If there is anything that comes second in utility to a cast iron skillet in a kitchen, it is the wok. A well-constructed vessel that is most commonly used for stir-frying, is in fact, one of the most versatile cooking tools to have in store.
A good quality cast iron or carbon steel wok is one among the handful of cooking vessels that have more than one purpose in the kitchen. Most often associated with a style of cooking that applies high heat and relatively lesser cooking time, these heavy duty thick pans with a flat bottom surface are ideal for stovetop cooking. What’s most interesting about this Chinese-origin pan that is used for searing and stir-frying techniques, is the even distribution of heat from the source that allows food to obtain colour and depth of flavour.
On the other hand, a round-bottomed wok allows for more space to toss around the food while cooking, thereby letting each ingredient come in contact with the hot surface of the pan and cook evenly. Irrespective of the type of wok you season and maintain for your personal use, the full potential of its amazing uses extend beyond the boundaries of fast cooking – giving them a broader utility range like most other everyday utensils in your kitchen. Here are some ways in which you can use this versatile cooking tool.
Woks are excellent for deep-frying due to their shape and high sides. It allows for the use of less oil than with a traditional deep fryer and the sloping sides make it easy to extract food from the hot oil when it's done. Additionally, the flared sides of the wok are capable to catch any accidental splutters, reducing the chances of a mess around your stovetop.
You can turn your wok into a makeshift steamer by placing a steamer rack or bamboo steamer inside to steam dumplings, vegetables, fish or even buns with ease. A metal steamer or plate would also help greatly in allowing you to use the wok for a wider variety of dishes like idlis and modaks, as long as the steaming medium is suspended over the hot water in the wok.
If your wok has a lid, turning it into a stovetop smoker is only simply placing wood chips in the bottom, putting a rack on top and placing food on the rack. Using this as an indoor contraption to add a smoky flavour to chicken, fish or mutton is a great way to add a BBQ flavour to your meats and fish. The smoking technique is also particularly great even with vegan meats, pork ribs, sausages, mushrooms and corn.
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Woks are a great tool to braise meats and vegetables, searing the ingredients on high heat and continuing the cooking process on a lower heat in an aromatic liquid base. When the temperature is lowered, woks retain the heat at a certain temperature – making vegetables tender and meats juicy, without over-cooking. The wok also allows one to swirl the ingredients and toss them around, without splashing the gravy or sauce all over, containing it within the side walls.
Using the wok as a makeshift roasting pan for small cuts of meat or vegetables is ideal as the sloping sides allow for even heat distribution; and the open top is ideal for moisture to escape and produce crispier results. Along with cooking food evenly and giving it an outer crust as a result of the Maillard reaction, the result is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside food that has retained all its natural juices and flavours.
Like most homes around urban neighbourhoods, if you don't have access to an outdoor grill, the wok can double up as a stovetop grill. Simply heat it up and grill vegetables, meats or even burger patties on the ridged bottom. Using a wok as a grill is convenient for when you have small batches of people over but want to host a meal that gives you the same experience as cooking on an outdoor grill or tandoor. The wok can also be turned upside down to make fluffy naan and soft rumali rotis.