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The word “wok” comes from Cantonese and is a traditional cooking vessel with a round bottom. Woks can be found in kitchens all over Asia, and have been found in tombs that pre-date the Common Era. Woks are versatile and easy to use, but choosing the right one can be a challenge.
Woks can be made out of a variety of materials. The most popular are stainless steel (untreated and with a non-stick coating), cast iron, and carbon steel. The only choice for serious cooks is carbon steel.
Carbon steel is light, very good at conducting heat (high heat is a necessity for wok cooking), and when properly seasoned, is a durable and virtually non-stick surface. Stainless steel is not a great heat conductor, nor is it non-stick.
When stainless steel is coated with a non-stick interior, it is not terribly durable. Cast iron is heavy, and when a wok is full of ingredients it may be so heavy that it becomes unsafe.
Carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. Carbon makes up between 1 and 2% of the alloy. It is less brittle than cast iron (which contains a bit more carbon).
Carbon steel is heavy enough to retain heat, but because it is thinner, it heats up quickly. Carbon steel is relatively smooth and therefore it is easier to season than cast iron.
Once well seasoned, carbon steel pans are essentially non-stick.
Woks are extraordinarily versatile. They can be used to stir-fry, steam, poach, boil, braise, sear, stew, smoke, roast nuts, pan fry, and deep fry virtually any kind of food. Their real talent is to stir-fry food. Stir-frying is quickly searing food at a scorchingly high temperature. Once well seasoned, woks are virtually non-stick and are easy to care for (rinse with water, dry well, and rub with a bit of cooking oil).
Woks come in both the traditional round-bottom and flat-bottom shapes. Your choice has to do with your cooking surface. If you have an electric or induction range, you MUST choose a pan with a flat bottom. If not, your pan will never become hot enough to cook (let alone sear) your food.
If you have a gas range, a whole world of possibilities appears. If you are lucky enough (as I am) to have a range that comes with a wok ring, then round-bottom it is!
If not, you may want to consider a flat-bottom model as a wok ring that sits on top of your burner grates may not bring the wok close enough to the flame to properly heat it.
Traditional Chinese woks actually sit IN the flame of the stove – and Asian stoves tend to have larger burners than those in the West.
Depending on how your cook, and how many people you plan on cooking for, then size matters.
As a general rule, a 12” wok has the capacity to serve up to five people. A 14” wok can serve from 6 to 12 people, and a 16” wok will serve more than 12 people, usually up to 16 or 18 people.
One important consideration is your heat source. If you are purchasing a flat bottom wok, you need to have a burner large enough that will come into contact with the ENTIRE bottom surface of the wok, whichever size you choose. This may eliminate larger woks, as you will not be happy with the results that you get if your wok cannot get hot enough to do its job.
If you are purchasing a round bottom wok, the circumference of the ring of flame from your gas burner should cover at least half of the bottom and sides of the wok. It also helps if you have a high output burner with two rings of flame. Remember, heat is key here.
One other consideration (especially with larger woks) is whether or not the vessel has a helper handle. This is a loop handle opposite the “stick” handle. Although carbon steel woks are relatively light-weight, they become quite heavy when filled with food, and rather dangerous when filled with scalding hot food or oil!
You may be able to get away with not having a helper handle on a 12” wok, but not on a 14” or a larger one. And round-bottomed woks are not exactly stable or well balanced, and they cannot sit on a flat countertop. Enough said.
Since woks tend to have large cooking surfaces and are meant to cook at high temperatures, long-handled utensils are a good choice to avoid burns. The traditional utensils used in Chinese kitchens are the chahn, or spatula, and the hoak, or ladle. Special, long chopsticks meant for cooking may also be used to manoeuvre food in the pan, and a special straining tool called a spider may also be used to remove food from hot oil or simmering water.
Wok utensils are made in many materials, the most popular of which are bamboo and stainless steel. Some utensils (like ladles and spiders) may be stainless steel with bamboo or wooden handles. These are a great choice because the wooden or bamboo handles are not heated conductive and remain cool to the touch.
For cleaning your wok, a traditional bamboo whisk may be used,
Or the more modern (and my favorite cleaning tool for all of my carbon steel and cast iron cookware) chain-mail cleaning pad:
I prefer the chain mail to the bamboo whisk because it really cleans the pan without damaging the hard-won (not really that hard) seasoning that makes my wok completely non-stick. The stainless chain-mail scouring pad is also dishwasher safe.
Now that you’ve chosen a carbon steel wok, you will have to season it for the first time! There are three methods for seasoning a wok; stove top, oven, and salt. With any of these methods, you first have to clean the wok to get rid of the oily coating that manufacturers use to prevent the wok from rusting in shipping.
To clean your wok before seasoning, fill your sink with hot soapy water and give the wok (inside and out) a good scrubbing with a steel wool pad. Please note that unless you ever need to RE-SEASON your wok, this is the only time that you will ever use soap! Dry the pan well, with paper towels.
If the paper towel comes away with any black smudges, then you haven’t completely removed the protective coat deposited by the manufacturer. You will need to wash it again. Keep re-washing the wok until your paper towel comes away clean.
Once the wok is clean, put it over a medium flame on your stove to completely dry it out. It is now ready to be seasoned.
You can season your wok with Sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, or peanut oil. Lard may also be used.
Method 1: Stove top
Place your wok over high heat until you can feel the heat radiating from the wok. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil to the wok and swirl to coat the entire surface. Add chopped scallions and ginger to the wok. Turn the heat down to medium and continue stirring for about 20 minutes. If the vegetables get dry, add more oil. Empty the wok and let it cool. Wash with warm water. Place back on the stovetop to dry, and lightly re-oil the interior of the wok. It is now ready for its maiden voyage!
Method 2: Oven
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with foil. Coat your wok (inside and out) with oil. Place the lined baking sheet on the bottom rack of your oven and the wok on a rack set in the middle. Bake for 20 minutes. Let cool, wash with a clean sponge (DO NOT USE ANY SOAP) and dry on a medium heat on your stove top. You can now use your wok or you can repeat these steps up to six times.
If your wok has a plastic or wooden handle, make sure to remove it before placing the wok in the oven. If you cannot remove the handle, choose one of the other seasoning methods.
Method 3: Salt
Pour 1 cup of kosher salt into your wok. Place it on a medium high heat on the stovetop. Stir the salt around for about 20 minutes, making sure to push the salt all over the wok’s interior surface. Dump the salt out and let the wok cool. Wipe with oil. Your wok is now ready to use.
Cleaning your wok
After using your wok, let it cool to room temperature. Rinse the wok with warm water. If there are food particles stuck to the interior, use a bamboo whisk, chain-mail cleaner, or a plastic scrubber. Do not use any soap. Rinse the wok well and dry it over a medium heat on your stove. Give the inside a light coating with oil, and your wok is ready for its next use.
Helen Chen’s Asian Kitchen Flat Bottom Wok
This wok comes with a lid, a spatula, and a recipe book. And for those of you who don’t know, Helen Chen is an authority on Chinese cooking and has published many cookbooks on the subject.
This wok is made of 1.6mm carbon steel and measures a generous 14” diameter. The flat bottom makes it ideal for use on electric and gas stoves. The inside of the pan is slightly grooved, so food will adhere to the inside of the pan (in a good way), and brown evenly.
The main wooden handle is attractive, and the wok also features a “helper” handle, also made of wood. The domed lid is high enough to accommodate steaming.
Pros to this wok
include nice wooden handles as well as a helper handle. It is lightweight (which is both a pro and a con), making it easy to manoeuver, even when full of food. The accompanying accessories are also a nice touch.
Cons of this wok
Because of the flat bottom, it is not as deep as a round bottom wok of the same diameter. The lightweight makes for uneven heating and the possibility of scorching the food in the pan. As well, some users have reported rusting, but that could be a matter of improper seasoning or care.
Joyce Chen Pro Chef Flat Bottom Wok
This is also a 14” wok, but is a heavier gauge than the Helen Chen model. At 2.0mm, it is good at evenly distributing heat. This flat bottom wok is suitable for electric ranges as well as gas and induction. This model also boasts a helper handle, and phenolic plastic handle covers that stay cool during cooking.
Pros to this wok:
The weight of this wok promotes even heating with no hot spots. The ergonomically shaped phenolic handles are comfortable to hold and are easily removed for seasoning and cleaning.
Once seasoned, the wok cleans easily. As well, the bottom is very flat which makes it stable on the stovetop, which is a good quality for anything that holds lots of really hot food. The long handle has a loop at the end, making it easy to hang this pan on a wall hook or overhead pot rack.
Cons to this wok:
It is a bit heavy, making it more difficult to lift when full of food. The heat-resistant handles, while conveniently easy to remove, are rather cheap and could be made from higher quality materials. As well, some users have reported that the factory coating was difficult to remove.
M.V.Trading 14 Inch Carbon Steel Wok with Helper Handle
M.V.Trading 14 Inch Carbon Steel Wok with Helper Handle
This 14 gauge (1.8mm thick), 14” wok is simplicity itself. It is available in several sizes as well as a round-bottom version for those who are lucky enough to have a wok ring. The wok also has a wooden handle as well as a spool helper handle. Although the main handle is easily removed, the helper handle is not, so I do not recommend oven seasoning.
Pros to this wok:
The wok is lightweight and easy to manoeuver. It is easy to clean and to a season. The round-bottom option is desirable for gas cooking with a wok ring, and also increases the capacity of the wok.
Cons to this wok:
It is on the shallow side, so the capacity is not as great as it could be for the diameter. I would recommend buying one size larger than you think you need in order to have the capacity that you expect (unless, of course, you choose the round-bottom option). Some users have complained that removing the industrial coating is difficult.
Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok
This 15 gauge (1.8mm thick), 14” carbon steel wok is my personal favorite. Pow woks are always hand hammered, usually have only a single hollow handle, and are a bit more difficult to manoeuver because of the single handle. This wok is hand hammered, takes well to seasoning, and is slightly textured so that food adheres to the interior of the pan for great searing and browning. This pan has a steel loop helper handle as well as an easily removable wooden handle.
Pros to this wok:
This is the wok that Chinese cooks use. It seasons beautifully, promotes even heat distribution, and sears masterfully, due to the texture that results from the hand hammering process. The helper handle is sturdy, but please remember to use a pot holder when using it, as the bare metal will be as hot as the wok’s cooking surface.
Cons to this wok:
This is a heavy cooking utensil, so make sure to use the helper handle (and a good pot holder) when moving it off the heat.
When looking for a carbon steel wok, choices abound. The most important elements of a good wok are even heat distribution, safety (in the form of a helper handle), the proper size for your needs, and proper seasoning and care.
Only half of the wok equation is the pan. The other half is seasoning and maintenance. Follow the instructions for seasoning to the letter. And don’t rush it. Seasoning a wok (or any other carbon steel cookware) is labor intensive, but if done properly, it need never be done a second time. And remember to never use soap or detergents in a seasoned pan.
The traditional hand hammered Pow Wok is the clear winner in my mind (and it is the wok that I use several times a week for everything from stir-fries to omelets)! It has the weight to conduct heat evenly, the surface to maintain a perfect seasoning, and the helper handle that I find essential for safe cooking at very high heat.