Though primarily used for stir-frying, the wok can also steam, braise, and stew — all healthy methods of cooking. Here is a guide to get you out of your frying pan and stockpot rut.
The healthy advantage
Essentially, a wok is a frying pan -- but the curved shape changes the way the food is cooked. It is healthier than a standard frying pan because of its high heat retention and the need for little cooking oil. Also, since the food can be pushed up the sides of the wok, excess oil can drain off before it is served.
Unlike standard frying pans, the high sides of a wok allow large amounts of food to cook — while being stirred — without the food soaking up oil sitting in the bottom of the pan.
The structure of the wok allows you to cook meat or vegetables more evenly and all in one unit.
Typically, the meat or hardier vegetable (whatever takes the longest to cook) is put into the very hot oil at the bottom of the wok and stir-fried until it is about halfway cooked. It is then pushed up the sides of the wok while the next ingredients — tender vegetables or delicate seafood — are added.
While the last ingredients cook, the first ingredients are also cooking, but at a much slower rate, keeping them from overcooking.
Another benefit of a wok, as compared to a standard frying pan, is a larger usable cooking area. Because of the high edges, more food can be put into a wok. This means you can more easily cook greater quantities and have delectable leftovers for the next day's meals. This also helps with keeping your kitchen clean — less pans and utensils and less chance of spills onto the stove.
Tips for wok cooking
1. Be prepared. Before you heat the wok, have all of your ingredients cut into uniform bite-sized pieces (for even cooking). Stir-fried food does not need a lot of time to cook so you will not have a chance to chop while food is already in the wok. Set ingredients near the wok in the order they will be added.
2. Heat and oil. Heat the wok over medium-high to high heat for two to three minutes before adding the oil. When the wok is hot, pour about two tablespoons of oil into the wok and move the oil around the wok to coat the bottom and sides.
3. Add ingredients. If you are going to use onion and garlic, add onion to the oil and cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened. Add the garlic and cook for a minute then add meat, poultry or fish. Cook for one to two minutes then add the hardiest vegetables. Cook, stirring, then add the leafy vegetables and other delicate ingredients. Use a long spatula to keep your ingredients moving. If you are cooking a lot of hardy vegetables, cook meat, poultry or fish until it is almost done then transfer it to a bowl or plate while the vegetables cook. Add the meat, poultry or seafood back to the wok towards the end to finish cooking.
Although the wok has Asian beginnings, woks have gone mainstream and can be used to cook many types of foods.
Five Spice Chicken Wings
Makes 4 to 5 servings
Chicken wings are a popular — though not one of the healthiest — picks for party food. Cooking them in a wok will cut down the fat. The ginger and five-spice powder will give them a zesty new appeal. This recipe combines stir-frying with steaming.
2 tablespoons peanut oil
4 slices fresh peeled gingerroot, thinly cut
2 cloves garlic, crushed
12 to 15 chicken wings, cut at joints and tips removed
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Heat wok over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in oil and let it heat for 1 minute. Mix in ginger and garlic and cook, stirring for 1 to 2 minutes. Add chicken into wok and continue stir-frying for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk together soy sauce, sake, five-spice, sugar and water. Pour into wok and toss with chicken. Reduce heat to medium and place a lid on wok. Cook 30 to 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until chicken wings are cooked through.
Broccoli and Beef Stir-fry
Makes 4 servings
Crisp-tender broccoli and carrots and juicy beef tips make a delicious low-carb meal.
3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 cup chopped onions
1 pound beef tips, chopped in half
3 cups chopped broccoli florets and stalks
3 cups thinly sliced carrots
3/4 cup water, more if needed
2 tablespoons flour, more if thicker gravy desired
Heat wok over medium heat. Heat oil for 1 minute. Add onions and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Mix in meat and stir-fry until meat is cooked. Transfer beef to a plate and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm. Add broccoli and carrots to the wok and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in water, place lid on wok, and let cook 6 to 7 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Push vegetables up the sides of the wok and stir flour into water. When gravy has been made, mix meat and vegetables together. Serve warm on top of rice.
Shrimp and Snowpea Linguini
Makes 4 servings
A fusion dish with many variations, tender shrimp and crisp snowpeas tossed with a toothsome nest of pasta cook together to make a delightful midday meal or light dinner.
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound uncooked shrimp or scallops
2 cups clam juice or vegetable broth
3 cups snowpeas
3 cups freshly cooked linguini or soba noodles
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Parmesan cheese, to taste
Heat wok over medium heat. Add oil and heat 1 minute. Stir-fry garlic 1 minute then add shrimp or scallops and snowpeas and stir-fry until seafood is just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add clam juice or vegetable broth and pasta, tossing to coat. Cook, stirring, until pasta is heated through, about 2 minutes. Top with parsley and Parmesan cheese and season with black pepper. Toss and serve warm.
For more information on woks and wok-cooking:
Fante's Kitchen Wares Shop http://www.fantes.com/woks.html
The Wok Store http://www.thewokstore.com/
The Best 50 Wok Recipes http://www.amazon.com/Best-50-Wok-Recipes/dp/1558673113/sheknowscom03-20
The Big Book of Wok: 365 Fast, Fresh and Delicious Recipes http://www.amazon.com/Big-Book-Wok-Delicious/dp/1844833267/sheknowscom03-20