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Almost every culture has its special foods that need to be fried or sauteed, and most cultures have evolved specially shaped cookware in which to make them. The wok evolved in China thousands of years ago. The skillet is a more recent invention in the West, but is equally suited to its task. What are the differences between the wok and the skillet, and why would you choose one over the other
The word “wok” comes from Cantonese and is a traditional cooking vessel with a round bottom. Woks are used in many Asian countries and have been found in tombs that pre-date the Common Era. Woks are extremely versatile and have been adapted for Western kitchens by flattening the bottom. As well, woks can be made out of a variety of materials, the best of which is carbon steel.
Carbon steel woks require seasoning before their first use, but the seasoning process provides a non-stick surface. Wok cooking is traditionally done at high temperatures, making the non-stick surface of seasoned carbon steel far superior to a chemically applied non-stick surface (such as Teflon).
Why Would You Want to Use a Wok?
Woks 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. The stir-frying technique is to quickly sear food at a scorchingly high temperature.
Like any good piece of cookware, woks require a bit of care. Never wash with soap, only with a traditional bamboo whisk or a chain-mail cleaner, designed specifically for the purpose.
Skillets are similar to saute pans, but rather than straight sides, the sides are slightly flared. This makes for easier access to the food being cooked within, so stir fried dishes are easier to make because it is necessary to keep the food moving in the pan. It also makes unmolding a cornbread or a frittata much easier.
The best skillets are made from cast iron (think about your grandmother’s favorite pan). Well seasoned, and handed down from generation to generation, these pans are virtually non-stick and are wonderful for all manner of dishes, from stir-fries to cornbread to pancakes and eggs to chicken pot pies (or even dessert pies).
Cast iron skillets require seasoning and a little bit of special care (NEVER use soap to clean them), and thoroughly dry and re-oil to keep them in tip-top shape.
Skillets can also be made from enameled cast iron (which I generally like because the enamel can be almost non-stick), stainless steel or aluminum with a nonstick coating. Stainless steel pans can stick and scorch, even when using the “hot pan, cold fat” technique, so they aren’t really adept at making frittatas or cornbread, and coated aluminum is not my favorite thing in this world (check out the next section of this article).
At the risk of sounding opinionated, I dislike non-stick cookware. I’m slightly suspicious of non-stick coatings, especially at high temperatures. The only exception that I make for this rule is for my omelette pan. I have a T-Fal non-stick omelet pan that I use almost daily. And I only make eggs, omelettes, and pancakes in it. If I weren’t lazy, I might consider using my grandmothers cast iron skillet, but the T-Fal is lighter and easier to clean.
This omelette pan is inexpensive. It also has the thermodot in the middle of the cooking surface to tell you when the pan is hot enough to start cooking.
Woks can be made of carbon steel, stainless steel, and even cast iron (which are way too heavy to manoeuver in my opinion). My recommendation for a good wok is carbon steel. Here are two of my favorites:
This wooden handled wok is a generously sized and has a steel loop helper handle. At 14” you can easily feed a family of 4 to 6. Once seasoned, the wok will become slick and extremely easy to clean. Note that this wok has a round bottom, so you will need a wok ring to use it on a flat stovetop.
Also a 14” wok, this model by Helen Chen has a flat bottom. It also comes with a domed lid and a long-handled cooking spatula. The capacity of this wok is a bit smaller than that of a traditional round-bottomed wok, but you can still feed a family of 4 or 5.
For a skillet, my choice is cast iron or enameled cast iron. Also, look for a skillet with a heat-resistant handle so that it can go into the oven or under the broiler. Here are my favorites:
There is a lot to love about this Lodge 10 ¾” skillet. It comes pre-seasoned (so it just needs a quick rinse and you can start to cook in it). It has an ovenproof handle, a helper handle, and a pour spout to make it easy to pour liquids from the skillet. And at under $15.00, it is a steal. And it will last for generations!
This All-Clad 10” open skillet is (like all of the All-Clad products) beautiful. It’s stainless steel handle will stay cool-ish on the stove, and is oven and broiler safe. It’s aluminum core makes for even heat distribution.
This 10 ¼” skillet from Le Creuset comes in a wide selection of mouth-watering colors. The dark interior, while not non-stick, releases food easily. It also has an ovenproof handel and a generously sized helper handle.
While both pieces of cookware are versatile, (and both are great additions to your batterie de cuisine), they are not interchangeable. I can’t ever imagine wanting to make cornbread or a Spanish tortilla in my wok, but in a pinch, I could make a stir-fry in my skillet. If you have the room in your kitchen and your budget, I would recommend owning both a skillet and a wok. If I had to choose one over the other, the winner would have to be my skillet, partially because it is slightly more versatile than a wok, and partly because I was the lucky grandson who got my grandmother’s coveted cast iron skillet!