A Wok Can Make Weeknight Dinners Easier Than Ever, Says Chef and Cookbook Author J. Kenji López-Alt

The chef and busy father reveals why a wok is the most used piece of equipment in his kitchen, and shares his top stir fry tips.

chef kenji walker cooking with walk
Photo: Courtesy of Kenji Walker

J. Kenji López-Alt loves cooking with a wok. "We often think of a wok as a vessel for fast, high-heat cooking, which is true—there's nothing better for getting healthy, flavorful food on the table quickly," he says. (López-Alt adds that the wok's cooking speed is "an especially big bonus" now that he's a busy father cooking for kids.) Furthermore, woks are very versatile. "The wok is also an ideal pan for a range of cooking styles: braising sauces, simmering soups, cooking rice and noodles, steaming fish or vegetables, deep frying, and even smoking," he adds. It's a kitchen essential he thinks more home cooks need to know about and the subject of his newest book, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques ($46, bookshop.org), in which he delves into the science of cooking with a wok, as well as plenty of how-to instruction.

In addition, López-Alt notes that woks are inexpensive (around $40 for a good carbon steel wok that will last for decades) and easy to maintain. He aims to excite and empower home cooks to, in his words, "get into the kitchen and start cooking with this amazingly versatile and ancient tool." Like his first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science ($45.95, bookshop.org), López-Alt hopes for readers to take the ideas and techniques from The Wok and use them as springboards for their own culinary creativity. Here, he shares tips for stir frying in a wok, one of his favorite quick ways to make weeknight dinner.

Since stir-frying is a fast, high-heat cooking style, once your ingredients are prepped everything is cooked and ready to eat in just a few minutes. "Even braised dishes come together in a wok in a matter of minutes—its wide, sloped sides encourage evaporation and reduction, which intensifies flavors very quickly," López-Alt says. He also notes that you don't need a powerful burner or even a gas range to cook effectively on a wok. "Extreme heat is only really necessary for a handful of restaurant-style dishes that feature wok hei (smoky) flavor, and even then, there are some workarounds offered in my book." For the vast majority of recipes, a flat-bottomed wok and a regular home burner—whether gas, electric, or induction—is all you need."

Since cooking stir-fries in a wok is a fast process, you need to have all your ingredients measured out and prepared ahead of time. "The work you do before you begin cooking—prepping ingredients, mixing your sauce, marinating meats—is by far the most important step in a successful stir-fry," López-Alt says. Lastly, keep an eye on your stir-fry. If you see that your meat or vegetables are steaming and stewing instead of sizzling and frying, he recommends cooking in smaller batches the next time. Properly preheating your wok before adding food to it is also key.

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