The wok is one of those tools that thrills me enough that I put a professional wok into my test kitchen.
I used to think that Chinese technique were inferior to was permitted into the kitchen to film the chef working. The heat is extreme and the swiftness of the chef is what mostly counts. The chef has his fire, water and steel, and timing is key in order to achieve the right wok Hei, but not too much heat or the ingredients evaporate and are singed in a split second.
The Hei is the rapid browning of foods tossed in the wok, or pushed by the chef’s spatula referred to as wok chuan. The intense heat reacts to provoke the Maillard reaction in seconds as the wok’s tremendous energy generates those flavourful compounds that only result in wok cooking.
Running at full capacity, a wok burner can deliver up to 200,000 BTU/h of thermal power. By comparison a western styled professional gas burners deliver 15,000-30,000 BTU/h. With each move the cook flings particles food it into the steam filled air above the wok, which is cool in comparison with the metal glowing hot red. The constant flick of the wrist and the power of chef’s wok handle is harsh. I can tell you that I traded my wok in for a custom wok with a short handle. It is very tough to cook without getting 3rd degree burns.
The temperature gradients are very steep and careful attention to a raging fire is always in the back of your mind. You must understand that when you cook with a wok, you imply a heat that is insanely powerful for oil, and it crackles in a split second and can easily combust if you are not careful.
The water used in a wok quenches the heat of the wok, lowering the temperature to the boiling point until it has evaporates. In my test kitchen I use (common in professional wok set up) a supply of water that is heated. In this case you try not to cook the steel down by using cold water. Its important in wok cooking not to stir fry which is different from the bar technique. An underpowered burner will allow the juices to build up in the pan, and the food will stew rather than stir-fry.
Therefore food pieces must be small enough to cook all the way through before the outside burns. These small pieces are also easier to flip in the wok. This chefs is using the “Bao” technique to exploit the shape of the wok by tilting it on the burner. It’s only those foods on the wok’s bottom that come into direct contact with the hot metal. Bao cooking demands speed and agility, and only chefs with years of practice can cook this style.
Wok cooking involves scorching oils, instantaneous flashes of steam, and concentrated waves of hot dry air. Needless to say, this is a complex cooking environment and is only for experienced or daring chefs. There are three distinct cooking zones in wok cooking; zone one conduction, zone two condensation, and zone three convection.
The conduction zone is directly on the hot glowing surface of the wok and this is the hottest of the three zones. If you watch the video, this chef doesn’t pamper the heat and oil, as he using a frightening high intense flame that catches fire.
Just above the surface of the wok is the condensation zone, the constant tossing of food there cooks in a layer of steam, that cool off as they drop back into the wok. Above the wok is the convection zone, a region of hot but dry air. By lifting the food up in the air and off the wok’s hot surface, you regulate the amount of time the food spends in each of the three zones.
The true skill of the chef is cook is the experience of knowing how many times you tilt, and toss and its all in the timing. This balancing act manages the intense heat and speed of cooking by keeping a constant motion. It’s this motion that you use to control the heat’s intensity.