Here’s a hot take: There’s no cooking technique that demonstrates the versatility of a wok better than indoor smoking. While stir-frying, braising, or steaming might be more obvious uses for a wok, it’s entirely possible to build an effective smoking setup to impart subtle flavor and aroma to foods.
Smoking has long been used as a way to preserve foods. In China, to survive the harsh winter seasons, Northerners would cure meat and hang it in the kitchen, while the residual smoke from wood-burning stoves would gently, passively cook and preserve the food. But by the Qing Dynasty (late 1700s), we have evidence that smoking was used as a method to flavor food: In Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (1792), one of the most comprehensive works of food literature of the period, recipes for rapidly-smoked dishes like smoked braised pork and tea-smoked eggs appear.
The key feature of these quick-smoking recipes is the length of time and temperature. Unlike traditional hot smoking, this technique is all about imparting smoke flavor in a short amount of time—no real “cooking” is involved. For example, for a hot-smoked dish like tea-smoked duck, the duck is cooked as it smokes, and requires a grill or dedicated smoker that can sustain long periods of high temperature to cook the meat properly. In contrast, wok-smoking generally refers to “cold smoking”—where temperatures remain relatively cool (68 to 86 °F). Typically, cold-smoked foods made in a wok use smoke more as a flavoring, and ingredients are cooked either before or after the smoking process.
What Is Unique About Smoking in a Wok?
There are many potential setups to cold-smoke foods. In restaurants, it’s common to set food on a perforated hotel pan, then set that pan in a much deeper hotel pan; you light wood chips or other smoking materials at the bottom, wrap everything tightly (with slight ventilation), and let it all smoke. If you’ve got a thing for gadgets, the Smoking Gun is another low-footprint option that allows you to cold-smoke pretty much anything.
But as elegant or utilitarian as those methods may be, the wok is uniquely suited to cold smoking, due to its shape and material construction. And you can produce equally delicious results without shelling out money for extra equipment or fancy tools. Here’s why:
- The convex shape: At the bottom, there is a relatively small surface area in direct contact with the heat source, which gives you a controlled, concentrated source of smoke. The sloping sides also give expanded area to fit larger items that you otherwise couldn’t fit in a standard pot.
- The thin metal construction: A wok can heat materials to their smoking point quickly and easily. Woks are very responsive to heat and sensitive to changes in heat output, so it’s relatively easy to control the amount of smoke produced.
What Are The Limitations of Smoking In a Wok?
Of course, smoking in a wok is not some magical cure all for your smoking needs. Again, it’s virtually impossible to hot smoke in a wok in the traditional sense. Hot smoking requires maintaining consistent smoke temperatures between 110-175°F for up to several hours, often in multiple stages. Because the wok seemingly loses heat as fast as it gains heat, it would be difficult to reach and sustain these temperatures without some serious ingenuity.
Second, smoking in a wok is not primarily a cooking method; it’s better to think of it as a flavoring technique. Wok-smoked items often must be cooked before or after smoking: Tea-smoked eggs are boiled before smoking, while tea-smoked chicken wings are cooked afterwards.
How To Set Up A Smoker In Your Wok
There are a few ways to set up a wok for smoking, and they’re all relatively straightforward and require minimal extra equipment.
- Circular Steaming Rack and a Lid
For this setup, all you need is a cheap circular wire rack or steaming rack and a well-fitting, domed lid. Place the smoking material in the bottom, followed by the rack (be sure to allow roughly 3 inches of space between the bottom of the wok and rack). Then put the food on top, or—if it's particularly delicate—on a plate, bowl, or bed of aromatics resting on top of the rack. To minimize mess and protect the wok’s surface, you can use a layer of aluminum foil and a makeshift foil ring to cradle the smoking material. Put the lid on top, and heat the smoking material until it produces the desired level of smoke.
- Rectangular Wire Rack and Aluminum Foil
If you don’t want to invest in a big, domed lid, then here’s another option. Cover your wok in a piece of heavy-duty foil that hangs over the edges by at least 5-6 inches on the sides. The foil should be pressed into the base of the wok and be wide enough on all sides to come up over the edges of a metal rack set on top of it. Place your smoking ingredients in the base of the wok. Set the burner to medium-high and let the wok heat up until the ingredients inside start releasing smoke, about 5 minutes. From here, working quickly so that your house doesn't fill with smoke, place a second large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the top of the food. Lift the edges of the bottom sheet up and crimp the two pieces of foil together tightly so that the entire rack is enclosed in a foil tent. You may want to use kitchen towels or oven mitts while doing this, as the foil can get pretty hot.
- Bamboo Steamer and Aluminum Foil
If you’ve got a bamboo steamer, this smoking setup can be successful—especially for smaller items like eggs. Line the bottom of the wok with foil and a foil ring and place the smoking material inside. To minimize risk of burning, it’s important to soak the bamboo steamer for at least 30 minutes before smoking. Heat the smoking material over medium heat until you get the desired smoke level, then place the steamer on top. Admittedly, this smoking method isn’t for everyone: Bamboo can char and burn if you’re not careful, and it can take on a smoked flavor that it can then pass on to other foods that are steamed in it later. But if you take some extra precautions, it’s a perfectly viable way to trap smoke in a wok.
Materials for Creating Smoke
Now that we’ve covered the general setup, what can you actually use to smoke food? The options are vast, but here’s a rough list:
Believe it or not, sugar is one of the most traditional smoking ingredients in Chinese cooking. “Sugar gives a pretty clean flavor,” says Serious Eats contributor and chef Lucas Sin. “It’s just burnt sugar, so it’s that pure charred, burnt carbon aroma.” Due to caramelization (and burning), sugar also lends a slight amber color to the food, depending on how long you expose the food to smoke.
Next to sugar, tea is another popular smoking ingredient, in part due to the wide variety of flavors. Robust black teas like pu’er are ideal for smoking proteins, while green and white teas like jasmine or rose tea lend subtler, more vegetal aromas. Like sugar, teas also tend to color foods.
Wood is a staple smoking ingredient around the world, and it’s equally popular in Chinese cooking. Whether you choose hickory, applewood, or camphor, the options are endless. Wood smoke tends to lend an intense smoke flavor to foods, so use it with discretion. On the other hand, wood doesn’t burn as quickly as tea, so it takes slightly longer to build a full head of smoke.
If you’ve ever had roasted rice tea, then you should be familiar with the earthy aroma that roasted cereal grains bring to food. Smoking rice and grains imbues food with a similar aroma.
Spices like star anise, coriander seeds, and cinnamon are all fair game for adding aromatic depth to a smoked dish.
Citrus Peel, Ginger Peels, and Plant Leaves
The essential oils in peels and plant leaves offer even more layers of aroma to smoked foods. These don’t tend to burn and smoke as readily as super dry tea, sugar, or wood, but they can be a great addition to a blend of smoking ingredients.
Optional: Flour and Cornstarch
Historically, flour and cornstarch were used in combination with sugar on a bare wok as a means to keep the sugar from sticking to the surface. As the sugar heats up, it melts and binds to the starch instead of the surface of the wok. These days, aluminum foil is readily available, so this method isn’t necessary. But if you do want to ditch the foil, then this is a viable alternative.
Of course, mixing and matching smoking ingredients opens up all kinds of flavor possibilities. Here are some examples to get you started:
- Sugar, rice, green tea, star anise, and coriander seeds to smoke chicken wings before broiling
- Sugar, rice, black tea, orange rinds, and cinnamon to smoke a whole duck before roasting
- Cedar chips under salmon filets before searing or grilling
- Fresh ginger peels, sugar, rice, cloves, and Sichuan peppercorns underneath pork spare ribs before braising and glazing
General Wok-Smoking Tips
Once you’ve got your smoking setup up and running, how do you successfully smoke your food? Here are some key concepts to keep in mind.
Make A Good Seal (But Not Airtight)
Smoking is about trapping smoke in a sealed vessel so that it flavors the food, so it’s important to make a good seal—either with a properly fitting lid, or with well-crimped foil. On the other hand, there should be some degree of venting as well—this gives you greater control over the heat and smoke levels, and allows smoke to move across the food. When using a lid or bamboo steamer, this venting happens naturally, as smoke escapes little by little over time; for foil setups, it’s wise to poke a small hole or leave a small gap in the seal.
Leave Space For Circulation
Try to leave as much headspace as possible for the smoke to circulate. Doing so ensures that the smoke travels across all parts of the food and doesn’t concentrate in one area. That also means you shouldn’t crowd the food being smoked.
Control Your Heat and Timing
Modulating time and temperature are critical to achieving the desired smoke flavor. In general, 10 minutes over medium heat is sufficient for smoking most foods. After 10 minutes, Kenji has often recommended shutting off the heat and letting the food sit for another 20 minutes, during which time the smoke dissipates.
As smoke begins to form, it starts white; continued heating turns that smoke yellow. That yellow smoke is more intensely flavored and, if it's exposed to food for too long, it can make things taste bitter. High heat, prolonged exposure to smoke, and generating too much yellow smoke can all lead to bitter-tasting food. So it’s important to monitor heat output, but also to vent the smoker—by lifting the lid, or opening the foil—to control the amount of smoke circulating and the amount of time the food is left exposed to the smoke.
Though the risk is minimal given the contained nature of smoking in a wok, there's still a small chance of fire. At minimum, keep a fire extinguisher on hand, open some windows, and grab a box fan. There will be smoke in your kitchen—there’s no way around it—so proper ventilation is key.
July 01, 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.