Long before stir-frying came into fashion, braising was one of the go-to methods for those who owned a wok. Think of all the classic Chinese dishes we owe to the braise: mapo tofu, red-cooked pork, or Sichuan shui zhu niu rou (water-boiled beef). Unlike the fast, dynamic nature of stir frying, braising is slow work; it’s traditionally used to produce humble food—a way to stretch cheap cuts of meat or other inexpensive ingredients, to feed more people with less. It’s also a simple, low-effort technique ideal for those who like to play it a little more safe in the kitchen; there aren’t as many moving parts as, say, a stir-fry.
Braising in China, it's worth noting, isn't exclusively performed in a wok. Clay pots and other heavy bottomed vessels are other popular options, especially for longer braises and ones that don't require searing ingredients beforehand.
What Is Unique About Braising in a Wok?
What makes braising in a wok different from braising in a Dutch oven or a clay pot? While a traditional braise often involves hours of low, slow heat, braising in a wok differs in a few key ways:
- It’s faster than most Western braising techniques, by design.
Cooking times for wok braises are generally shorter than what you’d expect for a low, slow, conventional Western braise. Why? Think of cooking something like a braised chuck roast in a Dutch oven: You brown your meat, you build your aromatic base, you add liquid, you cover the pot, and you shove it in a low-temperature oven for hours until the meat is fork-tender.
Woks aren’t exactly built for that kind of cooking. For one, unlike a thick-walled Dutch oven, a wok has minimal heat retention due to the relatively thin metal use in its construction. While you could stick a wok in a low-temperature oven, it’s a little awkward. And if you’re braising on the stove, in order to cook food evenly, it’s necessary to maintain a higher baseline level of heat than you would for a Dutch oven or clay pot.
The English word "braise" is often used to describe this style of wok cooking, but it's a bit of a misnomer, since the vast majority of wok-braised dishes are not cooked long enough for connective tissues in meat to break down as they would in a Western-style braise or stew (though there are a few examples of this in Chinese cuisine). The word "simmer" might be a more appropriate term. If you are looking to do a more traditional long braise, then it’s probably wiser to choose a clay pot or Dutch oven.
- A wok allows you to truly sear your ingredients prior to braising.
High heat is perhaps the biggest advantage to braising in a wok. “When you're making red-cooked pork, the pork belly has to be seared,” says cookbook author and wok-expert Grace Young. “The sear that you can get with a carbon steel or cast iron wok is a thousand percent better than what you can get with a Dutch oven. And of course, you can’t ever sear in a clay pot. That's impossible.”
Serious Eats contributor and chef Lucas Sin agrees. “It’s not just the meat. With a wok, you can really sear the aromatics before adding the liquid,” Sin says. The high heat of the wok lends a subtle smokiness to the finished braise as the aromatics almost char.
- Many wok-braised dishes are cooked uncovered, so there is noticeable liquid reduction.
Wok simmering usually occurs with the cover off, so that by the time the meat or vegetables have finished cooking through, the sauce has reduced to an intense, complex glaze that coats the food. This reduction is a defining feature of dishes like red-cooked pork. The wide surface area of a wok also means that sauces reduce much faster than in a Dutch oven or other cookware.
The Anatomy of a Wok Braise
- Pre-blanch or pre-boil ingredients.
Given the relatively shorter simmering time of a wok braise, it’s not uncommon to pre-cook some ingredients prior to braising. For instance, beef shanks might be pre-boiled to shorten the final cooking step. In addition to time savings, pre-cooking diminishes gray or white protein impurities released by the meat, keeping the finished sauce more "clean" and smooth. For simmered tofu dishes like mapo tofu, it’s also traditional to simmer the tofu or steep it in hot salted water or broth prior to braising, though for a different reason: this step firms up the texture of the tofu as the proteins contract and exude moisture, so that the tofu doesn’t break apart during the braising process.
- Build an aromatic base.
“Most of the braises I know start with some sort of stir-fry step,” says Sin. If you’re braising lamb, for instance, you wouldn’t just throw all the aromatics and lamb in a wok and simmer it. Instead, it’s far more common to cook ingredients like ginger, soy sauce, or fermented tofu over high heat, building a robust foundation of flavor—even, at times, cooking them to the point of caramelization.
- Add liquid.
Options for liquid include water, broth, soy sauce, or a mixture of various condiments. Keep in mind that ingredients like dark soy sauce will lend color to the braise, and that color may deepen over time as the food sits in the liquid. A good example of this is Cantonese lou mei (滷味), a class of dishes in which meats, bean curd, or other hearty vegetables are simmered and then cooled in an intense “master stock” comprised of dark soy sauce, rock sugar, and rice or Shaoxing wine.
Cooking time varies by recipe, but usually doesn’t exceed a couple of hours. For dishes like mapo tofu, the simmering time can be shorter than 5 minutes; for red cooked pork, it can take upwards of an hour and a half. Sometimes the braise is covered with a lid at first, but at some point it's usually uncovered in order to reduce the sauce to the proper consistency.
Special Equipment for Braising
Do you need any special equipment for braising in a wok? Not really. But here are a handful of helpful tools that could make your braising experience that much better:
Wok Spatula (Chuan)
Also known as a Chinese spatula, this shovel-like utensil is designed to follow the curvature of the wok. It’s thin enough to get under all ingredients, to scoop up and redistribute the food.
This is a large, wide ladle that's set at a slight angle from the handle. It’s a great tool to pick up a large amount of food, especially if there’s liquid involved.
Wire-Mesh or Metal Spider
Sometimes you need to remove food from a braise without removing liquid. A spider can be useful for handling medium-sized pieces of food, like chunks of pork or fish. Keep in mind that a traditional wire-mesh spider has jagged edges that could damage delicate ingredients like tofu or white fish; a smooth metal spider would be a better alternative.
If you’re trying to fish large batches of food out of liquid—say, after blanching pork belly—this tool might be the best option. It’s basically a huge, flared, perforated metal saucer attached to a sturdy metal handle. Since the saucer is a single piece of metal, there are no places where food can get snagged or trapped. It’s a step up from a smaller wire mesh or metal spider, both of which handle slightly smaller quantities of food at a single time.
A reliable lid comes in handy to trap steam or to control the rate of evaporation in a braise. There are many options, but as long as the lid forms a decent seal at the edges of contact, then you should be good to go.
July 02, 2010
This article was originally written by J. Kenji López-Alt. It has since been significantly updated and rewritten by Tim Chin, with additional guidance and input from Kenji and several other wok experts.