 (290 C). At some future time I may try going higher, but my results have been excellent so far so I am not in a big rush.
Uniform Sized Ingredients: All of the recipes I’ve made from Grace Young’s cookbooks tell me the sized the various ingredients are supposed to be when you’ve cut them up. Things that will be cooking at the same time all need to be the same size. you also do not want to make them much bigger or smaller than the recipe calls for or it will throw off the cooking times. One of the things I liked about Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Skies Edge is that she has some prep photos of how to properly cut up garlic, ginger and scallions as called for in the various recipes.
The Importance of Sharp Knives:
Some of the cuts called for in these recipe are paper thin, or tiny, or both. A sharp knife is the key to safely achieving these fine cuts. It is a bit unintuitive but a very sharp knife is far safer than a very dull knife. I have a 5” Wusthof Classic series 5” Santoku knife that I use for most of this prep work . I also use a large heavy cleaver to smash garlic cloves or slices of ginger. If you are going to be doing much stir-frying and don’t have a good knife you should invest in a real good chef’s knife or Santoku knife. Your prep will go faster, your food will be cut properly and you will be safer using this knife. A well cared for knife can last nearly a lifetime, so the initial high cost is spread across many years. You should also invest in a good sharpener for your knife. Be aware that the angle of the blade on a santoku style knife is different (narrower) than a western style knife. You will need a special sharpener for a santoku knife vs. a western knife. Be sure whatever sharpener you buy matches the blade angle of the knife you intend to use it on.
Organization is a Key to Success:
When I get out to the grill I have all of my ingredients in various size bowls and items like sauces already have their ingredients mixed. I also often put items like red & green bell peppers, onions, shallots etc. in a common bowl so I can add them all at once. Everything is arranged on the tray in the order I will be needing them. I also keep the bowls for the oil I’ll be adding to lubricate the wok separate from other ingredients. This way I don’t add rice vinegar to the wok and add vegetable oil onto the food. They both look alike. Before I head out to the grill to check if it is stabilized, I make one last check to make sure all of my ingredients are gathered onto the ingredients tray and the wok utensils and misc. items are present on the second tray. I use my iPhone as a timer and I need to make sure it is on the tray and not on the Kitchen counter. Make sure you have your recipe with you. You do not have time to run in and grab something once you start stir-frying, so double check you have everything BEFORE you put any food on the wok.
Wokking with a Sizzle:
The wok needs to be hot enough that you are frying the food, not braising or steaming it. One of the things I like about the thin walls of my carbon steel wok is they are very responsive to temperature changes. I now have a routine for heating my wok that works well for me. I have all of the stir-fry ingredients gathered on one half sheet pan and another half sheet pan with miscellaneous items like a bowl for holding the partially cooked meat, my wok utensils etc. When the Egg is stabilized at 550 (290 C), I go into the house and come out with the tray with the utensils and my wok. I burp the lid and open it to put the wok on the Spider (the ring that holds my wok on the Egg), and close the lid again. I walk back into the house and grab the tray with the stir-fry ingredients and bring it out to the Egg. By the time I am back out with the ingredients my wok is up to temperature. I swirl the oil onto the sides of the wok (see above) and while I am waiting for the oil to heat, I give the recipe one more quick read. The oil starts to smoke and this is when I add the first item, usually the meat, onto the wok.
Adding Liquids to the Wok: I missed this memo when I first started using my wok, but it does seem to help keep the wok clean. The idea is very simple: when you add oil or other liquid ingredients to the wok swirl them onto the sides of the wok, so they run down all sides of the wok. This helps deglaze the wok and also helps keep food from sticking. Simple as that, but it does work well.
At this point if your wok should start to sizzle and should sizzle throughout the rest of the cook while there is food on the wok. This tells you the wok is at a high enough temperature that you are frying the food. If the sizzle stops, your wok is too cold.
Don’t Overcrowd the Wok: The key to high temperature stir-fry cooking is you are cooking small batches of small uniformly sized pieces of food at high temperatures. If you put too much food on the wok you will not be stir-frying, you will be steaming or braising. Most recipes are written with a certain sized wok in mind. Grace Young’s recipes are written for a 14” (36 cm) wok in mind. My wok is a 16” (41 cm) and can cook more food. I was thinking of making a double batch of one recipe I really liked and I was advised better to do two cooks, than one with a possibly over-crowder wok. I have seen a chart for a 14” wok (36 cm) which shows how many cups of food it can successfully stir-fry. It was further broken down by meat, veggies, sauce etc. I plan to see if I can find a similar chart for my 16” wok, before I start making bigger batches.
Keep Things Moving: Unless the recipes specifically call out for the food to cook on the wok untouched, as some of Grace Young’s do for the meat when first added to the wok, you will be keeping the food constantly moving. There are plenty of You Tube videos that demonstrate the concept of stir-frying that you can study. You will be using the wok spatula to move the food forward and backward by pushing it with the bottom blade turned vertically. This is where the curved front edge of the wok spatula comes in handy. This curved leading edge follows the contour of the curved wok and no food is allowed to slip under the blade. This pushing and pulling of the food is alternated with a motion where you are picking up the food with the spatula blade being horizontal. The wok spatula blade is curved along the bottom so it better fits the curved contours of the wok. The turned up sides of the blade help you gather and hold more food than a regular spatula.
Many folks try to use wooden spatulas or spoons to do this task and they are just making things harder for themselves. It only took me using the wok spatula once to see how it is the perfect tool for the task at hand. The metal blade of the wok spatula is thinner than the edge of a wooden spatula or spoon. This, combined with the curved front edge and bottom, makes it easier to slide under the food and pick it up. The turned up sides and wider blade allow you to hold more food. The longer handle keeps your hand cooler. The wider blade allows you to push and pull more food around. I have found one key to my stir-fries turning out well was keeping the food moving at all times. The wok spatula makes this task easier.
Photos: Many folks have told me they don’t know how I have time to stop and take photos while stir-frying. The reality is I really don’t, but I can cheat it a little bit. One happy, but accidental, discovery I made was that my long handled wok spatula allows me to stand at a distance I can also use to take photos of the wok. My camera is small enough and light enough I can hold it in one hand. So what I do is stir-fry with my left hand (I am a lefty) and hold the camera in my right. When it is time to snap a picture I pull the wok spatula out of the photo and snap a picture with the camera in my free hand. The reason this works is I can stand in the same spot for both tasks and I am not picking the spatula or the camera up and putting it down ll of the time. Just be sure to have fresh batteries in your flash, because a stir-fry wont wait for the flash to recharge.
Carryover Cooking: If the weather is to cold enough where you don’t want to bring the serving dish out to the grill with you, allow for some carry over cooking time. The food in my wok keeps sizzling for the 30 seconds it takes me to pull it off the grill and bring it into the Kitchen. I have a wok ring and the serving platter sitting out on my Kitchen counter. I usually have to put the hot wok down at this point for a few seconds to let my fingers cool off. I then pick it back up and use the wok spatula to transfer the food to my serving platter. In my case this operation takes about 30 seconds total, so I pull the food off the grill 30 seconds before it is done. By the time I have transferred the food to the serving platter it is cooked.
Cleaning: Cleaning the wok is another thing that has gotten easier over time too. Most wok experts say you shouldn’t use dish soap to clean your wok. Simply use some hot water and a Scotchbrite type sponge with a sponge on one side and a plastic scouring surface on the other. I keep a separate sponge that has never been used to clean anything but my wok that I use-this way there is no residual soap on the sponge. Use the smooth side of the Scotchbrite sponge for normal cleaning and the plastic scouring pad side for harder to clean areas. They also say you can soak the wok with hot water in the bowl for an hour or less to help loosen stuck on food. The same wok cook that resulted in some missing seasoning, also resulted in some quarter-sized areas with some stuck on food, that I couldn’t loosen even by soaking. I think I must not have had enough oil in the wok, or I let the oil burn off before adding the food. I posed the question on the Egghead forums of how to deal with stuck on food. The answer was the same: keep cooking on your wok. Sure enough this stuck on food seems to have disappeared. Wether it burned off, cleaned off or what I don’t know. The bottom line is this burned on food appears to be gone and the food is not sticking to the wok as much the more I cook with it.