Deep-frying is a cornerstone of Chinese cuisine—especially restaurant cuisine. Walk into any Chinese restaurant kitchen, and you’re likely to find all kinds of fried items: fried bean curd, fried taro, fried eggplant, fried chicken; the list is exhaustive. Fried goods are a pillar of dim sum fare; some of the most famous Sichuan dishes like la zi ji (Chongqing chicken) are deep fried. Even staple breakfast items like youtiao are deep fried.
It should come as no surprise, then, that deep-frying in a wok is a common practice. And for those looking to deep-fry at home, the unique design of the wok makes it an ideal tool for the job.
What Makes Deep-Frying in a Wok Worth Your While?
Deep-frying at home can be a trying endeavor. The common complaint? It’s messy, oil is expensive, and it can get a little dangerous if you’re not careful. “To be honest, I don’t deep-fry at home,” says Serious Eats contributor and chef Lucas Sin, owner of Junzi Kitchen and Niceday Chinese. “And at the restaurant, we just have deep-fryers.”
But if you don't own a dedicated deep-fryer, a wok can be a great option, because it addresses some of the common complaints about frying. That’s mainly due to its shape and material construction.
The flared, concave shape of the wok makes frying easier and more economical compared to other cookware options. Here are several reasons why:
- There's less mess. If you've ever tried deep-frying in a Dutch oven, you know that your range gets splattered with little droplets of oil splashing out from the sizzling food inside the pot. A wok, on the other hand, flares out a good three inches or so on either side beyond the edge of the oil, catching more of those drips and keeping your counter relatively neat and clean.
- There’s more room in a wok. The average 14-inch wok has a good three inches extra diameter than your standard 7-quart Dutch oven. That extra surface-area real estate comes in handy when you’re trying to keep food moving as it fries. You'll often also need to flip foods while frying. The flared shape of a wok makes it easy to reach in with a spider, skimmer, tongs, or chopsticks, and gives you ample room to maneuver.
- You don’t need to use as much oil. According to Cook’s Illustrated, the sloped shape of the wok means you can use up to 30 percent less oil when deep-frying compared to a Dutch oven. Over time, that adds up to considerable savings on both the cost of the oil and the energy expenditure required to heat it (thanks to the lower volume of oil).
- There's less chance of a boil-over. Having a pot of hot oil boil over is among the worst kitchen disasters that could befall a cook. It ranks up there with getting your hand stuck in a blender. Why does it happen? Typically, boiling over occurs when you add too much moist or cold food to a pot of oil that contains too much oil. As the food rapidly releases bubbles of water vapor, those bubbles pile up on top of each other, and over the edge that roiling oil goes. (And if that oil reaches an open flame, well…pray. Or, better yet, read up on kitchen fire safety now so you know what to do if the worst happens.) Since a wok widens out at the top, there is much more volume for those bubbles to expand into; their surface area increases as they expand, weakening their structure, and they pop before they get a chance to push the hot oil up and over the sides of the wok.
- It's easier to keep the oil clean. The corners of a Dutch oven can harbor burnt bread crumbs, little bits of French fries, and other hard-to-reach, unwanted dregs. In a wok, there's no place to hide, making it easy to scoop out debris with a strainer as you fry. Food particles left in hot oil are the main reason why it breaks down and becomes unusable. Oil that's carefully cleaned should last for at least a dozen frying sessions, if not more.
The thin metal construction of a wok optimizes deep-frying for speed:
- Oil heats up faster in a wok. Because you can fry the same amount of food with less oil in a wok than in something like a Dutch oven, your heating time will go down. But the wok’s surface is also extremely conductive and heats up quickly, so the oil itself gains temperature faster in a wok, all else being equal.
- Oil cools down faster in a wok. Thin metal woks—regardless of metal type—do not hold heat as easily as heavy Dutch ovens. They're said to be more reactive to changes in heat output. This quality could be viewed as a good or bad trait, depending on your goals. For example, if you’re trying to transition from frying chicken at 350 degrees to blanching fries at 250 degrees, you’ll spend less time waiting for the oil to drop to that lower temperature in a wok. That said, if you’re trying to maintain a constant, steady temperature, a wok requires you to monitor the heat output more closely and adjust accordingly to minimize more extreme drops in temperature.
While these tools are by no means essential for deep-frying in a wok—and certainly not exclusive to deep-frying in general—you might see some of these tools in a Chinese kitchen. Here’s a quick guide:
Chinese Spider (zhàolí/笊籬)
Probably the most recognizable frying utensil in wok cooking, the Chinese spider is a woven, wire-mesh basket attached to a wooden handle. Its relatively wide area is ideal for larger, sturdier items like potatoes or dumplings. Due to its sharp edges and woven construction, it’s not great for more delicate or fragile fried foods that could snag on the sharp edges of the spider, or get caught in the mesh. For this reason, some cooks don’t love using the traditional Chinese spider: It can be a chore to clean it properly if it’s caked in fried batter or random debris.
Like the Chinese spider, the metal spider typically consists of a basket-like saucer attached to a metal handle. Instead of a wire-mesh weaving, the saucer features concentric circles of smooth metal. This tool has all of the benefits of a traditional Chinese spider, but it’s also well suited for handling delicate fried foods. Debris can’t get trapped as easily between the metal circles, so cleaning is much more straightforward.
Perforated Oil Skimmer
If you’re trying to fry large batches of food, this tool might be the best option. It’s basically a large, 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. In many cases, the skimmer also doubles as an oil strainer in professional kitchens: Cooks fry food, then dump the contents into the skimmer set over a large heatproof container.
Finally, let’s not sleep on the king of all-purpose utensils: Chopsticks. They're great for turning or flipping floating items like youtiao. They’re ideal for handling single, small-to-medium–sized foods, though they might not be the first choice for large-batch frying. Wooden chopsticks are also a quick way to roughly gauge oil temperature. If you dip a chopstick in hot oil (above 212℉), trace amounts of water trapped in the wood will evaporate, which makes tiny bubbles on the surface of the chopstick; the hotter the oil, the faster the bubbling.
Special Considerations When Frying in a Wok
Here are some additional tips for success when deep-frying in a wok.
Don’t walk away.
Due to the conductivity and responsiveness of a wok, oil temperature can rise surprisingly quickly. Always keep a thermometer nearby, and be careful to control the heat source.
Always keep a lid nearby.
On the off chance that you overheat your oil, a well-fitting lid can be a godsend. A lid prevents accidental contact with hot oil, and deprives the system of oxygen, mitigating the chances of a grease fire. In the frightening scenario of a boil-over, kill the heat immediately if you can, let the boiling subside, then carefully set a lid on your wok.
Don’t crowd the pan.
Remember that deep-frying in a wok requires less oil than deep-frying in a pot or Dutch oven. If you fry too much food at once, the temperature drop can be significant. So don’t crowd the wok: Fry in batches, and give yourself plenty of room to maneuver.
June 29, 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.