Friday, March 4, 2011

Will's Wok


I'm sure there's a restaurant named Will's Wok somewhere, hah. Around the Seattle area we already have a Johnny's, Yea's, and Rocking Wok.

I bought a carbon steel wok a while ago and have recently been working out how to stir fry with it correctly. I think I'm getting there now, after doing variations on one dish three times. Well, the other thing was messing with "salted black beans," which are very flavorful. Anyway, as for the wok, traditionally they were cast iron, though carbon steel has become common. Ideally they should not have non-stick coating on them because the high heat required for stir frying makes the material break down. This means the wok has to be seasoned to avoid rusting as well as imparting a non-stick quality to the surface of the wok. I'm not sure about the details, but as you cook with it (and heat oil in it), oil is absorbed into the steel, and carbon from the food binds to the surface. A well seasoned wok will be a matte black in appearance rather than shiny and metallic.

This most recent attempt really started to show me how stir frying with a wok is much better than with your typical non-stick skillet. There was a really crisp juiciness to the peppers, and the umami throughout, but infused especially into the onions eaten with the chicken was mouth melty. I think it has to do with the higher heat and Maillard reactions--basically, the better carmelizing action of the wok made things more delicious. [This is a good place to plug an excellent book I've started reading called On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee. An tome of scientific and historic knowledge on everything food and cooking. Here's a teaser: searing food doesn't "seal in the juices!" Thanks to my friend, Joann, for recommending both the book and getting a carbon steel wok!]

Pics and concluding lessons learned to follow. Maybe a recipe, too.

Cooking the veggies first

Searing the chicken in batches


The main thing I learned was that I need not be afraid of putting the heat too high with the wok. In fact, I probably should have put it even higher than I did this most recent attempt. This time it was high enough for the carbon seasoning to happen correctly, though. At least, I think it's right... We'll see if the texture of the meat can stay more crisp on the surface if the temperature's higher. It always softens once I add the vegetables and meats together, I guess because of the moisture from the vegetables.

Once you're used to taking care of the wok, it's not much trouble at all. I highly recommend getting one if you're into stir frying (they're also convenient for steaming things if you get a steaming rack, though I think making stews and soups will tend to remove the seasoning of the surface).

Chicken and Chinese Salted Black Bean Stir Fry


2 chicken breasts
1 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS rice wine
1 tsp oyster sauce

1 medium onion
1 green pepper
2 carrots
a couple handfuls snow peas

several cloves garlic
~1 TBS Chinese salted black beans

splash of soy sauce

  1. Cut chicken breasts in half cross-wise, and then slice thinly what was lengthwise (roughly between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick)
  2. In medium bowl, toss chicken with soy sauce, rice wine, and oyster sauce. Set aside to marinate.
  3. Core and seed green pepper, and cut into thin slices. Cut onion into thin wedges. Peel and slice carrots into thin slices, on the diagonal. Trim and wash snow peas.
  4. Peel and smash garlic cloves lightly with flat of knife. Put black beans in a small bowl with water and stir a bit to knock loose extra salt and debris, and drain (so they’re not too salty).
  5. Heat wok to medium-high heat, swirl in oil. (Use a large skillet if you don’t have a wok).
  6. Add garlic, toast lightly.
  7. Add salted black beans and stir.
  8. When it’s fragrant, add in the onion. It’ll start smelling really good now.
  9. Once the onion are coated with oil and started turning translucent, push the garlic, beans, and onion up the side of the wok.
  10. Add the carrots and green pepper and stir fry until tender crisp.
  11. Stir all the carrots, green pepper, onion, beans, and garlic together and toss several times. Removed from wok and set aside for later.
  12. Add a little oil and turn heat up to high.
  13. Add chicken in batches so that the wok doesn’t cool too much (you need to maintain heat so the meat sears properly). Spread the meat around the bottom of the wok so that all pieces are touching the wok (this sets a limit to the size of your batches). Let sit for a number of seconds until the bottom has seared and the meat has relatively unstuck itself, then toss to brown other side. Remove from wok and continue with next batch. If needed, rinse out your wok with hot water (no soap), gently removing burnt remnants. Return to stove and let the heat dry out the wok before proceeding.
  14. Once the meat has all been seared, add the snow peas and the meat that you set aside and toss.
  15. When the snow peas are bright green, return everything, meat and vegetables, salted black beans and all, to the wok. Add a splash of soy sauce (about 1 TBS) and toss over high heat.
  16. Remove from heat and serve.


  1. Maillard reaction? Oh boy, Will, you should have been in my Food Science class. You would have loved it :)

    One of Peter's greatest ambitions is having a well-seasoned wok so that he can make great recipes like yours. Nicely done!

  2. Thanks, Jessie! That does sound like a class I would have loved. Yeah, you guys should definitely get (develop?) a well-seasoned wok! Well, mine's not there yet, but I can already tell that it imparts good flavor to foods cooked in it.