When I was in college, me and my friends used to hang out at one place after classes that served great stir fry and spring rolls. Food was inexpensive enough for students, however when we started eating out almost every day, cost added up. Friend of mine and I decided to make same stir fry at home at fraction of cost. After making several failed attempts of making a stir fry in a frying pan, stainless steel pan, I bought a thin and inexpensive wok, it did not work as well as metal was too thin, I had no real patience of seasoning the wok.
Around that time I started watching “Yan can cook” in PBS cooking show and started to learn lot more about cooking Chinese food and way it was cooked. I heard that one can cook anything in a wok, and they were right. I bought a right carbon steel wok 8 years ago that I still use today. I have learned how to season it properly and maintained it.
What is wok?
Wok is a round bottom, curved cooking pan used to cook food in high direct heat. Woks are generally used for stir frying but it can be used for steaming, deep frying, braising, making stew and soups, smoking food (with wok tray on top). One can cook with long handled spatula to stir and flip food in wok and long enough to not burn a hand during the process.
Classic woks have round and curved bottom shape. Hand hammered woks are flipped inside out before being made in to a wok, giving glare inside of wok surface that is easy to slide and push the food during the cooking. There also flat bottom wok made specially for western market that can be used over the electric stove top, and flat bottom wok can looks like deeper frying pan.
Wok comes in a few sizes, we think around 16 inches diameter should be good enough for family of 4 people.
There are two types of handles, loop handle and stick handle. Look handles are more common and is made of bare metal. Some loop sided handle have a wooden or plastic cover to that is cool to touch during the cooking. Bare metal loop handles can be used with thick kitchen towel around it. Loop handles are usually on both sides, one short and one long handle for firmer grip. Stick handles are made of steel and usually welded or riveted on the wok base. Stick handles might be covered with wood or plastic cover.
Wok can come in a few type of material including stainless steel but most common and popular material for wok is carbon steel and cast iron. Carbon steel is inexpensive, light in weight, durable and good heat conductor. However carbon steel wok requires seasoning process and hand washing. There are great hand hammered and multi ply carbon steel wok that are great to use.
Cast iron woks are better at heat retaining and unified distribution of heat but there are some disadvantages, Chinese cast iron are thin and fragile enough to break or bent if dropped and bare cast iron are slow to heat and very heavy to flip and stir in it with hand.
What can you cook in a wok?
Most people can think stir fry when it comes to wok however, one can cook pretty much anything in a wok, it is really a versatile piece of cookware that you can own; Here are a few things you can cook in a wok;
- Boiling: Boil water, Make rice, or soup
- Braising: Reducing sauces
- Deep frying: Frying donuts, fritter, french fries, onion rings etc
- Steaming: can be done by boiling water in a wok and using steaming baskets over it
- Smoking: Not that of smoking!, smoking food in rack around the rim of wok.
- Stew: Making stew
Types of wok:
There are two type of wok, traditional and electric wok.
Traditional woks are designed round and curved bottom to be used over a pit style stove, where heat if fully directed at wok bottom. Sometime traditional wok can be used on electric stove top (for example, flat top stove) by using a “wok ring” at the bottom, which can provide stability and heat concentration.
Click here to see : Traditional Wok
Electric Woks can be round or flat bottom and generally are not well suited for stir frying or other quick cooking method. As most electric wok do not produce enough heat needed for the stir frying, it turns stir frying in to a stew. Electric woks are well suited generally for slow cooking method such as stewing, braising, boiling and steaming. There are a few electric wok that claims to produce plenty heat for stir frying, we can not recommend it until we have tried and used it ourselves.
The best electric wok that heats up nicely and does very well is Breville EW30XL Electric Gourmet Wok. Many people are raving about it and ease of cleaning and using to stir fry and do more.
Click here to see all electric wok
We prefer carbon steel traditional wok with “wok ring” to use it on our flat stove top. We think 16 inches diameter size should be good enough for 4 people, however you may buy smaller or bigger size depending on your size of family and type of food you will be cooking. Buy a wok with lid and extra accessory as needed.