|Wok or Frying Pan? Stir-frying with a frying pan|
|Is your frying pan "stir-fry friendly"?|
A reader recently asked, "What is the concept behind cooking with a wok versus just a plain old frying pan on the burner?" It's a reasonable question. Frying, or cooking food in hot fats or oils, has been a popular cooking technique with numerous cultures since ancient times, most of whom do not use a wok.
Nonetheless, the wok has always been the utensil of choice for stir-frying, a cooking technique that was developed to deal with shortages of both oil and ingredients. The wok's unique shape ensures that heat is distributed evenly, allowing for faster cooking times. And the wok's deep, sloping sides make spills less likely.
As the instruction booklet that came with one of my woks proudly announced: "This Chinese classic is a triumph of kitchen engineering. It has had no need for design improvements or changes after centuries and millions of satisfied users." That is, until it met up with the latest in North American kitchen appliances. Designed to fit or sink into a Chinese wood stove, the wok is decidedly unstable on western electric or gas stoves. Manufacturers originally tried to solve the problem by designing a metal ring or "collar" to fit underneath and stabilize the wok. This is still the recommended procedure if you cook with a gas stove. However, for those who use electric stoves, something else was required. Ultimately, manufacturers came up with the flat-bottomed wok. At the same time they also replaced the round handles (made to lift the wok in and out of the oven) with one long handle.
There's no doubt that this new design is much safer. Unfortunately, it also departs somewhat from the original concept that made the wok such an excellent cooking tool. True, the flat bottom is more effective in conducting heat from the stove's flat electric coils than would be the case with a round bottom. On the other hand, the heat is no longer concentrated right at the center. This means more oil is required, and it's harder to toss ingredients, since the wok can't be tilted.
How can the problem be solved? Purists such as Martin Yan eschew the flat-bottomed model, recommending a round-bottomed wok with a base specifically designed for electric stoves. Others, such as restaurateur Barbara Tropp, compare using the round-bottomed wok on an electric stove to "trying to walk across town on toe shoes." (Source: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking).
So what is the answer? Should Chinese food lovers rush to trade in their electric stoves for the latest gas model? Fortunately, no: I own two flat-bottomed woks myself, and find they work beautifully. But the increasing acceptance of the flat-bottomed wok does seem to give added weight to the argument that a frying pan works as well as a wok for stir-frying. After all, if you're using a flat-bottomed pan with a skillet-like handle anyway....
The trick is to know what works for you. Perhaps you make Chinese food infrequently, or you're simply more comfortable sticking with a utensil that you have experience using (in this case a frying pan as opposed to a wok). If you already own a deep-fat fryer and/or a steaming tray, the wok's ability to perform these functions may not be of use to you. Perhaps you're hoping the frying pan will spare you the expense of purchasing a second wok. Just remember that, when it comes to stir-frying, not all pans are created equal. Here are a few tips to help you pick a "stir-fry friendly" frying pan:
- The pan needs to be made of fairly heavy material, so there are no problems with scorched food in "hot spots". Cast iron is an excellent choice - it is a very good conductor of heat, and it distributes the heat evenly. (The original woks were fashioned from cast iron, which the Chinese have been producing since the sixth century BC). The Calphalon hard anodized pans make good stir-fry pans as well. On the other hand, stay away from Teflon: despite the best efforts of its inventors, it can't take the high heat needed for stir-frying.
- It should have a lid for steaming. Even basic recipes such as Chop Suey will call for green vegetables such as Bok Choy to be cooked under cover.
- The majority of frying pans are made with non-stick material. That's fine - it lets you reduce the amount of oil needed for stir-frying.
- Finally, you may be tempted to circumvent the problem by purchasing an electric wok. Don't - most do not generate enough heat for stir-frying. Although there are exceptions, generally the best use for an electric wok is to keep food warm while you're preparing another dish.
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