Article contributed by Nicole Herman, of HIC
Not once in the time that I’ve had the privilege of knowing renowned Asian Chef Helen Chen, have I engaged in conversation with her and walked away without wishing I’d captured her lesson on audio tape. The consummate educator, she’s candid, personable, speaking in a delightfully up-tempo, animated voice. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Helen a bit about her heritage, which is covered in the first part of this post, and discussing the pinnacle of her kitchen from childhood to present day — the quintessential wok. We address the question often asked, “Which is best? A carbon steel wok or a non-stick wok?”
Nicole Herman: Helen, your mother Joyce Chen was a well-known Asian chef, so you must have been exposed to a lot of great food and cooking equipment while you were growing up. Is that true?
Helen: Absolutely. In terms of food, when I wrote my first cookbook I made a list of all the dishes I remember my mother cooking at home. I came up with 100 dishes! In terms of being exposed to food, I was. My mother was a fabulous cook, mostly Chinese food. I can’t remember all 100 dishes now; many were specialties from Shanghai where she grew up, and Chinese comfort food, festival foods enjoyed during the dragon boat fest or Chinese New Year. Many times a year we had celebratory food.
Growing up we never had a round-bottom wok, mother didn’t believe in them because she felt it didn’t fit properly on the American stove even with the ring which is used to support the wok when on a regular range, helping direct heat to the bottom of the wok and provide stability. Mother used a heavy duty pressure cooker pot. This way there were no hot spots; high sides enable stirring without food falling out. Thinking about the traditional Chinese kitchen, it tends to be a spartan place. Mother used the pressure cooker pot and wooden spoons. She wanted a round edge to get into the pan corners and she liked cooking to be quiet. Good knives, both Chinese style and western style, and chopsticks were also important. She used bamboo chopsticks in cooking, for stirring and picking up pieces. Gadgets were at a minimum as not many were on the market. This was in the 50’s – the pressure cooker was aluminum, as I recall. We were living in Cambridge at this time, where I grew up.
N: What cookware and gadgets were essentials for your mom, and are they the same products that are essentials for you?
Helen: Mom was the first person to develop a flat-bottom wok, which is my number one go-to tool still today. In China, they had a stove with a hole and the round-bottom wok sat in the hole, with the base close to the heat source. Since we had flat stoves in the US, mother developed a wok for this type of stove. Today it’s called a stir fry pan. In the early days no one understood it because they hadn’t seen one. They thought woks had a round-bottom. It took years to educate people on the benefits of a flat-bottom wok.
N: What are the benefits of a flat-bottom wok?
Helen: A Flat-bottom fits securely on a burner; it’s safer, and more stable. Mother added a skillet type handle instead of the two short wire handles that were common on the round-bottom wok; the latter was impractical as it meant you needed two hands to pick it up, and another person to help you get ingredients out.
Everyone now understands the importance of a flat-bottom wok. In China today, more people use propane and have stoves with flat burners in urban areas and most people there also now use a flat-bottom wok instead of the round-bottom style.
With the Helen’s Asian Kitchen line, we have taken the flat-bottom wok design and made it into a quality piece- added nonstick coating, made with a carbon steel of a heavier gauge, the handles are riveted and not just spot welded. We have good pricing and higher quality. It stems from the original design from my mom, but higher quality.
N: What piece of cookware or kitchen gadget has been the most helpful for you, or made a dish you make easier to create?
Helen: The flat-bottom 14” wok or the 12” stir fry pan.
N: Given today’s modern cookware and gadgets, do you find that creating great Asian cuisine is any easier for the home chef than it would have been, say, 50 years ago?
Helen: Yes. Better equipment has made the preparation easier. A good peeler that’s sharp and doesn’t cut into your hand helps, a good garlic press helps, I find there’s more comfort in today’s tools. Better materials and better designs are safer, easier, and easier to clean. Some of the mandolines out of Japan are very useful for julienne ingredients.
N: Many home chefs enjoy stir fry, but may be intimidated by the idea of using a wok at home. Do you have words of advice to ease the mind of a timid first time wok user or potential purchaser?
Helen: In general, everyone should use a flat-bottom wok or stir fry pan. Don’t bother with a round-bottom unless you have a high end stove with a wok ring built in. For most people, a flat-bottom is best. Look for one with a nice weight. Cast iron conducts heat well, but it’s heavy and hard to move and pick up. Also cast iron isn’t ideal for stir frying because it isn’t responsive to heat changes; it holds heat a long time.
N: What’s the difference between an uncoated carbon steel wok and a non-stick wok?
Helen: The uncoated is carbon steel without any coating except perhaps oil or a clear lacquer to help the pan from getting rusty during the time it would sit on a store shelf.
Carbon steel must be seasoned. This sounds like it might make food taste better but it doesn’t, it just keeps the pan from rusting. Takes a good 6 months of almost daily use for a wok to get really seasoned. If you like to season, get carbon steel. If you don’t plan to use your wok more than 3x a week, the oil you use to season it will eventually get tacky, attract dust, and it may rust. When people see rust, they may think they need a new one. Nope! All you need to do is clean the rust off and re-season. In a Chinese kitchen the wok is used daily, and often sits on the burner just waiting for the next meal to be made in it, so seasoning is not a problem. If you live near the ocean a carbon steel wok may rust more easily due to the high moisture content in the air.
A non-stick wok comes in many varieties. High end, inexpensive, Teflon or not, plus there is non-stick for different purposes. A skillet has a different nonstick coating than a cake pan or stir fry pan. In a stir fry pan, food is stirred, unlike a skillet where things might just be turned a few times. The nonstick coating must be strong. For stir frying we also tend to use a higher heat and the pan must be able to take a higher temperature. For the woks from Helen’s Asian Kitchen we use the Excalibur® process, developed by Whitford, known as reinforced nonstick and it can take higher temperatures.
N: What do you use at home?
Helen: The 14″ and 12″ non-stick woks from the Helen’s Asian Kitchen line, depending on the food volume that I’m preparing. When cooking for a dinner party, or using a high volume ingredient like noodles, I use the 14” but when cooking for myself I use the 12.” It’s about personal preference. There’s nothing wrong with carbon steel as long as your know it needs extra care.
N: Helen, for those that choose a carbon steel wok, how would you suggest they season the wok?
Helen: Wash in warm soapy water and scrub to remove any coating or food safe lacquer. Then use vegetable oil, corn oil, but not butter or olive oil. Heat the pan and add a few tablespoons of oil. Heat it until the oil smokes. Then remove from heat, wipe off excess oil and allow to cool. Repeat.
N: What type of wok is best for a home chef that’s just exploring using a wok for the first time? And what type is best for an experienced chef, looking to invest in a high quality wok?
Helen: I would recommend a high quality non-stick pan coated with a premium non-stick coating like Excalibur. It’s not that expensive, but performs well. If someone prefers to season a pan, then go with carbon steel.
N: How long should a cook expect to keep a well-cared-for wok?
Helen: The pan I started with 7 years ago I still use today. For a well-cared for wok, it should last many years. Don’t put it in the dishwasher and don’t use metal tools that would scratch it.
N: Is there any special recipe that you like to cook in a wok that might surprise?
Helen: I make Italian bolognese sauce in my wok but instead of beef I use turkey. I make a large batch in the 14” wok. I sauté the meat, and brown onions in it. I use the 12” for risotto and also use it for French sautéing. For dessert I make Almond Brittle it the 12” wok. I hang it on my pot rack and it’s one of the top 2 pieces of cookware I use in my kitchen at home.
N: What’s something that you remember watching your mom make in a wok? And do you make that same dish today?
Helen: Anything stir fry.
To learn more about Helen Chen’s cookbooks and recipes, visit http://www.helensasiankitchen.com/
See the Helen’s Asian Kitchen kitchenware line at: http://www.hickitchen.com/helen-chens-asian-kitchen.aspx
Where to buy? http://www.hickitchen.com/where-to-buy.aspx
Interested in meeting Helen? See Helen Chen’s Cooking class schedule
*Not affiliated with Joyce Chen Products
Biography of Helen Chen
Helen Chen is a widely acknowledged expert in Chinese cooking. Besides her role as an educator and cookbook author, she also is a product and business consultant to the housewares industry. In 2007 she created and developed a new line of Asian kitchenware under the brand name, “Helen’s Asian Kitchen,” expressly for Harold Import Company in New Jersey.
Having been born in China, and raised and educated in the United States, Helen brings the best of both worlds to her approach to the art of Chinese cuisine. She understands the needs of the American cook as only a native can, yet she is intimately knowledgeable with the culinary practices and philosophy of China.
Helen is the author of Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking (Hearst Books,1994), Peking Cuisine (Orion Books,1997), Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Chinese Stir-Fries (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) and Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Asian Noodles (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). For more information, visit http://www.helensasiankitchen.com/