Many people are debating whether a wok is necessary to create satisfying meals, especially Chinese food. So should you get a wok or not? The answer depends on how seriously you are in making Chinese food.
I’ve personally used a frying pan to stir-fry my Chinese dishes without any problems. But I am confident that the wok can produce a better and richer flavor than the flat bottom pan, simply because it distributes heat more evenly. Chinese food does taste better when cooked in high heat.
So if you decide to buy a wok, there will be a lot of information to take in. What types of materials are in the market and which one is the best? How to use and take good care of woks so it will serve you for years to come? In this article, I will share some useful information I’ve researched so far and in the end, you’ll have our list of top products to buy.
What Are The Different Types of Wok Materials and Which Is The Best?
From the non-porous nature of stainless steel to the non-stick perk of properly seasoned cast iron or carbon steel, each wok material has its own advantages and disadvantages. Before making a purchase, it’s important to evaluate all options available and choose the right one.
In short, carbon steel is the best choice of metal for a wok.
Now let’s look at all the options in more details:
-Stainless Steel: while it may be the safest option, stainless steel wok tends to be tedious to use because of the weight and slow response to temperature changes. Chinese cooking requires rapid and on-the-fly heat adjustment. It defeats the purpose of using woks, so it’s a total waste of money. Don’t buy stainless steel woks if you are serious about Chinese cooking.
-Nonstick: most nonstick surface has coatings that cannot handle the high heat necessary for a proper stir-fry. If you turn the heat too high, the coatings may release noxious fumes long before they reach the desired temperature. Stay away from nonstick at all costs. This is not good for your health and wallet because it won’t last long.
-Cast Iron: This is a little trickier. When it is too thin, it is also very fragile. But when it is too thick and durable, it’s extremely heavy to lift, not to mention the proper flipping during stir-fry. It takes a relatively long time to heat up, but once it’s hot, it can retain heat really well. But if your main purpose to buy a cast iron wok is to cook stir-fry, it can work, but maybe not the best choice.
-Carbon Steel: This is the traditional type of Chinese wok. Many chefs prefer this material because it’s lightweight and practically nonstick when properly cared for. It responds to heat quickly and evenly, which is essential to Chinese cooking. Don’t buy the carbon steel wok less than 14-gauge though, because it would probably bend when you press on the sides. Otherwise, carbon steel is your best bet. They are inexpensive and effective.
How To Buy The Best Wok?
Besides the material, you should also consider a few other factors:
-Types of Wok Handles
There are two types of wok handles. Cantonese-style woks have two small handles on both sides, while Northern-style woks have a single long handle and sometimes a smaller helper handle on the other side. The long handle comes handy if you want to put the wok inside an oven to make a dish or do a quick seasoning. The large handle facilitates the flipping and stir-frying, while the small handle makes it easier to lift. But keep in mind, if you only have a little cooking space, the long handle may seem to stick out too much and infringe on other cooking utensils. You may need wok handles or covers to protect your hands when flipping or lifting the wok off the stove.
-Shapes of Wok Bottome
Now it comes to making the decision whether to buy a flat-bottomed wok or a round-bottomed one. They both have advantages and disadvantages. But if you have an electric range or don’t want to use a wok ring, a flat-bottomed wok is the way to go.
Round-bottomed woks are often used in Chinese restaurants, where they have special wok stoves with a round opening to cradle the wok. Round-bottomed woks can distribute heat more evenly up the sides of the wok, because the heat distribution is done in a linear fashion. No hot spots, and no warping! On the other hand, flat-bottomed woks can have hot spots at the bottom of the wok, which makes it harder to distribute heat evenly and susceptible to warping in high heat conditions.
However, round-bottomed woks aren’t created perfectly. They don’t work on electric ranges and are tricky to use on gas ranges even with the help of wok rings. Also known as wok stands, wok rings help concentrate the source of the heat to the bottom of the wok and keep your round-bottomed wok in place over a flat surface. Wok rings work best on gas stoves, while you need to make some adjustment when using on electric ranges. Also, remember to make sure the wok rings are well balanced and stable while cooking.
Wok sizes may vary from 10 inches to 20 inches. Depending on how much food you want to cook at one time and the size of your range, you can decide on the desired size. If you have a wok too small, the meat may end up being steamed rather than sauteeing. But don’t buy a big wok and waste space if you simply cook for one.
The best choice is a 12-16 inch wok with at least 4 to 5 inches flattened area at the bottom, which provides ample high-heat space for searing while still giving plenty of room to spread out the ingredients and keep them moving.
How Do You Clean And Season A Wok For The First Time?
Why do the carbon steel and cast iron woks need seasoning in the first place anyway? Seasoning is a process to help woks create a protective, nonstick coating inside of the wok. It’s called patina. When you cook more in the wok, the wok ages and the patina becomes thicker and heavier. As a result, a natural nonstick cooking surface is formed. Without all the unhealthy chemicals found in the non-stick coatings, you can still enjoy the beautiful nonstick cooking experience. This layer also helps prevent rust and enhances the flavor of your dishes. And another important benefit is to further get rid of any metallic tastes and work oil into the metal crevices after the initial cleaning.
Speaking of cleaning, you should definitely set aside time to clean the wok of machinery oil used during manufacturing before choosing any seasoning methods. Follow the instructions on the package if there is one. Wear gloves and use a scouring pad or sponge. Remember, this will be the only time you can use an abrasive sponge and soap for the entire lifespan of your new wok.
The first cleaning process is fairly simple. Just follow the “rinse, scrub, dry” process. First, rinse the wok with hot water. Scrub the inside and outside of the wok with soapy water. Then rinse the wok completely before using a clean and dry towel. Finally, place the wok on the stovetop over medium to high heat. Wait until all water evaporates and then cleaning is done!
There are two popular methods to season a wok:
1. Stovetop Seasoning Method
You’ll need seasoning oil, wok spatula, some aromatic ingredients (such as onions, ginger, or garlic). All cooking oils can be used for seasoning cast iron or carbon steel, but vegetable oil or canola oil are generally the best. They are widely available and very affordable and effective as well. Keeping a pair of tongs and a clean towel nearby is also helpful. The wok will get very hot during the process, so make sure the space around your burner is clear. Chop the onions and ginger, and cut one bunch of green onions into 2-inch sections.
After the initial deep cleaning, transfer the pan to the burner.
Preheat the wok over high heat. To test the temperature, throw a drop of water on the wok. If it evaporates within a second, it means the wok is hot enough to be seasoned.
Add in about 2 tablespoons of oil and reduce heat to medium-high.
Add ingredients to the wok. This helps to keep the wok from smoking.
Reduce heat to medium.
Stir fry the ingredients. Spread and press the mixture all over the wok’s interior. Continue doing this for about 20 minutes over medium heat. Add a little oil if the ingredients become too dry.
Remove the wok from the stovetop, let cool then dump the mixture out.
Rinse with hot water, no soap! And dry it again on the stove. Now it’s ready to use!
2. Oven Seasoning Method
If you prefer to bake the wok, it’s totally cool and easy. But before you do that, assess the handles. Does any part of the handle have plastic? If yes, can it be unscrewed? If the plastic handles cannot be removed, simply wrap the handles in foils. Remember to complete the initial cleaning to remove any factory oil.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Use a paper towel to rub about 2 teaspoon oil on the exterior and interior of the wok.
Invert the wok and place the oiled wok on the top rack.
Bake it for 30 minutes.
Turn off the oven and let things cool for another 15 minutes
Remove the wok from the oven and let it cool for about 45 minutes before unwrapping the foils.
(Optional) Heat the wok over medium, add 2 tablespoons oil and 1 sliced onions. Stir-fry for 10 minutes. Keep pressing the onions on all inner surfaces of the wok. Then discard the onions.
Rinse the wok with warm water and a soft sponge.
Dry it completely on the stovetop over high heat.
How To Use And Cook With A Wok?
1. Choose the right type of oil
A wok is designed to cook food fast, so it’s a good idea to know what type of oil is approved for cooking over high heat. Peanut oil (up to 450˚ F), vegetable oil and canola oil (up to 400˚ F), avocado oil (500˚ F), and grapeseed oil(400˚ F) all have a relatively high smoking point.
2. Know the order in which all ingredients are cooked
Most stir-fry dishes include proteins, vegetables, aromatics, and sauce. Below are the general order and time needed for each step:
1. Heat the wok over medium-high heat. When wok is hot, add oil and swirl wok to distribute the oil to the bottom and sides of the wok.
2. Pat dry the proteins. Add proteins to the wok in a single layer. Leave it for a few minutes until it sears the bottom. Flip it to sear the other side. Once both sides are done, give it a stir and season with salt. Cook until it’s nearly cooked through but not done yet. This should take about 4-7 minutes. Set aside.
3. Add aromatics and stir for 1 minute.
4. Add vegetables in order from the longest cooking time to the shortest. You may want to boil some hard vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots before stir-frying. Stir vegetables frequently. This step should be done within 1-7 minutes.
5. Add the protein back to the wok and season with sauce. Pouring the sauce down the sides will add an additional layer of flavor because the sauce is heated up before reaching the ingredients. Add rice now if you are making fried rice and toss everything together. Your dish is done once everything is coated in sauce.
How to Take Care of Wok?
Proper seasoning is the first step to take care of a new wok. Then the next question is, should you wash a wok?
Yes, but there are some dos and don’ts. Do not use abrasive sponge and soap to clean the interior of the wok. Natural fiber brushes will clean the wok without removing the patina. Bamboo brushes are the traditional cleaning tool in Chinese kitchens. But a soft sponge will do the trick too. If you have stuck-on food in the wok, simply soak it until it loosens up. Don’t forget to wash the exterior too because most likely there will be sauce residues. For the exterior part, you can use a hard sponge. After cleaning, dry the wok over low heat or pat dry with a paper towel.
Then how do you store it? If your wok is used infrequently or is new, it’s best to coat the wok with oil before storing. This helps to build that perfect nonstick patina. When the wok is completely dry, wipe the inside of the wok with oil using tongs and paper towels. Then wrap it with wrapping paper or simply put inside a shopping bag to shield it from unwanted outside elements.
Is a rusted wok safe to use? Should you throw it away? If no, how to restore old rusty wok? Rest assured that a rusted wok is safe to use especially after you remove the rust. Rust is oxidized iron. If your body can get rid of iron effectively, this should not worry you at all. Another good news is, a rusted wok can be easily stored. To remove the rust, use a fine steel wool pad and some dish soap to scour the rusted surface it feels smooth to the touch. Rinse the area well under hot water. Then use fine sandpaper, go over the rusted area again to get it really smooth. Rinse again under hot water. You need to completely dry the wok by placing it on a burner and heat it until hot.
Top Brands to Consider:
1. Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Wok by Craft Wok
Why do we love it?
The hand-hammered look and high-quality material make it a beautiful addition in your kitchen. This wok has a wooden handle and a steel helper handle that won’t burn when cooking. It definitely takes some time to prep and season the wok before the first use, but it will serve you for years to come with proper maintenance, which the manufacturer instruction will guide you through. “Built like a tank. You won’t find a better wok” as one customer said.
– Can be passed on to the next generation
– 14” in diameter, good for bigger portions
– Very sturdy 15 gauge carbon steel
– Becomes non-stick after seasoning
– The round bottom allows better heat distribution
– Easy to clean and use
– Healthy materials, no plastics or lacquers
– The round bottom makes it not suitable for flat electric or induction stove
– The wooden handle may be a little loose for some customers
– Maybe a little heavy to lift with one hand
2. Carbon Steel Wok by Souped Up Recipes
Why do we love it?
The unbeatable value! This highly rated carbon steel wok also comes with a wooden lid and a metal spatula in a nice package. Personally, I’ve found it pretty hard to buy a wok spatula or a wooden lid in locals stores. But here you have it all at this amazing price. The wok itself is a good mix of strong durable wok paired with a very pleasing aesthetic look.
– The flat bottom works on electric stoves, induction stoves, gas ranges, and other heat sources
– 12.5” in diameter, good for smaller portions
– Easy to lift with one hand
– Comes with clear, simple instructions to clean and season
– The manufacturer has a Youtube channel with tons of recipes
– The solid wooden handle is very sturdy and can be easily removed
– The wooden top allows great control of splatter
– Some complain the wooden handle or cover is cracked
3. Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Wok by Mammafong
Why do we love it?
If you don’t need the extra spatula and wooden cover from the last one, this is something similar to consider. It’s not that expensive but has every feature in our checklist. Customers have all agreed that this wok’s size, shape, and heat distribution are all great.
– The flat bottom makes it perfect for all types of cooktops
– Shipped with a protected coating oil (but still needs wash and reseasoning)
– Made of 16 gauge carbon steel
– Extra-long handle makes flipping easier
– Some customers complain the metal is thin and soft
4. Carbon Steel Wok by Helen’s Asian Kitchen
Why do we love it?
If you are looking for a great wok under $30, this one will fit the bill on all accounts. It has two sizes available, 12 inches and 14 inches. If you also want a stainless steel lid, then you should get the 14-inch. Getting a lid is especially useful when you plan to use this wok as a steamer (you can buy bamboo baskets and put inside the wok). Overall, this wok offers great value and quality at an amazing price.
– It has a removable handle
– The flat bottom makes it perfect for all types of cooktops
– Comes with a lid with the 14-inch wok
– Easy cleaning and storage with hanger
-No helper handle to facilitate the lifting
5. Cast Iron Wok by Lodge
Why do we love it?
It’s the perfect hybrid wok – you’ll have a flat bottom for all cooking surface and a round bottom inside for the ultimate cooking experience! This cast iron wok is seasoned with vegetable oil when shipped. You only need to take proper cleaning and maintenance after each use. It’s not only for stir-fry. It won’t get sticky even frying eggs or making scrambled tofu. Cast iron wok heats up quickly and also retains heat better than carbon steel. So if you are a cast-iron fan or love Lodge products, go for this wok. It won’t disappoint you.
-The flat bottom is ideal for all cooking surfaces
-No synthetic coatings or chemicals during the seasoning process
– Made in the USA
– A reputable company making cast iron cookware for over 120 years
– Suitable in the oven and grill or the campfire
– Food tastes better in cast iron