Barbara’s Mailbag: Wok, Don’t Run

I get a lot of email from casual and long-time readers, and it is always a joy to read each piece of it. Some of the emails are simply compliments, which is always wonderful, but often readers pose questions to me, hoping for an answer to a culinary puzzle or conundrum.

Probably the one subject I get the most questions about are woks. How to season them, how to clean them, how to cook in them and what to do when they go awry. And while I answer each email personally, whenever I get a certain number of wok questions, I usually make a post outlining the questions along with my answers, because my feeling is this–if one person has a question and actually goes to the trouble of emailing me to ask it, it is likely that several other people are wondering about the same thing, but are too shy to email and ask.

Previous posts in this series include Wok Wonderings, Let’s Talk Woks, Asian Kitchen Equipment Essentials, and Wok Words.

The first of my latest batch of Chinese cooking and wok questions comes from Stefan, who wrote:

I have been trying to cook Chinese stir-fry for some time now. I have a cast iron wok and a gas stove so now i’m going through your Chinese recipes postings trying to pick up some helpful tips to give my dishes much needed “wok-hay” 🙂

I had a couple of questions for you on the stir-fry technique. First, do you always cut up the meat before marinating it or do you sometimes just marinate a whole chicken breast? I remember you posting about using only dry ingredients in your stir-fry. Does that mean you dry off the marinade from your protein before hand? Lastly, when you cook the garlic or onions to season the oil ,do you remove them from the oil before cooking the main dish?

Here are my answers:

You must cut up the meat first–this makes for more surface area for the marinade to penetrate. This flavors and tenderizes the meat more effectively. Also, it only makes sense to cut up the meat before marinating it–you have to cut it up into smaller pieces in order to cook it in the wok in the first place, and it will be much easier to cut the meat without slippery marinade sticking to it and making it slither all over the cutting board.

Add cornstarch to the marinade–enough of it to make the marinade cling to the meat. Then, when you add the meat to the wok, the only liquid that goes into the wok with it is what clings to it. If there is any liquid marinade left in the bowl, you add it later, with the other wet ingredients. The cornstarch marinade will brown when it hits the wok, and will help create wok hay, especially the stuff that clings to the sides and bottom of the wok. When you add liquid–broth, wine or soy sauce, scrape up the browned marinade bits into the sauce–the cornstarch in it will thicken the sauce and the flavor is incomparable.

As for the onions and garlic–I always leave the onions in, then put in the meat. Garlic, you can put in first–or, you can sprinkle it on top of the meat when you put it in the wok. While the meat rests undisturbed on the bottom of the wok for a minute to brown before you start stirring it, oil and juices bubble up and hit the garlic and the intense heat of it draws the flavor from the garlic into the liquid. Then, when you stir the meat, the garlic gets mixed in with it and cooks without burning.

Next up is Dan, who had several complex questions to ask me:

First of all, love the website, keep up the good work. I love cooking Chinese dishes and noticed in the recipes I’ve tried so far you use heavy doses of black pepper, black vinegar and dark soy sauce. In recipes I’ve used in the past I’ve used white pepper but never black pepper. Did Lo and Huy use black pepper that much? I love vinegar but just recently started using black vinegar. The dark soy sauce gives the dishes a nice heavy brown color, but not as much taste? Maybe it’s the brand I use but the thinner soy sauce has more taste to me. I tend to use broths and stocks in my sauces. I’m on a quest to duplicate restaurant quality Chinese dishes and think your recipes are more on the authentic side? One thing I’ve never been able to do is to get that smoky flavor you find in restaurant lo mein. I use a carbon steel wok and turkey fryer burner. I can always adjust recipes to my own taste, less black pepper, substitute half of the dark soy sauce with the thinner version, halve the black vinegar and replace the half with stock. Love all the garlic and ginger though! Thanks again.

And here is how I answered Dan’s queries:

The dark soy sauce is often used in red meat dishes to give a more appealing color to the meat and the finished sauce. It does have flavor, but because it has some molasses in it, it is not as savory as thin soy sauce. In most of my recipes, you will see that I seldom use dark soy sauce alone; most of the time I combine light and dark soy sauces together. This gives the best color and flavor. The brand I use is premium Pearl River Bridge or Kun Choon Premium. A little more money goes a long way in getting really good tasting soy sauce.

Black pepper is more likely to be used in Sichuan dishes, and since Huy was cooking primarily Sichuan foods, he used black pepper. White pepper is more often used in Cantonese and Shanghainese foods–and since I learned from cooks from Hunan and Sichuan, I don’t tend to use it.

You have the heat necessary to replicate the smoky flavor of the lo mein in restaurants–but you need a VERY seasoned wok–it takes a while to create the patina that makes the wok hay that you are missing in your lo mein. You also need to use a LOT of oil–the unique flavor of Chinese restaurant food comes from three factors, most of which are never replicated by Chinese American and Chinese home cooks. One is a high heat burner–you have that. Two is the very well seasoned wok. Three is a lot of oil–most Chinese and Chinese American home cooks do not use as much oil in cooking as is used in restaurants, but it is the third factor in creating the flavor you seek. The oil picks up the flavor created by a hot wok with a heavy seasoned patina, and this flavor inundates the entire dish.

Restaurants use this much oil for several reasons–the super high heat of their stoves calls for extra oil to keep stuff from burning–it also makes delicious food, and it cooks food faster. Most meats, for example, in Chinese restaurants–are oil-blanched–which means they are cooked in at least 1/4 cup to 1 cup of boiling oil. Then they are removed from the wok, the extra oil is poured out, leaving about five or six tablespoons, and the aromatics are added, the meat is put back in, sauces and vegetables go in, and in a flash of time, the food is done. It is also very oily.

But it sure tastes good!

I don’t cook that way at home, and if and when I open a restaurant, I wouldn’t cook that way there, either. Chinese food doesn’t have to be laden with calories and fat.

So, there we are–my recipes are a combination of what I learned in the restaurant business and what I have learned from home cooks–and my own experimentation.

And finally, I have this very technical wok question involving seasoning from John:

I’m a long-time reader of you blog. Big fan! I finally got an outdoor wok burner and a carbon steel wok from the wok shop in san francisco. Following your seasoning steps, I achieved a very nice starting patina and made several lovely vegetable stir-frys. I was holding off on stickier items such as cornstarch-marinated meats to let the patina develop further, but I couldn’t hold back and tried your thai-inspired pork and gai lan stir-fry last night. First thing first – OMG it was SO delicious my friends who were over just sat at the table in silence scarfing like pigs. It was was shameful. So thanks for the wonderful recipe. Second question though has to do with post-starch patina. Before this dish the surface of the wok was extremely smooth and glossy. In cooking last night, the food did not stick at all, BUT the patina is definitely rougher and patchy in spots. Is this normal? Did I not scrub with the bamboo brush hard enough? Before going medieval on it, I wanted to get your advice.

Here is what I could tell John:

John, first of all, I am glad you liked the recipe so much. I get the silent treatment at my table a lot–which is how I gauge how well people like my food. If all talk stops and all I can hear is scarfing noises, then I did it right. 😉

The patchyness is normal. If your wok’s patina is still a bit new, the cornstarch marinade that makes your food so good does give the wok a workout. Scrubbing a little harder will make it smoother again, but I wouldn’t worry overmuch about it. The more you use the wok, the smoother and darker the patina will become until it is black and shiny all the time.

If you want to smooth it out and give your wok’s patina a boost, deep fry something in the wok! That will speed the process up a bit, and will help smooth out what the cornstarch did to your wok.

That’s it for Barbara’s mailbag today. Remember, if you have any questions at all pertaining to Chinese cookery or woks, or Indian cooking and spices, or just cooking in general, or you have a special recipe you want me to present, or a book you want me to review, just send me an email flying across the aether, and I will be glad to do my utmost to help you out. I love hearing from my readers and I want to do my best to help everyone cook tastier, healthier food in their very own kitchens.


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  1. Great post, I always learn so much here, and just smiled reading about John’s quiet at the table for his stir-fry. We’ve experienced Barbara-recipe moments of silence ourselves so I laughed at that. I’ve been dying to try that very recipe but haven’t yet.

    Comment by Lizah — April 8, 2009 #

  2. As always, thank you Barbara!

    I have a cast iron wok – I love cast iron to cook with – but should I gift it to my daughter and buy a carbon steel one? The cast iron one is mighty heavy…

    Comment by Jan — April 9, 2009 #

  3. Dear Barbara,

    I hope you don’t mind this message is also “simply a compliment”. Yes, this website is excellent – it is not only so informative, but also super-educational.

    I can see that you cook and write from your heart.

    I feel so stupid not knowing your website until very recently. I am now reading your previous posts like mad or I am afraid I would ask you some questions you have been asked Nth times!

    Comment by Franklen — May 6, 2009 #

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