Which wok for you?

I’ve been getting many wok-related questions lately so here’s a post to (hopefully) answer all your questions.

The first question is always what kind of wok I use. I use a simple carbon-steel wok I got from Chinatown for just about $15. It’s a simple, hand hammered wok with hollow metal handle. The metal is very thin. It transfers heat well, but doesn’t hold it very long. This is fine if you know how to work with it. I actually prefer using it over Western style pan with thicker metal that retains heat better, but only for stir-frying of course. That steel wok has been serving me just fine for a couple years now.

SteelwokMy best advice is to pop down to a Chinatown near you and find a carbon-steel wok that looks and feels good in your hand – make sure it’s at least 13-14 inch wide, and light enough that you could pick up and shake it with relative ease. That pretty much rules out those absurdly expensive cast iron woks – the purpose of which so far eludes me.

If there’s no good Chinatown nearby, I found two that you can order online. Amazon has one that comes with a lid, though the price is a bit steep at $31 – but the lid is handy to have and with Amazon Prime you could get it with free shipping. If not, I found one cheaper on a site selling Thai Tthaiwok
ingredients, only $15, but with round rather than flat bottom. No idea what their shipping fees are, however. Check with them before you have it shipped to Alaska or don’t come crying to me later.

A wok like these ones work best on a gas stove, especially if it has high BTUs. If you’re not so confident with the power of your stove, or you have electric stove, a wok is not going to work very well. I once had to endure such a disadvantage, not for long mind you, but I suffered just the same. Anyway, let’s not go into my past misery, let me tell you instead about how I worked around the problem.

First I can tell you what doesn’t work well as a wok replacement, a
regular size frying pan – say about 8-9 inch in diameter, and usually
with a sloping side that doesn’t come up high enough, or a straight side that’s not
conducive for tossing things. The operative word in stir-frying is
STIR. You want to be able to stir, toss and move things about
quickly. Try that in a small pan and bits of tofu will be flying across the room.

A good alternative I used for a while was a large All-Clad
"Everyday Pan". It’s basically a round, flat-bottom pan with a sloping side
that goes up higher than on a regular frying pan. It’s also quite a
bit wider than regular pans, at about 13inch in diameter. I don’t think All-clad makes
it anymore, the nearest thing I’ve found was an Emeril-endorsed pan
with the same shape and size but with a non-stick surface. I don’t
know about Emeril but I can tell you now I’m not suggesting you to
buy a non-stick anything – that’s just not going to happen. Any decent wok or pan, if used properly, is not going to stick. (All you have to do is get the pan hot first before you add oil.)

Happily I found two alternatives that are close enough to that pan I
liked. Calphalon makes a hard-anodized pan that’s 12-inch, in that
similar shape to my old All-Clad, and Kitchenaid makes a similar one
but in stainless-steel. I’ve never used a Kitchenaid pan, so if pressed I’d say I recommend the Calphalon one – I’ve had good experience with their anodized material – but I’m pretty sure
either will work just fine. Amazon happens to have pretty amazing
deals on both pans at the moment. The Calphalon is down from
$168 to just about $40,
and the Kitchenaid is $25, a discount from the
regular price at $50.

How to season a wok

There are many ways to season a pan or a wok, here’s how I do it.

add to your wok one cup of oil -€“make sure you brush the oil over all
the inside surface of the wok- and heat the wok until it is smoking.
Tilt the pan around to keep lubricating the surface with oil and let it
continues to smoke for a few minutes – make sure your smoke vent is
running and all the windows are open, by the way. Remove the pan from the heat and dispose of the oil (properly).

Pour half a cup of kosher salt
into the wok and, with a kitchen rag, rub the salt all over the inside
surface of the wok. Throw out the salt, wipe the wok clean with a damp
towel. You might need to wipe a few times to get all the black soot out. Pour a small amount of oil into a paper towel and wipe the oil
all over the inside surface again. Your wok is now seasoned and ready.

How to clean a wok

I hardly ever use soap on my wok. I usually rinse it with very hot water right after use. I’m quite harsh on it actually. I use a copper mesh wire to scrub of bits that doesn’t want to come out after the hot
water rinse. I wipe it dry immediately, every time. The carbon steel
rusts very easily. Occasionally I wipe a bit of oil all over the
inside surface, but not every time. Usually just a rinse is enough.

I don’t think you should bother buying one of those bamboo "wok scrubber" thingy that’s always on sale with a wok. It’s marketed more for its perceived authenticity than its particular usefulness. Get one of those copper mesh wire from the supermarket. When it gets old and got bits of icky food stuck all over it – which it inevitably will – you can just dump it and get a new one for pennies.

Now you’ve got your wok, happy stir-frying, and check out these wok-friendly recipes chez moi!

Pad Thai for Beginners
Pad See Ew for Beginners
Khao Pad Panang Goong
Noodle with green garlic, shitake, and crab meat

P.S. If I missed anything or if you’ve got your own wok-related advice you’d like to share, go ahead, tell us.

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23 Responses to “Which wok for you?

  • Love at first bite said:
    February 4th, 2008 at 2:58pm

    Great, informative post Pim! Another idea for people still curious about woks out there is to pick up a copy of “The Breath of Wok” by Grace Young. Although i don’t have a copy of it myself i have leafed through it several times at borders and read multiple reviews online (I’m a starving college student and have to be choosy on the books i spend money on). From what I can tell it is a great book filled with an abundance of historical background on woks and their history and variations. There are also a bunch of recipes that all looked authentically Chinese. I would have picked up a copy had i not opted for “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” instead. Cheers!

  • s. liao said:
    February 4th, 2008 at 3:00pm

    the wok shop seems to sell good woks: http://www.wokshop.com/products_main.html and tigers and strawberries had a few posts on woks that were helpful: http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/01/25/lets-talk-woks/ and http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/02/20/wok-wonderings/

  • yish said:
    February 4th, 2008 at 3:02pm

    A Japanese friend taught me to heat the wok intensively after scrubbing, and then quickly wipe it with a paper towel dabbed in oil. It gives the wok a nice, fine anti-rust coat. I’m sure you’re familiar with this ritual – what do you think of it?

  • Brendon said:
    February 4th, 2008 at 3:50pm

    In your post you suggest using a ‘cup of oil’. I assume you mean vegetable oil or something like that. I just wanted to add my 2c and say that I found that reg veg oil, like canola, will eventually build up a sticky residue and wasn’t the most effective seasoning agent.
    For seasoning pans, cast iron or steel, I like to rub a THIN layer of Criso (the ONLY use it gets in my kitchen) over the pan and then bake it in the oven at 450 for an obscene amount of time. Obviously you can’t do this with a wooden handle, but I’ve heated it over high on my gas stove too with great results. The inside surface will blacken as you heat it (be sure to turn off all your fire alarms for a little while). Let it cool then repeat once or twice until you have a nice, solid black surface that water beads on rather than wets. The surface is so durable that I only have to renew it once every year or so. And I never use soap, just hot water and elbow grease. If that thought is unappetizing, its probably best to go with the anodized aluminum pan you recommend.
    This method of seasoning rescued my wok from the closet and made it my preferred pan.

  • Girl and the City said:
    February 4th, 2008 at 7:54pm

    Thanks for that! Must buy my first wok soon!!! 🙂
    xox Girl and the City (in Paris)

  • Ore said:
    February 5th, 2008 at 10:55am

    Thanks for the refresher – I hope to use it along with your Pad Thai For Beginners course! Excellent.

  • barbara said:
    February 6th, 2008 at 11:28pm

    Thanks for that info Pim. I’ve just moved to an apartment without gas and have wondered how to stir fry on a black ceramic top electric stove.

  • Dave S said:
    February 7th, 2008 at 12:11pm

    We’ve been using a Le Creuset cast iron wok for years. It’s a little bit easier to use than a regular wok because it has a flat bottom (but the inside is round). It doesn’t rust and it retains heat like…cast iron. But you can’t toss the food around.

  • Diane Carlson said:
    February 8th, 2008 at 3:21pm

    I agree with yish. I rinse mine & scrub with a no-soap sponge, then heat to smoking over the burner, and wipe out with a paper towel with a TINY bit of oil. Then heat some more until it burns in a bit.
    I don’t do that bit with the oil every time, but I do it every 3rd or 4th time – when it’s starting to look dry. I do heat to smoking every time to dry it. I have a cheap Chinatown spun-iron wok as well (not as cheap as yours – I think mine was $25!), and I love it.

  • sam said:
    February 9th, 2008 at 7:13pm

    can someone explain to me why you shouldn’t use a wok on an electric stove? I have been trying but the food keeps burning on the bottom. I assumed it was something I was doing wrong, or that I hadn’t seasoned it correctly or something. Now wondering if I can pass the blame to my silly electric stove top. Sucks being a renter sometimes!

  • Cal said:
    February 10th, 2008 at 2:23pm

    Is there a way of rescuing a rusty wok?

  • Sue said:
    February 10th, 2008 at 8:40pm

    I got my wok (carbon steel) in Chinatown (NYC) over 25 years ago! I’m just now thinking it may be time for a new one.
    I love your blog…I just did a sidebar review of it on my blog. It’ll be up for a few days.

  • Weefz said:
    March 3rd, 2008 at 4:00am

    Great advice on seasoning and cleaning, Pim.
    Can you tell me what the purpose of scrubbing it with salt is? I’ve just been heating and wiping with oil for the past couple of years – it seems to do the job though I do get flaky black bits coming off now and then.

  • Eric said:
    April 8th, 2008 at 7:51am

    In my experience, lard or tallow make the best fats for seasoning a pan, if vegetarian cooking isn’t a priority. Seasoning in the oven (per Brendon’s comment above) is simpler and produces marvelous results. In spite of the numerous recommendations to the contrary, it’s perfectly fine to use soap or detergent to wash a seasoned pan. But, you should never apply the soap directly to the pan. Instead, use soapy water. And never soak a seasoned pan.
    sam: Gas stoves are far superior to electric stoves for cooking with a wok. That said, I’ve found that with some electric stoves, it helps a lot if you use a wok ring with your wok. I’ve only tried it on the stoves with the traditional electric burners, so no idea if it would work on a flat-top range. For the size of the ring, you want the small end to fit completely around the burner, and the large end to support your wok so that it’s within 1.5 inch or so of the burner, but doesn’t touch it.
    Cal: you can save a rusty pan with no wooden parts by putting it in a black plastic garbage bag with a cup or two of ammonia and leaving it in the sun for a few days, then cleaning and re-seasoning it. If the rust isn’t too bad, you can just use steel wool, a bit of vegetable oil, and a whole lot of elbow grease to remove it.

  • Carlisle said:
    July 10th, 2008 at 10:24am

    For those of you who might not have the stove space for a wok I suggest trying an electric wok. If you are willing to spend a bit more money you will be making a good investment in the long run. Electric woks get just as hot if not hotter and seem to maintain heat fairly well. The one I purchased was a Breville EW30 nonstick and I have never enjoyed cooking stir fry so much! Cleanup is a breeze, I just remove the wok from the base and throw it in the dishwasher. I recently traveled to Thailand and took a cooking class where we learned how to stir fry veggies in a wok. The most important thing about cooking with a wok is to make sure you put the ingredients into the wok in the correct order for example if you are cooking with carrots, red peppers and bean sprouts you would want to start with the longest cooking item which in this case is carrots, then peppers, then bean sprouts are always last because they mostly consist of water. If you feel like some of the ingredients are cooking too fast or you don’t want them to be overdone I recommend putting them up on the sides of the wok where it isn’t so hot so everything cooks evenly. What is also great about an electric wok is that when you are all done frying the food you can turn it to a very low heat setting and let it be until you are ready to serve without over cooking it. In the end you get a hot, perfectly cooked, delicious meal that will have people coming back for seconds and maybe even thirds! If you are interested in finding out what other people have to say about all brands of electric woks check out this site, it really helped me choose a great product http://wize.com/electric-skillets-and-woks/for/stir-fry/2064

  • Dan Stanley said:
    November 9th, 2008 at 7:54am

    I have used a flat bottom carbon steel wok for years now to stir fry on a electric stove. I recently purchased a 14 inch iron/enamel(cast iron) flat bottom wok made in china from the wok shop in San Fransico. Season it in the oven as described in the pamphlet sent with it, than cook some garlic and green onion over high heat in plenty of oil after it is seasoned. Use more oil than normal the first few times you use it, than it will be nicely seasoned. Do not use soap to clean it, just hot water.

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  • Tiffany Pendant said:
    February 8th, 2010 at 10:14pm

    Oops, re-reading that it sounded a little critical, I was more wondering what I did wrong, how I can make it better. Any suggestions?

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  • JFVJ1 said:
    August 21st, 2010 at 8:52am

    Thanks for that! Will buy my first wok soon!

  • Roy said:
    September 29th, 2010 at 4:53pm

    I have been a fan of wok cooking for over 30 years.I still own my first authentic Chinese hand hammered wok I bought off T.V. in 1987! I now own an outside wok burner and my barbecue grill is getting dusty. I just started a fan site for woks at http://www.carbonsteelwok.info if anyone has any suggestions for content. Thanks for a great site.

  • alex said:
    October 21st, 2013 at 8:43pm

    cast iron woks a called kazan in Uzbekistan and are used for this great dish – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilaf

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