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The Importance of the Wok

A lid being removed off a smoking wok
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Why the wok? That’s the question I get asked more than any other by readers and interviewers alike while on tour in support of my new book, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques.

The answer is easy. Far from being a niche tool that I only pull out for special nights, the wok is by far the most-used piece of equipment in my kitchen, and has been for the entirety of my adult life. It’s been my most constant kitchen companion as I’ve cooked everything from the thickest slab of crispy fried pork belly to the thinnest hand-pulled noodles. As you read through this Serious Eats digital issue, which features the voices of multiple accomplished chefs, educators, and writers, you’ll find that my experience with it is hardly unique.

A portrait of J. Kenji López-Alt holding his new book, The Wok, in his Kitchen
Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

So what makes a wok so useful? Of course, it’s the ideal vessel for stir-frying. As far as fast, fresh, flavorful, and family-friendly goes, nothing beats stir-frying. It’s the quintessential weeknight supper technique; vegetables retain their bright color and crunch, proteins come out tender and flavor-packed. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that proper stir-frying requires a high-output, jet engine-style burner—or even a gas range for that matter! I believed this for many years (and my past writing on the subject has at times put an overly heavy emphasis on it), but in reality, across Asia there are hundreds of millions of wok-cooked meals prepared in home kitchens every single day, and very few of them are equipped with restaurant-grade gear.

With the guides and recipes here, you’ll learn how to properly stir-fry no matter what kind of setup you have in your home kitchen. You’ll learn about exactly what gives certain dishes wok hei (the elusive aroma my dad always referred to as “that good smoky flavor”), and how to achieve it, even with an electric or induction cooktop.

But wok cooking is not all stir-fries. When it comes to producing quick, flavorful, and versatile meals, the wok beats every other pan in the kitchen, hands down.

The wok is the ideal vessel for deep frying at home. Its wide, flared sides prevent oil from splattering over your stovetop and make it easy to maneuver a metal spider or strainer under the food, a task that can be difficult in a straight-sided pot or Dutch oven. This same feature makes it the ideal vessel for simmering and poaching. Try poaching delicate foods like eggs or fish in a wok and you’ll never go back.

With a bamboo steamer or a steaming rack, you can steam vegetables, dumplings, whole fish, pork ribs, and, well, anything steamable. Better yet, get a stack of steamers and you can do all of that at the same time.

A wok can double as an indoor quick-smoker (think: mesquite-smoked mozzarella, tea-smoked chicken wings, or hickory-smoked whiskey). It’s great for steaming rice, or for boiling noodles (or pasta). Its wide, flared design also creates lots of surface area of any liquid it contains, which encourages steam to escape, allowing you to rapidly reduce and concentrate sauces for intensely flavorful braised meat, vegetable, and tofu dishes.

Cooking in a wok is also very personal for me. Japanese, Chinese, and Chinese-American foods are the foods of my childhood, and I associate many of them with the wok.

When I was growing up in New York, my Japanese mother kept a wok above the refrigerator, which she mainly used for deep-frying gyoza and tempura, or European-influenced Japan staples like korokke and tonkatsu (always served with sweet-and-savory Bulldog sauce), or to stir-fry her own version of mapo tofu, flavored with Japanese ingredients like sake and mirin.

My father was a Chinese-food fanatic who’d drag me and my sisters around New York’s Chinatown or through the suburbs of Boston in search of smoky beef chow fun or chile-packed Sichuan dishes. On weekend nights he would dip into the Joyce Chen cookbook, showing us how to rehydrate daylily buds and wood-ear mushrooms to cook into moo shu pork with paper-thin Mandarin pancakes, or how to velvet sliced chicken to keep it tender during a stir-fry. One of his specialties was a dish he made for my picky kid sister, which he called “Pico’s Bland Chicken.” There’s a version of this recipe in my book that I’ve updated and dubbed “Pico’s Not-So-Bland Chicken,” to reflect her growing tastes as an adult.

When I say that the wok has been with me through my entire adult life, I don’t just mean the wok as a concept; I also mean one specific wok. I bought it—a flat-bottomed carbon steel number that I picked up at the Target in Somerville, MA—as a college student. It couldn’t have cost more than $30, and for several years it was one of the only two pans that I owned (the other was a $200 Le Creuset Dutch Oven my mother gave me on my 20th birthday).

I scrambled eggs and tomatoes in it to feed myself and my friends after late-night problem sets (or parties) in college. I wilted greens in it when my girlfriend Adri’s family was visiting from Colombia for her college graduation. I used it to simmer fish in chile broth and to stir-fry spring asparagus and fava beans flavored with Sichuan peppercorns after hitting the Brookline farmer’s market while I was sharing an apartment with some other test cooks from Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I brought that same wok into the test kitchen to blind-test whether stir fries taste better when cooked in a seasoned carbon-steel wok versus a flat, Western-style, stainless-steel skillet. (Result: they do taste better).

When Adri and I got married and moved back to New York, that wok came with us. In the summers I’d perch it on top of an inverted charcoal chimney in my Weber kettle grill placed (illegally) on the tiny 17th-story balcony in our Central Harlem apartment. That’s where I developed the early wok guides for Serious Eats (now, thankfully, fully updated and bolstered by other experienced voices) and worked on Chinese-American recipes like kung pow chicken and pepper steak.

Kenji swishing eggs into a wok using Chopsticks
Kenji demonstrates how to drizzle egg while cooking his recipe for tofu with peas and silky egg.Serious Eats / Andrew Valantine

In the winters, that wok would be parked on top of the economy-grade range where I’d fill our galley-style New York apartment kitchen with smoke as I’d work out techniques for effectively stir-frying lo mein or beef with broccoli and oyster sauce, even in sub-optimal stir-fry conditions. I used the same wok to fry (or, more precisely, double-fry) chicken for our General Tso’s chicken recipe, a technique that I’ve expanded into a whole slew of recipes on Serious Eats and in my book for those uniquely Chinese-American fried-and-saucy dishes like sesame chicken or orange peel beef.

The wok moved with us when we moved to the Bay Area and had our first child. A California-sized backyard meant that I could finally test the high-output, restaurant-style outdoor burners I’d been keen to try out for so long (unlike my wok, that burner sees only occasional use these days). Every single recipe in my new book was tested and photographed in that same, cheap wok I bought in Somerville. I really ought to give it a name at this point, as it’s been with me longer than members of my immediate family.

Now, at our home in Seattle with another child in the mix, that wok is finally showing its first signs of age. I noticed the little trickle of liquid spilling onto the stovetop last week as I had it filled to the brim to simmer some chicken bones for stock, something I do a couple times a month. While the metal itself is better than ever—indeed, a carbon steel wok will only get better with extended use—one of the rivets holding its handle in place has come loose.

But I’m not ready to say goodbye yet. It’s nothing a few well-placed hammer strikes can’t fix.

I know that my experience with my wok may be unique to me, as your relationships are unique to you, but I truly believe that a single inexpensive tool, some solid know-how, a few pantry staples, and a bit of practice is the simplest and most practical way to explode your cooking repertoire. Whether you’re just starting on your culinary journey, or you’re looking to expand your arsenal of techniques, I hope you’ll find some inspiration and guidance here on Serious Eats and within the pages of my book.

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