For home use, Phan recommends a 14- or 16-inch flat-bottomed wok made of carbon steel because it heats quickly. While it is prone to hot spots, this shouldn’t be a problem with stir-fried dishes, since you move the ingredients around a lot anyway. It’s also essential to get the wok smoking-hot before adding the ingredients for a stir-fry. The high heat and the wok’s concentrated center will sear the ingredients quickly and give food an intense aroma known as breath of a wok, or wok hay.
Work in small batches, being careful not to overload the wok. Phan warns against treating a wok like “a salad bowl with a flame underneath.” He adds: “You see people throwing everything in and just tossing—tossing isn’t going to do the job.”
For the correct “layering effect,” start by cooking the protein, whether it’s fish, meat, poultry, or tofu. Meat should be sliced thinly or cut in small, uniform cubes; no more than 1/2 pound should be cooked at one time. After the meat, seafood, or tofu is cooked, remove it from the wok and set it aside.
If you’re using bok choy or mushrooms, both of which are used in Phan’s Plantation Shrimp, you can simply add them to the wok after you’ve removed the protein. Phan recommends parboiling firmer vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots in salted water before adding them to the wok.
When you buy a new wok, you’ll need to season it to remove any chemicals applied by the manufacturer and to keep food from sticking. Here’s how:
1. Wash the wok with soap and water and dry it thoroughly.
2. Heat the wok at a high temperature, getting it as hot as you can. There will be a lot of smoke, so make sure there is proper ventilation, or even better, do it outside on a grill. (And if you are friendly with your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, ask them if they can season it for you.)
3. Pour a little canola oil in the wok, heat, and then throw in scraps of meat and vegetables until they brown. Repeat this step three or four times, until the wok develops a sheen.
4. Once seasoned, simply wash with warm water and a little soap after each time you use it, and then dry thoroughly before storing it.