How to Buy, Season, and Care for a Wok

Woks come in an array of sizes, shapes, metals, and handle arrangements. Here's how to pick the right one.

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A carbon steel wok on a stovetop

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Straight to the Point

Our favorite woks are the Wok Shop Carbon Steel Pow Wok and Yosukata Black Carbon Steel Wok. Both are fantastic options and you can read more about them at the bottom of this page or by heading to our full review. (Note: The Wok Shop is a small business and shipping delays can be significant when order volumes are large and its customer service can also falter. We've received numerous reader emails about not receiving woks and poor communication from the shop. If you're not willing to risk this, we recommend the Yosukata or heading to your local Chinatown, where you can find fantastic 14-inch, flat-bottomed woks at great prices.)

A good wok is one of the most versatile pans in the kitchen. Beyond being the best choice for making 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. Here's what you need to know.

Wok Materials

  • Stainless steel woks 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, which is essential for proper flipping during a stir-fry.
  • Carbon steel is your best bet. It heats quickly and evenly; it's highly responsive to burner input; it's durable and inexpensive; and, when properly cared for, it will end up with a practically nonstick surface. (Read more about why carbon steel is a great cookware material.) Look for carbon steel woks that are at least 14-gauge—about two millimeters thick—which won't bend when you press on the sides.
  • Avoid nonstick woks 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 the middle.

How Woks Are Made

Woks are made in three ways. Traditional hand-hammered woks (like the ones they used to sell in those '80s infomercials) 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 (dare I say impossible?) to find a hand-hammered wok with a flat bottom and a handle (more on those elements later).

Stamped woks are made by cutting out a circular piece of thin carbon steel and machine-pressing it into a mold. They are extremely cheap but completely smooth, which makes it difficult to stir-fry in them 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. 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. Fortunately, both spun woks and hand-hammered woks are inexpensive.

Wok Shapes and Handles

an illustration of a northern-style wok and a cantonese-style wok

Serious Eats / Vivian Kong

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 (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 four- to five-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 have a small handle on either side, while Northern-style woks have a single long handle, and usually a smaller helper handle on the opposite side. The latter is the type of wok you want. The large handle facilitates flipping and stir-frying, while the short helper handle makes it easy to lift.

What is Wok Hei?

Wok hei is a flavor. It’s often described as smoky, singed, at times just short of burnt. 

To paraphrase Kenji, wok hei comes "from a combination of polymers and oil breaking down within the skillet, and from microscopic droplets of fat vaporizing as you toss food up and over the edge of a wok into the hot column of air created by the intense burner below”. In his book The Wok, Kenji elaborates that wok hei also includes the searing of soy sauce or other liquids around the lip of the wok, which caramelize and impart additional smoky flavor.

How to Season and Clean a Wok


How to Season a Carbon Steel Wok

Just like with 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 to prevent them from rusting or tarnishing in the store, but it's important to remove this layer before using it the first time. Scrub the wok out with hot, soapy water and dry it carefully; then place it over a burner on 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 rubdown with a soft sponge are all that's needed. Purists may tell you not to use soap; I do, and my wok is still well seasoned and completely nonstick. Once it's 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.

Tips for Maintaining a Seasoned Wok

Hand-Wash and Dry Your Wok After Every Use (Yes, Every)

Any kind of cooking (stir-frying, braising, or even steaming) naturally introduces imperfections on the surface of a seasoned wok. Lightly scrubbing and washing your wok evens out any glaring imperfections and maintains a relatively smooth surface as that seasoning of polymerized oil builds. And please, for the love of all woks, don’t put your wok in the dishwasher.

Soap is Okay

Contrary to what my grandmother (and probably everyone else’s Cantonese grandma) used to say, dish soap is perfectly fine to use on a wok. Perhaps in bygone times, when soaps were manufactured with caustic lye, such advice was warranted. But these days, soaps like Dawn don’t contain lye. In fact, dish soap is a useful surfactant that can strip away unwanted flavors, grease, and residues after cooking. Of course, the key is to make sure that you wash all of that soap off. 

Make Sure Your Wok is Bone Dry

Water is the enemy of carbon steel and cast iron, and the worst enemy of all for a wok. Why? If left to rest on the surface, water corrodes the wok and leads to rust, which degrades that non-stick seasoning that you’ve worked so hard for. So after washing, make sure to dry your wok with towels or heat the wok up on the stove to evaporate all moisture.

Heat Erases Off Flavors

If you’re cooking particularly pungent foods, the fats in those foods tend to linger on the surface of the wok, which can flavor subsequent dishes. If you’re going to cook something delicate after making a fish curry, for example, it’s helpful to heat your wok up after washing it out to eliminate those unwanted flavors.

Wipe Your Wok Down with a Fine Layer of Oil Until You Can No Longer See Any Shine

Once you have a dry wok, it’s important to wipe the inside surface with a thin layer of neutral, high-heat oil (vegetable, canola, corn, soybean, peanut, and flaxseed oils are all acceptable options). Simply add a teaspoon or two of oil, then wipe that oil out with a paper towel until the entire surface is coated but not saturated (i.e. shiny). The oil protects the surface from moisture, and over time polymerizes (hardens) at room temperature, further seasoning the wok.*

*Heating oil speeds up polymerization, to be sure. But for polyunsaturated fats like vegetable, canola, and soybean oil, polymerization can happen at room temperature (just way more slowly).

Store Your Wok in a Dry Area

Again, water is the enemy!

Be Careful When Cooking Acidic Foods

Acid (in the form of vinegar, or even citrus juices) can corrode the surface of the wok if left in contact for extended periods of time. It’s best to avoid making long-cooking acidic braises or soups. If you do cook with very acidic ingredients, wash your wok out right away to limit that corrosive effect.

Re-Seasoning is Never a Bad Idea

The seasoning on your wok is always changing. In practice, seasoning is an imperfect process—highly dependent on what you cook, how often you cook, the way you stir, even the hot spots on your stove. You may notice that one part of your wok’s seasoning may build up more quickly than others, or that there are parts looking a bit bare or stripped down. In these cases, it’s not a bad idea to re-season your wok following the more systematic steps above.

Our Favorite Wok

After extensive testing, we actually have two favorite woks: Our overall top pick is the Wok Shop Carbon Steel Pow Wok, while our pre-seasoned pick is the Yosukata Black Carbon Steel Wok.

The Wok Shop Carbon Steel Pow Wok with Hollow Metal Handle

The Wok Shop Carbon Steel Pow Wok with Hollow Metal Handle

The Wok Shop

Yosukata Carbon Steel Wok Pan

Yokusata The Wok Shop Carbon Steel Wok with Wood Side Handles


Price at time of publish: $40 (The Wok Shop) and $60 (Yoskuata).

For the price, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better, easier to handle, or more heat responsive wok than this flat-bottomed, 14-inch model from Wok Shop. It is worth noting that Wok Shop is a small business and ships in batches, so—depending on when an order's placed—you might be waiting a while to get your wok (we do think it's worth it).

For those interested in a pre-seasoned wok that transfers heat quickly, is reasonably priced, has a helper handle, and is available on Amazon, we like the Yosukata wok. It comes covered in a protective film that needs to be scrubbed off prior to cooking, but is, for the most part, a solid pick. (Note: We used to recommend this Joyce Chen wok, but it has continuous stock issues.)


What kind of wok is best for an electric stove?

For an electric stovetop, you'll want to get a flat-bottomed wok. We recommend a 14-inch size and you can read our full review of flat-bottomed woks here.

What are the best woks made of?

We recommend buying a carbon steel wok. It heats quickly and evenly, is responsive to heat changes, is pretty affordable, and is easy enough to season and maintain. We do not recommend buying a nonstick, cast iron, or stainless steel wok.

Should a wok have a lid?

Yes! There are many times where you might want to simmer or braise a dish covered. In fact, dishes like whole steamed fish or steamed lobster practically demand a lid. And in the (hopefully rare) event of a grease fire or similar mishap, you’d be wise to keep a lid handy to snuff out those flames.

To be honest, you could get away with any lid that fits. But having a dedicated wok lid can be helpful, since many are designed with the wok’s large diameter in mind. In general, you’ve got two styles: the flat, lightweight wooden lids, and the more modern cloche-style metal or glass lids. The flat lids are low profile and don’t offer much clearance, but they’re considerably easier to store. The larger domed lids are better suited for tasks like steaming, since the added clearance allows air to circulate.