Woks 101: Your ultimate guide to choosing and using a wok

If you’re looking to cook up some delicious Chinese cuisine, a wok is an essential kitchen tool.

This guide to woks will cover everything you need to know about buying, seasoning, and caring for your wok, as well as tips and tricks for cooking with it. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, this guide will help you get the most out of your wok and take your Chinese cooking to the next level.

What is a wok?

A wok is a round-bottomed cooking pan that originated in China. It is typically made of carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel, and has high, sloping sides that make it easy to toss and stir-fry ingredients. Woks are traditionally used in Chinese cuisine, but they have become popular all over the world due to their versatility and ease of use.

A fascinating and versatile tool, the wok is capable of replacing most of your kitchen equipment — from quick stir-fried veggies to soup or steamed buns, you can cook a lot of things in it.   

Check out Chinese people’s perspective on the wok in P.F. Chang’s video “Science of the Wok”.

Wok vs frying pan

Some of the main differences:

  • A wok is a traditional Chinese cookware with a round bottom and much deeper walls than fry pans. 
  • A wok is typically made of carbon steel, stainless steel, or black steel. These materials are lightweight, highly heat resistant, and have natural nonstick properties. 
  • A wok requires seasoning before first use and the nonstick properties come out only after several uses.
  • A wok is more versatile than a frying pan, as it can be used for stir-frying, frying, steaming, smoking, deep-frying, or even cooking soup. 
  • A wok can cook larger amounts of food at once and circulates heat evenly thanks to its curved shape.

And when it comes to the frying pan:

  • A frying pan can cook food more evenly on a flat surface and requires less oil than a wok.
  • A frying pan can be made from a wider range of materials, such as aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, or ceramic. Some frying pans have an additional nonstick coating on the inside, such as Teflon or other synthetic layers.

Why use a wok?

Properties of a wok

A wok is a round-bottomed cooking pan that originated in China. It’s made of carbon steel or cast iron, which allows it to heat up quickly and retain heat evenly.

The shape of the wok is also important.

The sloping sides allow food to cook quickly and evenly, while the rounded bottom makes it easy to stir and toss the ingredients. The high sides also prevent food from spilling out of the pan, making it perfect for deep-frying and stir-frying.

Benefits of cooking in a wok

One of the biggest benefits of cooking in a wok is that it can handle high-heat cooking. This makes it perfect for stir-frying, which requires cooking at high temperatures for a short amount of time. The high sides of the wok also make it easy to stir and toss the ingredients, ensuring that everything cooks evenly.

Another benefit of cooking in a wok is that it’s great for making sauces. The smaller floor of the wok helps prevent your sauces from reducing too quickly while the sloped edges keep your food visible, avoid it steaming, and restrains it from jumping out. This allows you to cook your sauces for longer periods, which helps to develop their flavors.

Finally, a wok is also great for deep-frying. The high sides of the wok prevent oil from splattering all over your stove, while the rounded bottom makes it easy to stir and toss the food. This ensures that everything cooks evenly and gets crispy on all sides.

What can you cook in a wok?

When it comes to cooking with a wok, stir-frying is the most popular method. The wok’s unique shape and high sides make it perfect for tossing ingredients quickly over high heat, resulting in deliciously crispy and perfectly cooked dishes.

But a wok can be used for other cooking techniques too. Here are some other ways you can use your wok:

  • Deep-frying: A wok can be used for deep-frying, as its high sides prevent oil from splattering and spilling over. Try making crispy fried chicken or tempura vegetables in your wok.
  • Steaming: With the help of a steaming rack or bamboo basket, a wok can be used to steam vegetables, dumplings, and even fish. Steaming is a healthy cooking method that preserves the nutrients and flavors of the food.
  • Smoking: Woks can also be used for smoking food, especially if you have a wok with a lid. Try smoking salmon or chicken for a unique and flavorful twist on traditional dishes.
  • Roasting: Roasting in a wok is similar to roasting in a regular oven, but with the added benefit of being able to stir the ingredients around easily. Try roasting vegetables or even a whole chicken in your wok.
  • Braising: A wok can be used for braising, which involves cooking food slowly in a flavorful liquid. Try making a delicious beef stew or braised pork belly in your wok.

Choosing the right wok

When it comes to choosing the right wok, there are several factors to consider.

Materials used in making woks

Woks come in different materials, including carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron, and nonstick coating.

Carbon steel woks are the most commonly used woks in Chinese cooking. They are lightweight, durable, and heat up quickly. Carbon steel woks require seasoning before use, which involves coating the wok with oil and heating it. This process creates a natural nonstick surface and prevents rusting.

Stainless steel woks are also popular, as they are easy to clean and maintain. They are a good option for those who are allergic to nickel, which is commonly found in carbon steel. However, stainless steel woks are not as good at conducting heat as carbon steel woks, which can make stir-frying more difficult.

Aluminum woks are lightweight and heat up quickly, but they are not as durable as other materials. They can also react with acidic ingredients, such as tomatoes and vinegar, which can affect the taste of the food.

Cast iron woks are heavy and hold heat well, making them a good option for deep-frying and braising. However, they are not as responsive to changes in temperature, which can make stir-frying more difficult.

Nonstick coating woks are a good option for those who are new to stir-frying, as they are easy to clean and require less oil than other woks. However, they are not as durable as other materials and can scratch easily if not handled properly.

Flat-bottom woks are a variation of traditional round-bottomed woks that can be used on flat stovetops. They are easier to use than round-bottomed woks, as they do not require a wok ring or stand to stabilize them. Flat bottom woks are often made of carbon steel or cast iron.

Woks are made from a variety of materials, including cast iron, stainless steel, aluminum, and copper. Each material has its own unique properties and benefits. Cast iron woks are durable and retain heat well, while stainless steel woks are easy to clean and maintain. 

Aluminum woks are lightweight and heat up quickly, while copper woks are excellent conductors of heat. Carbon steel woks are the most common and affordable option, and are great for everyday use.

Available sizes and shapes of woks on the market

Woks come in a range of sizes, from small (8 inches) to large (30 inches). The size you choose will depend on how many people you are cooking for and how much food you need to prepare. Generally, a 14-inch wok is a good size for cooking for 2-5 people. Woks also come in different shapes, including round-bottomed and flat-bottomed. Round-bottomed woks are traditional and work well on gas stoves, while flat-bottomed woks are better suited for electric stoves.

Different types of wok bases

Woks can have different types of bases, including flat, curved, and tapered. Flat bases are best for electric stoves, while curved and tapered bases are better for gas stoves. Some woks also have metal “ears” that allow you to hang them over a fire for outdoor cooking.

Types of wok handles

Woks can have different types of handles, including round, long metal or wooden handles, and double handles. Round handles are the most common and are easy to grip, while long metal or wooden handles are great for maneuvering the wok over a hot stove. Double handles are useful for larger woks and can make it easier to lift and pour.

Flat-bottomed vs. round-bottomed woks

As mentioned earlier, flat-bottomed woks are better suited for electric stoves, while round-bottomed woks are better for gas stoves. Round-bottomed woks also require a wok ring to stabilize them on the stove. However, round-bottomed woks are more traditional and can be easier to toss and flip food in.

Wok accessories

When it comes to cooking with a wok, having the right accessories can make all the difference. Here are some essential wok accessories that you should consider adding to your collection:

Lid

A lid is an essential accessory for a wok. It helps to trap heat and steam, which is important for cooking certain dishes. A lid can also be used to keep food warm while you finish cooking other dishes.

Wok spatula

A wok spatula is a must-have accessory for any wok cook. It has a long handle that allows you to reach into the wok without burning your hands. The flat bottom of the spatula is perfect for stir-frying and flipping food.

Wok ring

A wok ring is a metal ring that sits on top of your stove burner and holds your wok in place. It helps to stabilize the wok and prevent it from tipping over. Wok rings come in different sizes, so make sure you get one that fits your wok.

Bamboo steamer

A bamboo steamer is a great accessory for steaming food in your wok. It’s perfect for cooking dumplings, vegetables, and other delicate foods. The steamer sits inside the wok, and the steam from the boiling water below cooks the food.

Wire mesh skimmer

A wire mesh skimmer is a handy accessory for removing food from hot oil or boiling water. It’s perfect for removing fried foods from the wok or skimming the foam off the top of a broth.

Wok brush

A wok brush is a useful accessory for cleaning your wok. It’s designed to get into all the nooks and crannies of the wok and scrub away any food residue. A wok brush is typically made of bamboo or other natural materials. 

Seasoning, cleaning, and maintenance of a wok

If you want your wok to last a long time, you need to take care of it. Proper seasoning, cleaning, and maintenance are essential to keeping your wok in good condition. Here are some tips on how to do it:

Seasoning your wok

Only carbon steel and cast iron woks need to be seasoned. This will make a smooth non-stick surface. There is also an opinion that it will help infuse flavors into the dishes cooked inside. Without first seasoning your wok, any foods cooked there inside will likely stick to the walls and bottom. 

Woks seasoned well and used repeatedly will develop a uniform dark patina.

Here’s the rough outline:

  1. Wash your wok with hot water and a sponge to remove any dirt or debris.
  2. Dry your wok thoroughly with a clean towel.
  3. Heat your wok over high heat until it starts to smoke.
  4. Add a tablespoon of oil to the wok and swirl it around to coat the inside.
  5. Turn the heat down to medium and continue to swirl the oil around the wok for a few minutes.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the wok cool down.
  7. Repeat the process two or three more times until your wok has a shiny, non-stick surface.

What to season your wok with:

  • Seasoning wax, i.e., like this one.
  • Cooking oil — peanut, canola, grape seed, sunflower oil. 
  • Some resources claim you can use lard or pork fat. It’s up to you if you want to try it.

The Serious Eats offers a great video on this:


“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.”

Serious Eats

Cleaning your wok

When it comes to cleaning your wok, less is more. Here’s what you should do:

  • Use hot water and a sponge to clean your wok after each use.
  • Never use soap or harsh cleansers, as they can damage the seasoning on your wok.
  • Don’t use metal scrubbers or abrasive sponges, as they can scratch the surface of your wok.
  • Dry your wok thoroughly with a clean towel before storing it.

Tips for caring for and maintaining your wok

Maintaining your wok is important to keep it in good condition. Here are some tips:

  • Store your wok in a dry place to prevent rust.
  • Don’t stack your woks, as this can damage the seasoning on the inside.
  • Re-season your wok if the surface becomes damaged or if food starts to stick to it.
  • Use your wok regularly to keep the seasoning intact.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you have now learned all about woks! From choosing the right wok for your needs to seasoning and maintaining it properly, you are now ready to start cooking up delicious stir-fry dishes.

Remember, when choosing a wok, consider the material, size, and shape that will work best for the type of cooking you plan to do. A carbon steel wok is a great all-purpose option, but a cast iron or nonstick wok may be better for specific dishes.

Once you have your wok, be sure to season it properly to create a non-stick surface that will only improve with use. Regular maintenance, such as cleaning and oiling, will help your wok last for years to come.

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