For the past few years, I've been working on a book about how to cook in a wok.* In the past, I've written about how the greatest barrier between a home cook and good wok-cooking is equipment: a Western home range simply doesn't have the heat output that a restaurant-style wok burner has, which leads to fundamentally different flavors in stir-fried dishes. A lot of the research and testing I've been doing for the book has focused on ways to overcome this barrier.
*If you're one of the folks asking when it will be released, the answer is WHEN IT'S READY.
The big problem is that in the US, we are most familiar with restaurant-style Chinese food. Chinese-American restaurant menus draw particularly heavily on Cantonese-style stir fries that rely on high heat. But do you think every household in China has a 160k BTU/hr jet engine burner installed? On the contrary, the food that most people eat in China every day is home-cooked, on equipment not vastly dissimilar from what's found in a Western kitchen.
That said, as someone who grew up with that elusively smoky flavor of restaurant-style Chinese food, it's something I long to capture in my own cooking. In the past, I've found moderate success stir-frying over burning coals. The torch hei technique Tim Chin wrote about for Serious Eats is also one of the strategies I employ in my book (and in my own kitchen). But for true restaurant-style food, you need a true restaurant-style burner. The kind that shoots up a jet of flame big enough to lick up and over the back edge of the wok as you toss, imparting that signature smokiness.
Luckily, if you've got a bit of outdoor space, a propane tank, and a bit of cash to spend, true restaurant-style stir-frying is within your grasp. Here are my recommendations.
Our Favorites, at a Glance
The Best Outdoor Wok Burner for Restaurant-Style Cooking: Powerflamer 160EI
The Powerflamer 160EI from Outdoorstirfry.com was the clear winner in my testing. It features a 20psi regulator that delivers a maximum hourly BTU output of 160k—more than ample for even a banquet-sized portion of fried rice or noodles—a burner ring that delivers maximum heat to the center of the wok (where it should go), a wok ring with a built-in heat guard to keep your hands (relatively) cool, and most importantly, a pilot that can be left on, and a gas-flow adjustment valve at the burner-end of the gas line, allowing you to adjust your flame dynamically as you cook without having to walk over to the propane tank.
The construction on this one is, let's say, "industrial chic." It's not much more than a restaurant-grade burner with a few parts welded onto it and a ring to rest your wok on, but if restaurant-style cooking is what you're after, restaurant equipment is what you need.
The Most Portable Outdoor Wok Burner That Still Performs Well: Eastman Outdoors Burner
The Eastman Outdoors Big Kahuna Wok Burner can put out a maximum of 65k BTU, which seems small compared to the other models I tested, however, because the flame is concentrated in the center, it's actually able to produce better wok hei and is more suitable for stir-frying than even the 200k+ BTU models I tested. It's inexpensive, and has telescoping legs that form a wide, stable tripod base. It's not quite powerful enough to cook for a huge party, but it'll easily handle enough food for even a large family meal. The major downsides are that it's a little low for comfortable cooking (at least for my 5'10" frame), and the only gas control is at the tank, rather than at the burner end of the line.
The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Wok Burner
A good wok burner must be suitable for stir-frying. It must be suitable for stir-frying a large volume of food. It must heat quickly and efficiently, and it must produce plenty of smoky wok hei (when you want it to). It should be capable of heating a carbon steel wok until it's literally glowing orange-hot, but it should also be able to maintain a low enough temperature to gently simmer braised dishes.
A good outdoor wok burner should also be easy to use. Wok cooking requires frequently adjusting the flame under the wok as you cook, so good placement of the gas valve is key.
A good wok burner should feel solid, stable, and robust, able to withstand the heavy-duty abuse that extreme temperatures and frequent banging with a wok full of food will impart. It should also feel safe. You shouldn't worry that your property or your body are going to catch on fire as you're preparing dinner, nor should you worry that a round-bottomed wok is going to roll around or spill over when you set it down on the cooking grate.
There's a wide range of outdoor burners designed for frying turkeys, brewing beer, and cooking in a wok, but when it comes down to it, many of them utilize similar burners, connectors, pressure regulators, and housing setups. The range of features in heavy-duty outdoor cooking equipment is not nearly as wide as it is for most other equipment, which made narrowing down my list to five burners relatively easy. In my roundup, I included a couple of high-output brewing burners with wide burner rings, a jet-style turkey fryer burner, a restaurant-style wok burner redesigned for outdoor use, and a portable multi-purpose burner.
For my testing, I was interested in gauging exactly how much energy each burner could transfer to the wok (as opposed to the total energy output of the burner), design elements that were suited or unsuited for wok cooking, ease of use, safety, and stability. To do this, I conducted five different tests: heating water to gauge efficiency; very simple egg-fried rice to taste for wok hei; a few recipes that rely on velveting or "passing through" oil (beef chow fun and sweet and sour chicken*); an extra-large batch of lo mein to push capacity to the max; and, to test versatility, a paella.
I started my test suspecting that I'd wind up recommending the most powerful burners. However, it turns out that the two weakest burners I tested were the best for wok cooking, and I'll explain why as we go through the testing.
Energy Input and Efficiency
First things first, efficiency. The heat output of a burner, measured in BTU/hr, can give you an idea of the maximum amount of energy it could possibly produce. For perspective, the average home burner produces between 3k to 9k BTU/hr. A high-end home burner may produce 12k BTU/hr, while a Western restaurant range may max out at around 35k BTU/hr. The outdoor burners I tested ranged from 65kBTU/hr up to 210K BTU/hr. Even the weakest is six times as powerful as the hottest burner on your stovetop.
However, the actual amount of energy that makes it into the wok can vary depending on a number of factors.
The first is combustion efficiency. No burner is perfectly efficient, but depending on how the gas is distributed and mixed with oxygen from the air, some are more efficient than others. (Incidentally, the color of a flame is directly correlated to the energy released by the flames; a blue flame is hotter than an orange flame, so blue flames are an indication of better combustion efficiency). The second is the shape of the burner. Burners that spread the flame out in a wide pattern lose a lot of energy to the air, where it's not going to do a lick of good in helping you cook (but it may well end up burning the hair off your hands).
To test this efficiency, I filled a carbon steel wok with two liters of water at exactly 20°C (about room temperature), set it on top of a burner, then turned on the burner at full blast and timed how long it took to bring the water (and the wok) to 100°C. In a hypothetical, completely efficient world, it takes 141 BTUs to raise the temperature of two liters of water by 80°C, and an additional 50 BTUs to heat a 1.5kg of carbon steel by the same amount, so let's say roughly 200BTUs total need to be added to the system.
With this number, you can calculate how long each burner should take to bring the water to 100°C in a perfectly efficient manner. By then dividing the actual time it takes to heat the water, you can roughly calculate its heating efficiency.
What you find is that no wok burner is particularly efficient. A huge amount of energy gets dissipated into the air while cooking in a wok, but the layout of the flame can still make a big impact on efficiency, as well as absolute performance.
The one with the highest BTU output, the Bayou Classic double jet burner, at 210k BTU/hr, brought the water to 100°C in just under a minute, and to a full rolling boil in about one minute 20 seconds. On an absolute scale, that's fast! But it's only about 5% efficient—95% of the energy output is being lost to the air. It's easy to see why: Because the grate is wide open, the powerful flames get directed around the sides of the wok.
Even less efficient were models with extra-wide burner rings, like the Concord Banjo Single Burner Stove, or the Gas One B-3600H. These burners, both of which put out a maximum of 200k BTU/hr, are designed for brewing. The heat they deliver is spread out across a burner that's around 10 inches in diameter. A massive amount of energy is lost out the sides when trying to cook on them with a 14 or even 18-inch wok. These guys clocked in with an efficiency of around 4%.
The two most efficient models were the Eastman Outdoors Portable Kahuna Burner and the Powerflamer 160EI. The 65k BTU/hr Kahuna burner brought the water to 100°C in 2 minutes for an efficiency of a little over 9%. The 160k BTU/hr Powerflamer, with a heat shield designed specifically for directing heat to the wok, brought water to 100°C in just 45 seconds—that's faster than even the powerful Bayou Classic—for an efficiency of just under 10%.
From an absolute energy-input perspective, the Powerflamer and the Bayou Classic were frontrunners, but the Powerflamer and the Kahuna won out in efficiency.
Wok cooking isn't just about energy making it into the pan, though. It's also about the energy imparted directly to the food in the form of convection as you toss it up and through the flame. That's where the bulk of smoky wok hei comes in.
To test this, I used my technique for perfect egg-fried rice: I start by frying beaten eggs then break them up with rice, tossing everything up and over the back of the burner with the intent of letting the flames lick up and singe the oil, and finally finishing with some seared light soy sauce and scallions.
Some of these techniques proved almost impossible with the larger Compass and Gas One brewing burners, particularly trying to toss the rice through the flame. Despite their higher energy output, the flames don't shoot up nearly as high as the flames on the Powerflamer, Bayou Classic, or Kahuna, because the flame is spread out across such a wide area.
The other problem those two burners faced was safety. Without any kind of protection between the flame and the handle of the wok, it becomes dangerously hot to try and grab the wok handle, even with a kitchen towel in your hand. I ended up relying on wearing a pair of leather welding gloves for heat protection, which made gripping the handle a little tricky. The Bayou Classic joined them with this issue.
The Kahuna, though it doesn't have a flame guard, only puts out 65k BTU, which is much more bearable during cooking. (Even with 65k BTU, you can easily achieve wok hei when cooking a four-person serving of fried rice).
Only the Powerflamer, with its built-in flame guard, was able to produce smoky fried rice without burnt knuckles.
Velveting and Passing-Through
Velveting and "passing through" are two techniques common in restaurant-style Chinese cooking. Velveting involves marinating meat (usually chicken, pork, or fish) with egg whites and cornstarch, then briefly boiling or deep-frying it in the wok before draining and stir-frying. Passing through is a similar technique, in which sliced meat (such as pork or beef) is briefly passed through hot oil to start the cooking process before it's drained and stir-fried. Both of these techniques rely on being able to rapidly heat a cup or two of water and oil, as well as making on-the-fly adjustments to flame level as you move through the various stages of the process.
Four of the burners I tested (and pretty much every turkey fryer and brewing burner on the market) had a gas adjustment valve located only at the point of connection to the propane tank. For safety, I keep this tank several feet away from the live flame of the burner, which meant that every time I needed to adjust the heat on one of those burners, I had to step away from the wok. And when we're talking jet engine-level heat sources, even a few extra seconds at full blast made the difference between perfect stir-fries and burnt ones.
Moreover, if you accidentally turn the gas down too low, there's a good chance your flame will go completely out, which means you then need to re-light it with a handheld lighter and adjust the flame again. This happened to me multiple times, and made stir-frying even more hectic than it already was.
The Powerflamer features a gas adjustment valve right in front of the burner, and even better, it has an electronic ignition along with a pilot flame that can be left always-on, meaning you can adjust the flame or shut it off completely and reignite it without having to move from your spot.
For this test, I cooked a double batch (enough to feed eight) of my stir-fried lo mein, to test how effectively the burners heated up a large amount of food and to see how stable they felt holding up a heavy wok. On an indoor home range, attempting to cook this much at once would cause vegetables and noodles to steam instead of sear, making them mushy and dull as opposed to bright and crunchy.
The only burner that struggled a little bit with a full load was the Kahuna. 65k BTU/hr is a lot, but it has its limits at around six servings at a time.
A classic paella involves evenly heating a wide, shallow pan full of rice, meat, vegetables, and stock so that the rice cooks evenly and forms a browned crust across the entire bottom with no burnt or undercooked spots. This was the only test in which the wide burners and open sides on the Compass and Gas One burners proved more effective than the concentrated rings on the Bayou classic, Kahuna, and Powerflamer. With those wide burners, I could center the paella pan and cook the dish all the way through without having to move it. With the other three burners, I had to treat them more like I do indoor burners, moving the paella pan around as I cooked in order to heat the bottom evenly. Even then, it was difficult to cook without accidentally burning the crusty socarrat (the browned layer of crispy rice at the bottom of the paella) in spots.
How We Chose Our Winners
Throughout my testing, there was one clear frontrunner and it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only one specifically designed for wok cooking: the Powerflamer 160EI. It was the most comfortable to cook with, it was the most efficient, it produced the smokiest wok hei, and it has the best features. The only problems it has are minor—legs that feel a little too narrow-set, packaging that felt like it came from someone's garage (it comes packed with scraps of cardboard and paper as cushioning, rather than custome-designed packaging), and a confusing ordering website that feels like it was designed in the '90s. Once you start cooking with it, however, there's no looking back.
I do want to note, however, that for some cooks, the Powerflamer might actually be a little too powerful. For many dishes, I find myself cooking with it at only half-blast, and more than once I burned eggs or meat so badly that I had to toss them out and start over. It has a learning curve. For many users, the 65k BTU/hr Eastman Kahuna Burner will be more than adequate, especially if you value portability, versatility, and a better-looking, more sleekly designed product.
The Best Outdoor Wok Burner: Powerflamer 160EI
The Powerflamer was the clear winner in all of these tests, thanks to its ample power, a burner designed to put the flame where it's supposed to go, and good features like a flame guard, an always-on pilot, and flame adjustment knobs right on the wok instead of by the propane tank. You can also get models that are compatible with your home's natural gas line, or for use with disposable camp stove propane bottles, increasing its versatility.
If there are any downsides to it, it's the aesthetics. It's a restaurant-style industrial wok burner, and it looks like one. The metal tripod legs are simple pipes that connect to the burner with a screw. It feels stable enough, but long-term I plan on figuring out a more permanent installation method, perhaps building it into a metal table or cart.
Incidentally, the wok-cooking setups available from The Wonder Wok have similar burners and specs to the Powerflamer, and you can buy kits there that include a metal cart. I didn't include those burners in my testing because they were unavailable at the time that I was ordering burners, and they're significantly pricier than the Powerflamer and other models.
While it's possible to save some money by setting up a rig like this for yourself at home using individually-purchased parts, spending the extra cash was more than worth to me, since I didn't want to deal with navigating the dizzying array of connectors and lines and valves available.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, at full blast, this burner goes through a 20-pound propane tank in about two-and-a-half hours.
The Sleeker, Slightly-Less-Powerful Option: Eastman Portable Kahuna Burner
If you don't plan on cooking for more than four to six people at a time, and you prefer a burner that looks like it is designed for home use and is easy to set up, you may want to opt for the Eastman Portable Kahuna Burner. The telescoping legs, which are held in place with thumb screws, are a particularly nice feature, allowing you to easily pop the burner into your trunk for a camping trip or a day at the beach, or giving you the option to tuck it away in the shed for storage. Even with a relatively meager 65k BTU, it still produces plenty of wok hei and is powerful enough for all but the most heavy-duty stir-fry jobs.
At full blast, a 20-pound propane tank will last about six hours.
Essential Wok-Cooking Equipment
For indoor wok cooking, I generally recommend a flat-bottomed carbon steel wok, like the Joyce Chen Pro. But for my outdoor wok burner, I opt for a more traditional round-bottomed version. My current favorite is the Couner Hand-Hammered Carbon Steel Wok, which is made from heavy-gauge steel, takes on a slick non-stick coating quickly, and has a sturdy handle and helper handle.
There are a few accessories that are also essential for wok cooking. The most important is a long-handled wok spatula and wok ladle. This two piece set is a reasonable size and price for home cooking needs. I also have awooden lid that I use for braising and simmering in my wok. Finally, a bamboo brush makes scrubbing out the wok quick and easy.
It may seem unfair that I included burners that are designed for other tasks in a testing of wok burners, but I did so because people frequently suggest that a turkey fryer is your best bet for outdoor wok cooking. Indeed, I've even suggested it in the past, and if you've already got a turkey fryer or brewery burner, you may not see a need to buy a separate outdoor burner just for wok cooking. As such, I don't see a need to go into the details of why each of the three other burners I tried, (the Bayou Classi, the Concord, and the Gas One) didn't make the cut. All of them had the same issue: a flame that spreads out too much, which makes stir-frying both inefficient and painful.