To create food from East or Southeast Asia, you will need a high-quality wok that functions well with your stovetop. A wok is most commonly used for stir frying, deep frying, steaming, simmering or braising. Woks are available in a variety of sizes, materials and styles, and the type of wok you need depends on the range you will use, the kind of cooking you want to do and the quantity of food you intend to make.
Round- or Flat-Bottom
Whether you need a round or flat-bottom wok depends on the type of range you have. Because an electric stove does not radiate enough heat from the element, usually only a flat-bottom wok will be fully functional on an electric stove. This is definitely the case with an induction stove. However, the flat bottom largely defeats the purpose of the wok – to heat the round bottom to a high temperature that allows you to flash-cook the food. Therefore, to create an authentic wok taste it is best to use an open-flame gas stove with a round-bottom wok.
Commercial kitchens usually have a wok range or a high-powered open burner range. If a gas stove is not available at home, and you want to create that wok taste – known as “wok hei” in Chinese – consider purchasing a propane burner along with a grate specially designed for wok support. Portable propane stoves are not only preferable to an electric burner, they are actually more powerful and better for wok cooking than most permanent gas ranges found in the home.
Sizing Your Wok
The size of wok you need depends on the size and power of your burners as well as the amount and type of food you want to cook. For most households, a 14″ wok should work well for feeding family. For serving for a dinner party, you may need a 16″ wok. Restaurants should use small woks for stir frying and large woks several feet in diameter for performing other cooking tasks like deep frying or cooking rice. »Find the Right Size Wok
Next to size and shape, the metal type is the most important feature of your wok. Different metal types have different advantages and drawbacks. While carbon steel and cast iron are the most traditional metal types that professionals swear by, stainless steel and aluminum are becoming more popular in the home and have their own perks.
Non-Stick or Standard Finish
A non-stick wok will allow you to cook meals that are not heavy in sauce or oil. They are a good choice for professional or home chefs who want to produce more healthy wok-fried meals. When choosing a non-stick wok, aluminum is your best bet, because the non-stick coating will not adhere as well to a carbon steel wok. However, both Teflon and Xylan do not hold up to the high temperatures needed for true stir frying, so the stir fries produced with these materials only approximate an authentic wok taste. When properly seasoned, a carbon steel or cast iron wok will be non-stick as well and will not require a chemical coating.
- Even heat transfer
- Strong enough to hold up to frequent battering from a wok shovel or wok ladle
- Lightweight and easy to lift
- When properly seasoned, absorbs flavor and imparts it to future meals
- Relatively inexpensive
- Difficult to re-season
- If the carbonized seasoning is removed, foods are likely to stick
Historically, cast iron is the original material that woks were made of. A cast iron wok is tried and true and is the most traditional type of wok available.
- When properly seasoned, absorbs flavor, helping to create that highly desirable “wok hei” flavor
- Easy to re-season.
- Good heat retention and even heat distribution
- Thin cast iron woks are light enough for tossing food
- Long preheat times
- Because it is so porous, can rust if seasoning is not properly maintained
- Thick cast iron woks are heavy and difficult to lift
While stainless steel woks are not seasoned and generally do not have a non-stick surface, they are ideal for many home chefs that are strapped for time.
- Dishwasher safe
- Lightweight and easy to lift
- Unlikely to rust when properly maintained
- Cannot be washed with harsh detergents like chlorine
- Do not have as even heat distribution or heat retention as other metal types
- Dents and warps more easily than cast iron or carbon steel
Aluminum woks are sometimes found in homes, but rarely in professional kitchens. Usually, the lid is the only part of the wok that is made of aluminum.
- Dishwasher safe
- Conducts heat quickly, giving it an even heat distribution
- Ideal for non-stick applications
- Unlikely to warp or dent if made of anodized aluminum
- Loses heat more quickly than cast iron or carbon steel, making it less energy efficient and more difficult to retain the high heats necessary for stir frying
- When used for high-heat flash cooking, likely to warp or dent if not anodized
- Can rust or corrode when frequently used to cook acidic foods like tomatoes
Woks generally come with one, long stick-style handle or two loop-style handles on either side. The type of handle you choose should depend on the size of wok and your cooking style. The most versatile wok will have both a long stick handle for tossing the food and a helper handle for heavy lifting.
The wok with two loop-style handles is the traditional wok. Having a handle on either side is ideal for large woks, where the amount of food contained will be too heavy to lift without the other handle.
If you have a small wok that you want to lift up and tilt to toss the food around, often a long, wooden, stick-style handle is best. The stick handle will keep you at a good distance from the wok and reduce the risk of burning. The wooden handle will remain relatively cool to the touch when compared with a metal handle.
If you are cooking with a round-bottomed wok on a standard open-burner range, you will need a wok ring. Choose a ring that is 4″ smaller in diameter than the wok. The ring will be placed on the stove with the largest diameter facing up and the narrow diameter on bottom, so go by the largest diameter of the ring when choosing your size. Also make sure that the wok ring fits your burner well. For electric stoves, it should fit around and on top of the element. For gas stoves, the original grate should be removed and replaced with a wok ring. For stoves that use 15,000 BTU or more, it is best to use a wok ring with open sides that will allow air to feed the flame. For a stove with less power, use a wok ring with closed sides and small holes to keep the flame alive without losing too much heat.