Category: cooking experiments

Things I learnt about using a wok on a glass stovetop

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Things I learnt about using a wok on a glass stovetop

So… as part of my “Aliette goes learning new ways of cooking”, and after the baking experiments, I’m now into using a carbon steel wok (mostly, I confess, because our non-stick one died about a month ago and I was really sick of replacing it every few years). I read Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok and Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge cover to cover, bought a wok from our local Chinatown, and then proceeded to do my own experiments [1].

There’s surprisingly little that I could find about using a wok on a glass stovetop, and I thought that I would accordingly post about it, if only to share. A lot of the stuff in Grace Young’s books and online focuses on electric stoves (which means coils, I assume), and warn you that an electric stove isn’t powerful enough to do stir-frying and you need to crank up the heat to maximum.

On my stove at least, this results in disaster. Because woks (and the de Buyer steel pans that I have) don’t like being heated fast, and also don’t much like having the radiant element of the stove right under them. And as a result, they warp, which is a big pain in the neck (and not something you can remedy once it’s happened, at least not without a lot of work that I’m in no way ready for), and they “dance” on the stovetop, i.e. don’t lie perfectly flat. The Wok Shop in San Francisco has an FAQ which describes the problem, which makes me think I’m not the only one to have it.

A carbon steel wok would probably warp as well on an electric coil or gas stove (though I suspect the flames of gas are a less violent contact than the full heat of the radiant element), but the thing is you probably wouldn’t notice it. Glass stovetops, unfortunately, are really unforgiving in that regard: the bottom of pans has to be absolutely flat, whereas it’s not really a problem if your wok is slightly warped and you’re cooking with gas or coils.

It might be linked to the wok gauge, but I’ve got a thicker de Buyer steel pan which has the exact same problem, so I suspect a wok would have to be very thick (and very heavy, and kind of defeating the point of reacting fast to the heat), in order not to warp. Also, I’ve killed one wok not knowing this (the one I have is my second one), so for what it’s worth…

(you might have a less, er, eagerly destructive glass stovetop which doesn’t heat up fast. In which case you can safely ignore most of this advice)

So, accordingly, my new cooking rules with a carbon steel wok on a glass stovetop:

  • Find the right burner: on my stove the largest burner (which is actually larger than the wok base) is the friendliest and the least likely to warp the wok.
  • Heat it up gradually (every stove is different. Mine must heat up fast, because I need to do 5 minutes on low heat, 5 minutes on low-medium heat and 5 minutes on medium heat before the wok is at the right temperature)
  • If you have one of those powerboost things on the stovetop that make the stove heat up faster, for the love of God do NOT use it, it’ll kill the pan in the long run.
  • Watch for temperature (on my stove I go to 7-7.5/9, seldom to the maximum). You’ll notice that the de Buyer FAQ for their steel pans says never go above moderate heat. Trust me, even moderate heat on an efficient stove is good enough for stir-frying.
  • After you’re done, let the wok cool on the stove. Never EVER take it straight into the sink to pour some water into it.

(in the interest of full disclosure: my wok is the Ken Hom 31-cm carbon steel. My stove is made by Bosch but I have no idea which model it is, as it came with the house. Also, all of this applies to thin carbon steel pans like the de Buyer ones).


[1] If you want a quick book review: they’re great books because they focus on one technique and have inserts on how to do things, rather than being a compilation of recipes (I like compilations of recipes, but sometimes you need to pause and learn a bit about technique). The Breath of a Wok has a slightly better and slightly more expanded wok selection and wok care section (at least I found it more useful), and Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge is better on preparing ingredients for a stir-fry (cutting them, blanching them, etc.). Sky’s Edge is also more focused on the Chinese diaspora (mostly in North America and the Caribbean) and on how they adapted their dishes.
[ETA: edited some grumbly things which didn’t bring a lot to the review]
I’ve got some light peeves, but nothing serious: I thought both books were superb and well worth a read and/or add to your cooking library if you intend to go wokking.

New recipe: teacakes!

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Just a note that I’ve blogged the teacakes baking process over here, if you’re interested. They’re heartily snakelet-approved (they’re 25cm across, and he ate about 0.75 of one on the plane?).

Meanwhile, the blog is slightly dark because I’m on a skiing holiday–return to hemi-semi-regularly content next week, I promise! I’ll try to do a post on my revisions process.

De Buyer mineral B omelette pan

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De Buyer mineral B omelette pan

And it’s recipe Wednesday again! Except we don’t exactly have recipes, but I figured it was time I did something for this part of the blog. So instead of recipes, we’re going to talk kitchen utensils today.

My idea of a shopping trip for kitchen utensils is Kawa, 89 rue de Choisy in the 13th District. Kawa sells to individuals, but the primary audience is for restaurant owners and cooks, and the kitchen stuff they sell is heavy duty indeed. In addition to crockery, they have woks, rice cookers, spatulas, etc. I got my (very handy) garlic press from them, and their spatulas and wok spatulas are way handier than anything I’ve seen in high-end cookshops (not to mention cheaper).
When I dropped by Kawa last time, I was in need of a frying pan to replace our nonstick one after its untimely death; and they had a whole row of carbon steel de Buyer pans.

I’ve never cooked with carbon steel, and all I’ve heard (mostly from cooking boards) made it sound really fiddly–which is a thing I don’t really do (fiddly and fragile are two things I handle badly in a kitchen), but I was also tired of having to replace a frying pan every few years when the teflon died on me. What the heck, I figured. They’re reasonably affordable, and if it doesn’t work out I can always change my mind next go-around.

Turns out I was needlessly worried. The pan is great: it’s a bit heavy (but not as heavy as cast-iron–the one cast-iron pan we do have, a big Le Creuset thing, I almost never use because it’s too much work getting it out onto the stove). It has to be seasoned first, which basically consists of heating up oil just below smoking point on it (the instructions come with the frying pan), and carefully wiping it dry. That’s the start of your patina, which is then developed further by cooking greasy things in it until the entire bottom of the pan turns black.

I found the pan seasoned pretty well: I’m not at the stage where I’ll cook an omelette with just a smidgeon of oil on it, but it’s noticeably slicker already, after just a few uses. Because it’s thin and it’s metal, it also heats up quite fast: it’s a great pan for searing meat. It’s not a pan for cooking without fat, or for frying anything fragile (like, whole fish is out); but for  searing or omelettes or anything that requires high temps it’s superb (and because it seizes at truly high temps the meat tastes really good, too).

There’s a bunch of instructions on this that theoretically make it a hassle to handle: do not use an abrasive sponge on it, and clean it with very hot water (and rub with coarse salt if anything gets stuck to it); and dry it and oil it before putting it away. I have to admit neither the H nor I could be bothered to follow these, and the pan has still survived pretty well :) We use a sponge with the green scratchy back, use a moderate amount of soap, and the seasoning has reasonably stuck around so far. For putting it away, I follow advice I’ve seen on the net for carbon steel woks, and dry the pan on a warm stove before putting it away (basically, you want to make sure there’s no humidity on the pan. It might be a problem not to oil it in warmer climes, but in our very dry kitchen it never was an issue).

And, best of all, this is a pan that lasts–no Tefal coating that can flake away, and I know families that still use the ones that belonged to grandmothers. It’s pretty cheap for that price (I got it for 30 euros with a slight discount, normally I think it’s 40). Just be careful: as with all frying pans, the diameter is the outer edge: we got a 24cm-omelet pan, but in reality, the cooking surface is closer to 21cm.

Would I recommend this? I’d definitely get at least one for the kitchen; and see if you like it. It’s a bit fiddly but well worth it.