A good wok is one of the most versatile pans in the kitchen. Beyond being the best choice for a stir fry, it's also the ideal vessel for deep-frying, steaming, and indoor smoking. It is the most commonly used pan in my kitchen.
But as with most things, not all woks are created equal. They come in a dizzying array of sizes, shapes, metals, and handle arrangements. Fortunately for all of us, the best woks also happen to be on the inexpensive end of the scale.
Here are some things to consider when purchasing one.
Stainless steel woks, like the All-Clad 14-inch Stir Fry Pan ($200) are a waste of money. Not only are they extremely heavy and difficult to maneuver, they also take a long time to heat up and cool down—a fatal flaw for something that requires rapid, on-the-fly heat adjustments like a stir-fry. Food—particularly protein—has a tendency to stick to steel.
Cast iron is a better choice, though it still takes a relatively long time to heat up and cool down. It offers a better nonstick surface. The main problem with cast iron is that when it's too thin, it is extremely fragile—I've seen cast iron woks crack in half when set down too hard. But when made thick enough to be durable, they are extremely cumbersome to lift—essential for proper flipping during a stir-fry.
Carbon steel is your best bet. It heats quickly and evenly, is highly responsive to burner input, is durable, inexpensive, and when properly cared for, will end up with a practically nonstick surface. Look for carbon steel woks that are at least 14-gauge (about 2 mm thick). They should not bend when you press on the sides.
Woks are made in three ways. Traditional hand hammered woks (like the ones they used to sell in those infomercials in the '80's) are an excellent choice. The slight indentations left by the hammering pattern allow you to push cooked food to the sides of the pan while adding ingredients to the center without them slipping. The only problem is that it can be difficult (impossible?) to find a hand-hammered wok with a flat bottom and a handle (more on those later).
Stamped woks are made by cutting out a circular piece of thin carbon steel and pressing it by machine into a mold. They are extremely cheap, but are completely smooth, making them difficult to stir-fry in properly. They are without fail made from low-gauge steel and prone to developing hot and cold spots, as well as feeling flimsy.
Spun woks are produced on a lathe, giving them a distinct pattern of concentric circles (see the picture inset above). This pattern offers the same advantages as a hand-hammered wok, allowing you to easily keep your food in place against the side of the pan. Spun woks can be found in heavy gauges, with flat bottoms, and with flip-friendly handles. Spun woks and hand hammered woks fortunately are both inexpensive.
Shape and Handles
Traditional woks have a deep bowl shape designed to fit into a circular opening directly over the hearth. Unless you have a custom wok insert in your range (and if you do, you probably aren't reading this article anyway), you want to avoid round-bottomed woks. They won't work, period, on an electric range, and are tough to use on a gas range—even with one of those wok rings. On the other hand, woks with bottoms that are too flat defeat the purpose of a wok, making it tough to flip properly and to move food in and out of the high-heat zone.
Your best bet is a wok with a 4- to 5-inch flattened area at the bottom with gently sloping sides that flare out to between 12 and 14 inches. This will give you plenty of high-heat space for searing meats and vegetables at the bottom while still providing ample volume and room to maneuver when flipping.
As for handles, you have two choices. Cantonese-style woks (pictured in inset above) have two small handles on either side, while Northern-style woks have a single long handle and usually a smaller helper-handle on the opposite side. This is the type of wok you want. The large handle facilitates flipping and stir-frying, while the short handle makes it easy to lift.
Finally, avoid nonstick woks like the one pictured at right at all costs. Most nonstick coatings cannot handle the high heat necessary for a proper stir-fry. They start vaporizing, releasing noxious fumes long before they reach the requisite temperature. They make browning difficult, and it's impossible to get food to stick in place against the wok when you want to clear a surface to cook in in the middle.
Care and Maintenance
Just like a good cast iron pan, a carbon steel wok's performance will improve the more you use it. Most come with a protective film of oil on them to prevent them from rusting or tarnishing in the store. It's important to remove this layer before using it the first time. Scrub the wok out with hot, soapy water, dry it carefully, then place it over a burner at the highest heat possible until it starts to smoke. Carefully rotate the pan so that every area of it is exposed to this super-high heat. Rub it down with oil using a paper towel held in a pair of tongs, and you're ready to go.
After use, avoid scrubbing the wok unless absolutely necessary. Usually a rinse and a rub-down with a soft sponge is all that's necessary. Purists may tell you not to use soap. I do, and my wok is still well-seasoned and completely nonstick. Once rinsed, dry the wok with a kitchen towel or paper towels and rub some vegetable oil into the surface to give it a vapor-proof coating that will prevent it from rusting.
With repetitive use, the oil you heat in your wok breaks down into polymers that fill the microscopic pores in the metal's surface, rendering the material completely nonstick. As you break in your wok, the material will gradually change from silver to brownish, and finally to a deep black. This is what you are looking for.
There are a number of woks that match these criteria, but the The Joyce Chen Pro Chef Flat-Bottomed Wok (14 inches) ($30 at the time of writing) is our favorite. It features heavy gauge carbon steel, a riveted heat-resistant phenolic-plastic Northern-style handle with a helper handle, and is extremely inexpensive.
That's a relief, considering the amount of cash you have to drop for decent Western-style cookware.
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