Ideal wok height above the flame?
December 14, 2008 1:45 PM   Subscribe

How high above the flame should I have my Wok/frying pan/etc? Is full blast always the hottest setting?

When I have my gas stove on full blast the flames push out around to the sides of the wok, and if I turn it down just a little they are more centered (but much smaller). Which is more efficient for cooking with a Wok?

Would it be better to rig up something to hold my Wok slightly higher up so the highest-setting flames don't get "smushed" around the sides of the Wok?

I have read a few conflicting things...
posted by Jsn7821 to Food & Drink (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I stir-fry a lot in a wok and can tell you pretty definitively that a small area of concentrated heat is not good. Stuff will stick and scorch in that area, while the rest of the wok doesn't get hot enough. Flames licking up the side is better because a greater area of metal is getting heated to frying temperature. This principle holds true for pans of other shapes, too - hot spots mean burning, whereas consistent heating promotes controlled cooking. (One reason why cheap pots don't work well is that the thin metal doesn't diffuse the heat evenly over the bottom of the pot, so you get hot spots and scorching.)

I wouldn't hold the wok any higher off the flame than it is already, since it won't get as hot and will be less stable to boot. To a first approximation, hotter is better when stir-frying. Of course you won't always need the hottest possible temperature, and you can always turn down the flame, but it's nice to have the really high heat when you need it.
posted by Quietgal at 2:03 PM on December 14, 2008

Actually, if you're specifically concerned about getting a high temperature for a wok to be used in stir-frying, you might consider switching to a western-style skillet/saute pan. The shape of a wok is based upon and designed to take advantage of the traditional wood/charcoal heat source that provides an encompassing, surrounding heat. Western cooktops provide a point-source heat that requires the cooking pan to distribute the heat throughout the pan's surface. Because of the thinness of the metal on the upper portions of a wok, they do not transfer the heat as well when the heat is coming from a gas cooktop burner unit.

I know it sounds strange, but try a simple stir-fry in a heavy cast-iron skillet that has been allowed to pre-heat to the proper temperature (i.e., very hot).

An excellent book on this subject is "The Breath of the Wok." Good luck!
posted by webhund at 2:14 PM on December 14, 2008

Cast iron is very nice, but I actually have high iron levels, so prefer to not use cast-iron (the iron leaches out into the food a bit). I also really like the woks shape and cooking style (so far, I've only used it a handful of times). It's much cleaner than a skillet (oil doesn't splatter out of it), and it's a lot of fun to toss stuff around.

I'm not having any trouble scorching or burning. If anything, the wok cools down too quickly when I add food so I'm getting too much steaming and not enough frying. I wonder if a more concentrated heat at the bottom would help this? Right now I've had success by adding smaller amounts of food at a time, and letting the wok heat back up between certain veggies. (Overall I still don't know what I'm doing but it sure tastes good.)

I was under the impression that woks were supposed to have a very hot bottom spot, where you toss the food in and out of.
posted by Jsn7821 at 4:42 PM on December 14, 2008

You also might look into an americanized wok. The key difference is that the bottom of the wok will have been flattened to better accommodate Western stovetops. It's essential for an electric stove, imo--which I know you don't have, but I do.

You should go look in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant some time. The burners they have for their woks spray enormous flames around the entire bottom of the wok several inches up the sides.
posted by Netzapper at 4:45 PM on December 14, 2008

Cooking food in smaller quantities during the high-temp stages of cooking is the way to go here. If you get the chance to look into the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant you'll see that both the burners and the woks they use are considerably larger than what you have at home, even though they're prepping one meal at a time. You can't do what they do in the same way without the same hardware. Once you've stir-fried all the constituent meat/tofu/vegetable parts of your meal in stages, you can dump them all back in for a quick re-heating and sauce-making.
posted by jon1270 at 4:10 AM on December 15, 2008

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