Hei, wok’s up?

Metals. Materials. Polymers. And where wok hei comes from.

Cooking with a wok gives wok hei ("breath of a wok")

1-Minute NomNom

Woks are unique cookware because they are non-stick and can withstand temperatures over 800oC/1472oF. At these temperatures, aluminum pots and pans would melt (aluminum melts at 660oC) and non-stick coatings like Teflon would break down and even give off toxic vapors (at temperatures higher than 340oC/645oF).

wok hei - Delicious beef, capsicum, and bean stirfry cooking in wok

When food is cooked in a wok over very high temperatures (e.g. propane burners can have temperatures close to 2000oC/3632oF), the food has wok hei. Wok hei is a Cantonese phrase loosely translated as “breath of the wok” but is really just that unique fragrance of food produced only at extremely high heat.

What makes the wok so special? Firstly, it is typically made from carbon steel or cast iron. These alloys have high melting points (cast iron for example melts at over 1100oC). Secondly, the inside of the wok has a non-stick layer of polymers formed by the fats that have broken down and bonded to the surface. The polymers spread into the micro-cavities of the surface, creating a smooth surface. In addition, because cast iron and carbon steel are thin and light alloys, the wok is easy to wield (see below).

If our wok or cast iron cookware comes without that smooth surface of polymers, we can treat it ourselves at home by coating the cookware with a bit of oil and heating it to 150oC/300oF. When we use it subsequently to cook food, fats will continue to be deposited onto the surface. The video below describes how this is done.

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photos: in order – istockphoto/Chinese_elements; depositphotos/sdenness

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