How to choose a wok
In today’s article, we are going to teach you how to choose the best wok. Woks are a staple in many kitchens. Every single person who loves the simplicity, taste and wonderful flavors of a stir fry should consider buying a wok.
There are so many woks to choose from, ranging from traditional ones made out of steel to modern electrical woks. You need to learn how to choose a wok based on what you intend to use it for, its quality, and several other factors.
To help you out when choosing a wok, here are a few guidelines to consider.
Why Should You Buy A Wok?
Before talking about how to choose the best type of wok, we need to discuss why the wok is so popular in the first place. Most people make stir fry and Chinese food in sautee or frying pans. However, these types of pans are not ideal. The sautee pan steams the food instead of frying it so the flavor and taste differ from those of a classic stir fry. And a frying pan has a flat bottom that prevents you from easily moving food around.
When you are stir-frying or making Chinese food, you need to use very high heat to cook every little piece of food quickly and evenly. The heat needs to brown ingredients, not soften them. All the meats and vegetables have to cook simultaneously. This ensures the best flavor, taste, and texture. A wok is specifically designed to cook stir fry because:
- The sides are high so you can easily flip and toss the ingredients.
- The sides are flared so steam can easily escape the pan instead of remaining inside and softening what you cook.
- The material is thin so heat is efficiently and quickly conducted.
All the best woks have these 3 elements – flared design, a thin conductive material, and high sides.
How To Choose The Best Wok
Remember that the best wok for you is not necessarily the best one for someone else because you might have some specific needs that others don’t. Whenever you look for a really good wok to buy, make sure that you consider the following important factors:
Woks are made out of metal but the type of metal is very important. Every metal type has a specific list of advantages and disadvantages. You have to choose a wok based on what will be very comfortable for you. The most popular choices are:
Carbon Steel Wok
The carbon steel wok is by far the most popular on the market at the moment. Most specialists agree that the carbon steel wok is the best choice, especially when compared to coated options.
Benefits Of Carbon Steel Woks:
- Very quick heat conduction;
- Fast heat transfer;
- Affordable when compared to the other metal woks;
- High strength and durability;
- The carbon steel wok is lightweight so you can easily maneuver it while cooking.
Disadvantages Of Carbon Steel Woks:
- In a carbon steel wok, food can stick if you do not season the wok. Seasoning is mandatory to prevent sticking but also because it helps get rid of the metallic odors and tastes that can appear. If seasoning is not properly done, the food will most likely stick to the bottom and sides of the wok.
Cast Iron Wok
In China, the traditional metal used for woks is cast iron. The Chinese woks made out of cast iron are usually very fragile and thin. The Western versions tend to be heavier and thicker.
Benefits Of Cast Iron Woks:
- The cast iron wok is perfect when you need uniform heat retention and distribution;
- Great flavor is imparted to the food when the wok is seasoned;
- The Chinese wok is very light so you can easily toss food around while cooking.
Disadvantages Of Cast Iron Woks:
- Western cast iron woks have a thicker base so heat adjustment response is slow;
- It takes a long time for the wok to cool off;
- It can be very difficult to lift the wok because cast iron is heavy;
- Seasoning is mandatory or food will stick.
Non-stick woks are made out of aluminum or stainless steel. They are coated with PFA and Teflon and are very popular in Western countries. Chefs and experienced cooks alike favor stainless steel and aluminum woks over other materials because the nonstick surface makes cooking easier.
Benefits Of Non-Stick Woks:
- You can skip the seasoning process with this type of wok;
- Even novice cooks can easily maneuver the wok;
- It is very easy to clean the non-stick surface;
- Less oil is needed when cooking.
Disadvantages Of Non-Stick Woks:
- They are expensive;
- Food is not browned and juices are retained. Also, the flavor is not the same as with the other, more traditional materials;
- Very high temperatures cannot be withstood by the Teflon coating, due to this, stir-frying is not recommended;
- Uneven heat distribution.
The Type Of Stove You Use
Many people don’t know this but the stove plays a huge role in cooking wok foods. The Chinese ovens are traditionally made out of brick, with openings placed at the top so that the bottom woks can be placed right over the fire. Even modern Chinese gas ranges include very large burners, much larger than what is seen in the West.
When you use the wok on gas stovetops, the flat-bottomed or round bottom wok is preferred. When you use induction or electricity, a flat-bottomed wok is preferred, as the wok can sit right on the heating element.
The Wok Manufacturing Process
Woks are made in 3 different ways:
Hand-hammered – Such woks feature slight indentations that appear because of hammering. Food hangs on sides as you add more ingredients in the wok’s middle area. These woks are affordable but it is very difficult to find one that has a flat bottom.
Stamped – Stamped woks are normally made out of thin carbon steel. A machine presses it with the use of a mold. The woks are thin, smooth, and affordable. However, they will quickly develop cold and hot spots. While the smooth surface of the wok makes it appealing for many buyers, this is not a beneficial feature because food cannot cling to the sides of the pan when you are stir-frying.
Spun – A lathe is used to form the wok with concentric circles. The circles make it easy to use the wok’s sides and will perform very well if you use a proper stir-frying technique. Spun woks have a flat bottom and are usually made out of gauge metal. Even so, they are not as expensive as you might expect.
The most distinguishing feature of the wok is the shape. No matter the material, height and diameter have to be taken into account when you buy a wok. When the wok is too deep, the heat retention and side heat transfer are inadequate for cooking. When the wok is too shallow, it is very difficult to quickly move foods with a stir-frying technique.
The classic wok features a round bottom. With hand-hammered models, the bottom is usually flipped inside out after shaping to offer an edge flare. This makes it easier to push the food towards the wok’s sides. Western woks are sometimes built with a flat bottom, which is similar to the regular deep frying pan.
The round bottom wok (Chinese-style) cannot come into full contact with the heating element of most stoves. However, the traditional ladle or round spatula can easily pick up food at the bottom to then toss it around. With a flat wok bottom, this process is very difficult. Also, when using traditional pit stoves or gas hobs, a round wok’s bottom will get much hotter than that of a flat one.
In terms of diameter, many woks range between 12 to 14 inches. The most common ones are the 14-inch ones because you can use them to cook food for an entire family. However, you can also find really small woks with a diameter of 8 inches and very large ones with a diameter of 36 inches. The very large woks are usually used by community kitchens or restaurants to boil water or cook soup or rice.
Wok Accessories And Utensils
Most woks are individually sold while other woks come in a set that includes a wok ring, a lid, a ladle, a thin metal spatula (also known as chuan), a tray, and so on. Woks can be used for stir-frying, smoking, steaming, and deep-frying, among others so you have to think about how you will use the wok and what accessories you need before making a decision.
One of the most useful and important accessories to consider when buying a wok is the wok ring. The wok ring is used to raise the pan’s bottom so it stands farther away from the heat source. Most woks you buy do not come with a ring but you can buy them separately. Typically, rings are used with gas stoves, although they can also be used with electric stoves.
If you consider a wok ring, there are two options to choose from – thick metal and enclosed metal rings. The first one is made out of thick metal and has open sides. The other one uses enclosed metals and has small holes to allow venting. Choose an enclosed model if you use an electric stove and a thick metal one for the gas stove. As for depth and size, choose one that perfectly fits on the burner you use.
There are two styles of handles you find in most woks:
- 2 loop handles placed on both sides of the wok
- 1 stick-style long handle located on a side
Loop-style handles are normally installed in the traditional wok and are recommended for the larger pans, those you cannot lift with a single handle. The stick-style long handle is more than enough for the smaller wok.
In China, you will hear the term “peking pans”. This term refers to stick handle woks. Newer market woks have one loop-style handle on a side and a longer stick-style handle on the other side. Handles are welded or riveted.
Besides the handle style, you have to be careful about the handle material. You want a cool-to-touch surface that allows you to safely maneuver the wok. The best possible option is heat-resistant wood, although plastic handles can also be really good. Some woks include a stainless steel handle; these handles provide very high heat resistance, are sturdy, and can remain cool for a very long time.
The Electric Wok
The standalone electric wok includes a built-in heating element. This allows the cook to use any socket to start cooking. The electric woks offer a consistent, high heat that is very good for stir fry recipes.
When you use a stovetop that is not powerful and is small, the electric wok stands out as a wonderful option to consider, as it can provide the proper temperature for stir-frys. There are many cooks who appreciate the plug-in model’s flexibility and the fact that it allows them to cook food anywhere, from a basement to a kitchen. However, the drawback is that this type of wok is very expensive. It is also pretty bulky so you need more storage space than for a classic wok.
How To Take Care Of Your Wok
You can buy the very best wok and ruin it if you do not know what to do to properly take care of it. Maintenance is very important, just like with any other kitchen tool or appliance. You surely want to keep using your wok for a very long time so remember the following:
Cleaning A New Wok
New woks come with a protective coating that has to be scrubbed off. This is added to the pan so that it stays fresh while in a store. In order to remove it, you just have to use soapy water and scrub it off. Then, you can dry the wok using a kitchen towel. The last step is to put the wok on your stove. Use medium heat so that the moisture can evaporate fast.
Seasoning The Wok
To add flavor and to prevent food from sticking to the wok’s surface, you have to learn how to season a wok properly. First, you have to turn up the heat. Always use the highest setting possible. Then, pour some peanut, vegetable, or corn oil in the wok. Spread the oil with a paper towel. Make sure you do not burn yourself by moving the paper towel with tongs, not your hand. The process can be repeated until a black, thick patina appears on the bottom of the wok.
When you season the wok, you can also add some spring onions or ginger for extra flavor. Also, be sure your windows are open because the process will produce much more smoke than you anticipate.
Cooking With Your New Wok
t is possible to cook in many different ways with the wok. Generally speaking, you want to be sure the wok is hot before use. The smoke needs to start rising from it in order to indicate that the temperature is right. Then, you add oil and the rest of the ingredients as soon as the oil is hot. Food has to be evenly spread on the bottom and on the sides of the wok as you cook. You have to frequently stir ingredients to prevent burning.
Other important cooking tips to know:
- Before you add your ingredients, flick some water into the wok. Water evaporates instantly if the temperature is hot enough. Start cooking if water evaporates instantly. If it doesn’t, allow more time for the wok to reach the right temperature.
- Stoves for home use usually do not reach a very high temperature so you cannot use the wok to get large batches of flavorful food. The best thing you can do is to cook your food in smaller batches.
Clean The Wok After Cooking
You should never leave food inside the wok for a long time after cooking is over. The sooner you clean it, the better because this makes the wok last for longer. Use hot water and a sponge (a soft one) to clean the wok. Avoid soap as much as you can. After you are done with the cleaning, start wiping. To remove the water, put the wok on the stove for a few minutes.
If you can’t remove food residue with water and a soft sponge, while heating, add some salt and scrub the residue with a non-abrasive towel.
Keep in mind that woks naturally change their color, usually from silver to brown and then to black. A black, permanent patina guarantees flavorful meals every single time you cook.
What Can You Use The Wok For?
The wok is designed for stir-frying, however, this does not mean you are restricted to this type of cooking. The wok is very versatile and can be used for numerous dishes. You can use the pan for:
You use less oil in the wok but you do have access to a very wide surface area to work with.
You can steam vegetables, whole fish, and dumplings with the use of a wok. It is also possible to stack bamboo steamers to do more steaming in one go.
When you want to warm tortillas in a frying pan, you can only warm 2 at a time. With the wok, you can warm many at once as the sides can also be used.
You can avoid buying the stovetop smoking box if you have a wok. Just use foil, wood chips, and a cooling rack to turn the wok into a very effective makeshift smoker. Use it to smoke whatever you want.
This might come as a surprise but you can easily make popcorn in your wok. You have a lot of available space for big batches.
How Do I Choose A Good Wok - FAQ
If you still don’t know what is the best type of wok for you, maybe the answers to these frequently asked questions will help you decide.
How Thick Should A Wok Be?
The ideal thickness for a wok is 2 mm. Keep in mind that carbon steel is not as fragile as cast iron but even so, the thickness needs to be enough. When you buy from a store, press on the wok to see if it bends. If it does bend, it is not thick enough. When buying online, check the thickness so it is at 2 mm or buy 14-gauge steel.
Should I Choose A Round Or Flat Wok?
The best wok is the round-bottomed one because it never warps. Heat is perfectly distributed to the wok’s sides. This is done in a linear fashion. With the flat-bottomed wok, hot spots can appear. This can easily lead to warping if the temperature is very high.
What Size Should I Buy?
This depends on your family’s needs. The best size for a wok you would use for a family of 4 people is 12 to 14 inches (diameter). When you cook for 2 people, the same size is recommended but you’ll have more leftovers. If you buy a larger wok, storage becomes a problem. Also, woks that have a diameter that is larger than 14 inches do not fit on regular stove burners so it may be impossible to use these larger models.
Is It Healthy To Cook With A Wok?
The wok is basically a frying pan with a curved shape. You may think that the shape cannot influence cooking much but that’s not true. When you cook with a wok, the result is healthier than with the traditional frying pan. This is because of the high heat retention that allows you to use less oil.
How Is Wok Cooking Different Than Using A Frying Pan?
Cooking with a wok is similar to cooking with a traditional frying pan. However, the big difference is that it will take less time to cook your meat and vegetables with the wok, usually just three to eight minutes. The taste, flavor, and texture of the food also differ. Generally, you get crispier and more flavorful foods when you use a wok.
What Is The Best Material For Woks?
You need to make this decision yourself, based on how you will use the wok. However, the best option is still considered to be the traditional one, which is uncoated carbon steel. This is because the material heats up very fast, transfers heat very well, and forms its own, unique non-stick coating. At the same time, the material is cheap to produce so the buying price will be lower.
Can I Stir Fry Without The Wok?
A very similar cooking result can be achieved when you use a wide frying pan. The important thing is to have all ingredients come into contact with heat. Usually, the sautee pan is listed as being the closest replacement to the wok. However, it will steam more than fry. For stir-frying, the wok, particularly a rounded-bottom one, is still the best option.
The best wok pays for itself because it lasts for a long time if you take care of it properly. It is tempting to opt for cheap options but those don’t last for a really long time. Do not make the mistake of thinking only about the price when you check out wok models. Follow the guidelines we highlighted in this article to make the best decision.