THIS IS THE time of year when getting dinner on the table with a minimum of heat output becomes a priority. Enter the wok.
When you cook with a wok, the hardest work will have been accomplished beforehand: chopping and arranging ingredients. The actual cooking time is minimal--two or three minutes in contact with the heat.
The wok is versatile: you can stir-fry, deep-fry, even braise in it. Its basic shape has not changed over the centuries. Invented with conservation in mind, the rounded bottom and sides of the wok allow heat from a relatively small source to travel up and out, heating every inch to sizzling hot. Meantime, a relatively small amount of oil will pool in the bottom, providing lubrication for lots of ingredients as they are tossed around.
The traditional wok has a perfectly rounded bottom. It fits down into a round opening in the stovetop, a gas jet heating it from below. Kitchens in most Asian restaurants have a row of these round openings in lieu of the conventional burners used in other cuisines.
In the kitchen of the Connecticut Avenue Thai Room, for instance, three enormous blackened woks sit lined up in their openings. Each has two short handles. Between assignments during the day they are sprayed with water from spigots behind each wok, and the water is flipped out with the spatula as efficiently as if it were chicken with ginger root. The spatula, which has a rounded edge to fit the bottom of the wok, stays poised in each wok whether it's in use or not. When they are in use, the fire under each wok runs full blast.
But you've got an old four-burner electric, right? It doesn't matter much. Woks that see their way to the USA, though they are described as round, most often have slightly flattened bottoms so they they can sit on an American-type burner without tipping. The rings that come with most woks are meant to add stability and are useful mostly when you are deep-frying with a tippy wok. Whether you need to use a ring or not depends on how well your combination of wok and burner works. Some cooks feel the rings put too much distance between wok and heat source.
The most traditional material for woks--heavy-gauge rolled steel--is also the best. Heavy-gauge steel heats up fast and doesn't warp, even at extremely high temperatures. It does rust, however, and must be seasoned before it's used. Season as you would a cast iron skillet, by heating oil slowly in the utensil, wiping it out with paper towels, then repeating the process (or follow manufacturer's directions.) Eventually the wok will turn a comforting shade of black and you will have a seasoned wok.
Advice varies on how to clean your seasoned wok. Some experts recommend broom-like Chinese wok cleaners, while others say these little brooms remove the seasoning. Some wash their woks with soap and some don't. The best middle ground seems to be swishing the wok out with warm water, using a plastic scrubber on any sticky places. The wok then should be dried thoroughly, preferably over low heat.
Americans, always suspicious of simplicity, keep trying to complicate wok cooking. Thus there are electric woks on the market, making one of the simplest cooking techniques (turn the heat up as high as it will go and cook fast) into something mysterious that requires the aid of a plug-in appliance. Also for sale are woks with non-stick perfluorocarbon resin coatings. Though it is true that these utensils prevent sticking, they are not suitable for use over very high heat. Many cooks also feel that they give a less satisfactory texture to the surface of foods than woks without such coatings.
Among conventional steel woks, the choices are in size, handles and accompaniments. The 14-inch size (measured at the top diameter) works best in the home kitchen and is the most widely available. Handles come in metal or wood, in twos or singly. The advantage of wood is that it doesn't require the use of a hot pad; the question of two handles or one is strictly personal preference.
Accompaniments can include the ring, a top (usually in aluminum and useful if you want to use the wok for steaming), a wok spatula, a wire strainer, a bamboo steamer (sometimes with bamboo top) or metal steaming rack, and a tempura rack that sits over the wok for draining deep-fried foods. It pays to shop around: Prices can range from $40 for a 14-inch steel wok to under $20 for a steel wok, top, strainer, spatula, ring and metal steaming rack.