A common lament among lovers of stir-fries is that it’s often impossible to generate the high heat needed to make them properly at home. Those who are lucky enough to have gas stoves are a bit better off, but most home kitchen burners still aren’t equivalent to the nuclear-powered jets at your favorite Chinese restaurant. You may get decent results with standard methods and tools, but don’t you want better than that? If so, use your wok on your grill and you’ll never look back—or set off your smoke detector while using your wok inside again!
The reason this works is simple: your grill gets really, really hot, and super high heat is essential to wok cooking. Using a wok on a grill not only allows you to cook food quickly so it retains the proper texture, but adds a charred, smoky flavor. This smoky dimension is a hallmark of well-cooked wok dishes and is known as “wok hei,” or “breath of the wok.” It takes a certain amount of skill and practice to achieve, but when you cook over live coals that generate their own smoke, you can kind of cheat a little. Here are some important pointers before you try it yourself.
Make Sure You’re Properly Equipped
You may need to acquire a few new pieces of gear, but if you plan on cooking in a wok with any frequency, it’s definitely worth it. First of all is the wok itself, which should be made entirely of steel or as close to it as possible, with no plastic handles or other parts that could ignite or melt. We learned this the hard way, although luckily, the wooden “helper handle” (the small side loop) on our original wok didn’t actually catch fire, just charred. We now have a 14-inch carbon steel wok with a steel helper handle (and, admittedly, a bit of wood on the end of the longer handle, which should be far enough away from the flames). The 14-inch size is pretty standard and should suit your needs.
The next major piece of equipment you need is a grill—and maybe also a special grate. We have a basic 22-inch Weber charcoal kettle grill, and we bought this hinged wok grate to use on it. It stabilizes the wok while allowing the bottom and sides to heat up, and was definitely a worthy investment. (It also works as a standard grill grate the rest of the time, so when you want to switch to burgers, they won’t fall through the center.) You can simply nestle a flat-bottomed wok directly on a pile of hot coals (even better if you plant a wok ring in them first) or use a wok over a chimney starter, but for maximum ease and safety, the hinged grate is perfect. Weber also makes these hinged grates for gas grills, if that’s what you have; the removable insert will hold the wok in place while letting it come into contact with the flames so it gets as hot as possible.
As far as utensils, the most important thing is that you have some that won’t melt, meaning absolutely no plastic. Metal tongs work well for tossing noodles, and long-handled spatulas are great for stir-frying everything else (the longer the handle, the farther your hand is from the intense heat). According to Chinese cooking expert Fuchsia Dunlop, who offers tons of other good wok tips, you should also have have a bamboo brush or whisk to wipe down the wok in between batches of food.
And finally, flexible, flame-proof gloves are not a bad idea, either. They make it easy to move the wok when you need to without having to wrangle a pot holder or towel, and also help protect your hands from any flare-ups that may occur, while still allowing you dexterity.
Season Your Wok
When you were a kid, there was probably nothing worse than being forced to wait to play with a new toy, and you may feel the same way as an adult. But taking the time to season your new wok is essential to clean off factory grease and grime, to extend the life of the wok itself, and to make your food better. Do not use a nonstick wok, however tempting; most of those coatings aren’t meant to withstand the kind of heat you’ll expose them to on a grill, and when they start to degrade, they can contaminate your food with toxic compounds. Seasoning your carbon steel wok will create a natural non-stick surface, and it will also help you get acquainted with the particular feel and performance of your wok. The more you use it, the better that natural non-stick coating will get, and the better you’ll be at cooking in it.
You can use a combination stove-top and oven-baked method to season your wok, do the seasoning entirely on a stove burner, or even follow the latter instructions outside on the grill instead, so you don’t have to deal with smoke indoors, and so you get that intense heat from the start. Once your wok is seasoned, be sure to care for it properly (never use dish soap or abrasive scrubbers, just hot water and soft sponges; allow it to dry completely before putting it away; give the interior a light coat of oil if you’ll be storing it for a while in between uses), and if it ever does start to show spots of rust, you can simply scrub them off and repeat the seasoning process.
Prep Everything Ahead of Time
Since a properly heated wok cooks food fast, it’s important to have all your ingredients prepped and laid out before you even begin. This means you need to read the recipe, wash, dry, mince, chop, and slice everything that requires it, and measure it all out into small bowls or onto plates (as many as necessary; ingredients that get added to the wok at the same time can be held in the same bowl, but otherwise it’s best to keep them separate). Mix up any sauces ahead of time too, and then arrange everything near your grill, in the order in which it’ll go into the wok to make it easier on yourself. A folding card table can be helpful if you don’t have a permanent raised surface near your cooking area, but we’ve made do balancing bowls and sheet pans on metal chair seats before. Don’t forget about setting aside extra bowls and a strainer or slotted spoon if the recipe calls for removing any ingredients from the wok partway through.
Any meats or perishable vegetables should be removed from the fridge at least 10-15 minutes before you’re ready to cook too, since cold food hitting a hot wok won’t turn out properly. If you’ve washed any vegetables, take the time to dry them so they don’t end up steaming in the wok instead of searing. All of this applies to wok cooking in general, and the only thing that’s different when using a wok on the grill is the wait time for the coals to heat. You’ll want to prepare your grill as you normally would and let the coals ash over, but rather than spread them out, leave them piled in the center; when they’re covered in white ash and still glowing red within, you can set down your wok and let it soak up the heat up for 10 minutes or so, then start cooking.
Wok This Way
Apologies, but here are a few more general principles of wok cooking that apply no matter how you’re heating it:
1. Always use an oil with a high smoke point—meaning something that can be heated to very high temperatures before it starts smoking—and a neutral flavor. Peanut oil, canola oil, and grapeseed oil all fit the bill.
2. Don’t try to cram too much food in there. Increasing the amount of ingredients will crowd the wok and lower the heat, thus making it pointless to go to the trouble of firing up the grill in the first place. If we want to double a recipe, we prepare two full, separate sets of ingredients, lay them all out (which can be a bit of a pain), and cook one full batch at a time before starting the next one.
3. Keep the food moving in the wok as well. It will only take a couple minutes—at most—to cook most proteins and vegetables, and it’s easy to scorch them.
Beware of Flare-Ups
When you’re dealing with oil and heat this high, there is always a chance of shooting flames, so make sure your grill is far enough away from roof overhangs, awnings, flammable furniture, pets, children, and other people (and really, anything else you might worry about getting burned), and pay attention to what you’re doing (i.e. don’t carelessly toss in the oil, and don’t use more than you need). If a flare-up does happen, the flames will usually die down fairly quickly, but if not, put the grill lid back on to smother them. Consider keeping an extinguisher rated for grease fires close by too, just in case. And definitely consider those flame-proof gloves…
Now, Get Cooking
For tons of expert information on wok cooking, including recipes, check out Grace Young’s classic book “The Breath of a Wok”, and her “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” too. Woks are good for deep-frying, braising, and steaming as well as stir-frying, but it’s the latter cooking method that really benefits from being performed over the grill, so feel free to follow any stir-fry recipe as written—just over a pile of glowing coals instead of on an under-powered stove burner. Since the heat will be so high, though, err on the side of caution and trust your eyes and your nose to know if things are done cooking before the recipe-allotted time is up. If you’re not making much in the wok itself and it seems kind of wasteful to heat a bunch of charcoal for what amounts to less than 10 minutes of cooking time, you can always utilize the energy left in the hot coals by throwing some chicken and vegetables on the grill grate afterward, and save them for dinner the next day.
The chef at New York City’s Old Monk shared this recipe with us; it’s sticky, sweet, and crunchy just like your favorite orange chicken, with a spicier kick. Be prepared to cook quickly so you don’t burn your garlic, ginger, and other aromatics. (And be sure to make your steamed rice ahead of time so it’s ready when the stir-fry is done.) Get Old Monk’s Honey Chili Chicken recipe.
Chewy, wok-charred noodles are amazing, and in this version of the Thai classic pad see ew, they’re paired with seared slices of flank steak and Chinese broccoli. Make sure you prepare the noodles as directed in the recipe so you don’t end up with one giant clump. Get the recipe.
This recipe was specifically written for the grill, and includes a video of the process so you can see how easy it is. For any fried rice recipe, day-old grains are always best, but if you don’t have any leftovers on hand, spread freshly cooked rice out in a thin layer on a baking sheet so it cools completely and dries out a little before stir-frying it. Get the recipe.
Cooking these addictive beans in batches lets you get them all properly blistered, and the wrinkled surfaces catch all the delicious sauce. Unlike many stir-fried dishes, which are often best eaten immediately, these get even better after sitting for a few hours, so you can make them first and set ’em aside while you cook another dish to go along with. Get the recipe.
Here’s an intriguing method for making crispy tofu without deep-frying it: marinate it in a zip-top bag, drain it, toss it (in the same bag) with cornstarch, and then cook it in just a small amount of oil. This recipe is actually not written for a wok, but is easily adapted to one, and if you cook it over coals, you should get beautifully intensified colors, textures, and flavors. Instead of roasting the broccoli, stir-fry it for a minute or two, and then the tofu, just until it takes on the right amount of char. Before marinating the tofu, you may want to press it first. Get the recipe.
Header image by Jen Wheeler.