NEW YORK (AP) — Chef and food writer J Kenji López-Alt suspects there’s something in your kitchen you don’t use nearly enough — the wok.
The deep-bottomed Asian pot is his versatile cooking tool for everything from Korean-style pancakes to fried rice with bacon and eggs.
“Obviously, people know them for stir-fries,” he said. “But they’re also great for cooking, great for braising, great for steaming. I think they are the best tool for steaming and frying. You can make rice. There’s just a huge, huge amount of things you can do in this one pan.”
Having spent much of the pandemic tinkering around, López-Alt offers his wisdom The wok: recipes and techniques by WW Norton & Company, a book with practical tips, exciting side notes and around 200 dishes.
“I think there’s only one recipe that even requires turning on the oven. Everything else is 100 percent done in a pan on your stovetop,” he said.
The wok offers advice on the best oils, how to cook eggs and how to tackle stews and curries. It debunks some myths, like that only day-old rice makes good fried rice. There’s even a section on how to cook soups in a wok, including egg drop, wontons, and hot and sour.
Lopez-Alt advises home cooks to get what he has — a 14-inch, flat-bottomed, carbon steel wok, and said if you’re paying more than $50, you’re probably being overcharged. He bought his in a department store in the early 2000s.
This wok has adapted to every phase of its life. He bought it as a college student living with roommates, continued to use it after moving in with his wife-to-be, and now cooks with it as a dad. He said he pulls out the wok three or four times a week.
López-Alt is also the author of The Food Laboratory: Better home cooking through science, a textbook-like cookbook with roots in scientific reason. The new book has similarly rigorous testing, with fantastic detours on when to rinse rice, whether to use MSG, how to buy shrimp, and how different types of pasta perform.
“I find learning things is much easier when I learn the underlying principles behind them. And that’s how I learned why and how I do something,” he said.
López-Alt likens following recipes in a cookbook to asking Siri for directions on your phone—you get from point A to point B but don’t learn about the neighborhoods or how they’re connected.
“I think knowing techniques and science gives me the confidence to stray from recipes and know that I still won’t get lost and end up with something edible and hopefully tasty,” he said.
His new book has the blessing of Grace Young, a passionate wok advocate who wrote the award-winning books The breath of a wok and stir fry to the heavens edge. She welcomes wok-loving reinforcements and is concerned that the pot is at a crossroads, especially with the advent of non-stick, non-authentic versions.
“I’m really grateful to Kenji for writing this book because he can reach a much wider and younger audience than I can,” she said.
“It means more woks are coming home, more people are curious, and more people appreciate the fact that this pan is so special and unique.”
The wok’s flared shape gives cooks a better angle to manipulate food than vertical walls on traditional pots, and it also reduces splattering. Its sides can be used to either protect food from the heat in the center, or alternatively create a spot that gets really hot and creates a sizzling sensation.
López-Alt had written in the kitchen equipment chapter The Food Laboratory that the wok was his favorite pan, but the last book never had any recipes or advice because that section was edited out to save space. So when he started to tackle a second volume The Food Laboratory, he started revisiting the wok chapter and started expanding it. Then it took on a life of its own.
“I was about 200 pages in and I wasn’t done with stir-fries. So it felt like, “Hey, this is something I’m passionate about and have found useful in my life, so maybe I should write a whole book and then other people will find it useful too,” he said he.
He clears up some misconceptions about wok cooking: It’s not true, he said, that you need jet flames, powerful gas burners, to cook properly with a wok.
“I’m going to see Peter Luger in New York, right? And they have a steak that they grill under a 1,600 degree grill. And it’s like a certain experience, right? I don’t expect to go home and cook the steak the same way,” he said.
“It’s like a very special restaurant style, preparing a steak. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t many other ways I can cook delicious steaks at home.”