Updated December 11th, 2018 – Asian cuisines are among the healthiest in the world. Low in fat, Asian cooking involves lots of vegetables and seafood. Red meat is used sparingly and as a flavoring rather than as the main event. If you’re tired of calling for take-out whenever you crave Asian food, then getting a carbon steel wok and trying your hand a something new might just be the ticket!
Asian stir-fry is a quick and easy way to cook. All you really need are a couple of specialty sauces (available in most supermarkets), some vegetables, and a protein. And if you’re feeling particularly lazy, many vegetables come pre-cut in your supermarket’s produce section or salad bar!
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Stir-fry cooks quickly because woks are designed to cook foods for short periods at searingly high temperatures. Woks are versatile as well. Not only can you use your wok for stir frying, but you can also use it for frying, deep frying, boiling, braising, poaching, steaming, stewing, smoking, and even for making an omelet or roasting nuts.
With a carbon steel wok, you can still order take-out if you really want to, but you will also have the option of making your own Asian meals at home!
Check out my favorite wok setup. The Eastman Outdoor Wok is a home run for any household that enjoys cooking outdoors. The best part is, you can find it at Amazon RIGHT NOW, and it’s practically a steal.
A little context
If you think you can just toss a bunch of ingredients into a regular frying pan and a 5-star stir-fry dish will magically appear right before your eyes, you’re going to want to pull up a chair.
For thousands of years, the Chinese have used a rounded cooking surface called a wok. In Cantonese, the word “wok” means “cooking pot.” Most Asian cultures use woks as their main cooking utensil. In Japan, the word for wok translates to “Chinese pot.” In other Asian cultures, woks are known as Kuali. Indian culture also uses a wok. The word for which (like the Japanese) also translates to “Chinese pot!”
The first known woks appear in Han Dynasty tombs, as small terracotta versions on top of small terracotta stoves (like the ancient Egyptians, Han royalty went off into the next world prepared with all of the things they would need for the afterlife). Scholars agree, though, that the Han may have borrowed the wok from an earlier culture.
Two reasons the wok became a pervasive cooking pot are; they require very little fuel to cook in, and that they were versatile.
Transformation of the wok
In recent years, the wok has been refined and modified to fit the needs of the modern-day cook. A 21st-century wok is a lot more user-friendly than the massive, rounded cooking bowls used in the Han Dynasty. Thankfully, many wok models have retained the best features of their aged counterparts.
What makes a wok so special?
A wok is a wide, bowl-shaped cooking surface that allows the chef to cook meat and vegetables with an even distribution of heat. Traditionally, woks were made of carbon steel or cast iron. Now, woks can also be found in aluminum and stainless steel, with or without a nonstick coating. We do not recommend these materials.
The tall, flared edges of a wok are meant to keep your ingredients from jumping out of the side of the pan when you attempt to toss the contents. These tall edges ensure you don’t find half of your dinner on the floor instead of in the pan! The tall edges also give you more cooking space for searing ingredients. If you are browning meat, you can arrange it in a single layer almost to the edges of the wok, giving you more surface area than in a modern saute pan.
Traditionally, woks were always rounded. They were meant to sit in the coals of a fire. Newer models are often forged with a flat bottom to accommodate Westernized cooking surfaces. The flat surface ensures the pan won’t topple over if you leave it unattended.
Add a twist to your stir fry with vegetable noodles made using the best spiralizer for zoodles!
A word on cooking surfaces
Back in the old days (before the modern stove was invented), woks were meant to be nestled into the coals of a fire. Most of the outside surface of the vessel was in direct contact with the heat source. Cooking with a wok is equated with very high temperatures and also why woks are very economical in their use of energy – the cooking happens very fast, and the fire does not need to be fed as it does for longer cooking methods.
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Next, I’ll show you how to make your own curry powder.
Usually, the woks produced today are made with flat bottoms to accommodate modern stoves. These will work on gas or propane ranges, electric coils, and flat-top stoves with halogen burners. These pans work well, but they will never get as hot as you would like them to. If you need to buy a flat-bottomed wok for this kind of stove, I recommend that you buy a cast iron wok. Although cast iron cookware is quite heavy (you won’t be able to flip the food in the pan with a simple flick of your wrist) it gets hotter and stays hotter, better approximating true wok cooking.
If you have a gas or propane stove, you can remove the cast iron grate and use a wok ring that (sometimes) comes with your pan. This gets the wok a little closer to the heat source. This is a better option than the flat-bottomed wok. If you’re really, really lucky, and you have a high-end gas range like a Wolf or a Viking, you can get a cast iron wok ring accessory that is made for the stove. This is the closest that you will get to perfection in wok cooking!
Why should I choose a carbon steel wok over one made of other materials?
With no shortage of materials and options to choose from for your next wok, you’re probably wondering why you should choose a carbon steel wok over the other options. Electric, anodized aluminum, ceramic cast iron, and other nonstick surfaces are available. However, carbon steel does not release toxic chemicals when heated to a very high heat.
Carbon steel and cast iron are more similar than you think, both are made from iron and carbon but in different proportions. Carbon steel contains about 1 percent carbon while cast iron has 2 to 3 percent carbon. On paper, this looks almost insignificant, but it makes a world of difference. Both materials behave similarly when it comes to heat, but carbon steel is lighter and more pliable while cast iron is more brittle and heavier.
A carbon steel wok is also chip and crack-resistant, as it’s made from a durable metal. Even if woks made of other materials are less expensive than carbon steel, opt for the most expensive pan you can afford – fortunately, carbon steel cookware is relatively inexpensive – every wok being reviewed later in this article cost less than $50. Woks are meant to be used at very high heat, which can warp a cheap pan (this is a death knell if you have a flat-top stove). You’ll probably spend more money replacing a series of inexpensive woks than you would have if you’d purchased a quality carbon steel wok from the start.
Although carbon steel and cast iron share many of the desirable properties of a long-lasting cooking surface, carbon steel is the preferred material for your wok. Unless you really enjoy lifting heavy objects or have a flat-top stove, steer clear of a cast iron wok.
Why not cast iron
You may be asking yourself: but why can’t I use cast iron, It conducts heat extremely well and retains that heat just as well?
Interestingly enough, the answer to that question actually lies within the question. That same heat retention that we typically adore cast iron for, is a detriment in this case.
When using a wok, heat retention is actually the opposite of what we are looking for. Wok cooking requires rapid heat changes and this is a quality that cast iron simply does not have. And having to wait 3 minutes every time you need to change the temperatures will ruin that smokey flavor synonymous with wok cooking.
Cooking with a carbon steel wok only gets better with time.
If you’ve ever cooked with cast iron, you know how seasoning the pan allows the flavors to absorb into the cooking surface. The seasoning (also known as a patina) yields a depth of flavor that would be lost using a nonstick pan. Click here to see how to properly season cast iron.
KEN HOM suggests seasoning your wok as follows:
To a modern-day cook, the thought of not washing a pan may fly in the face of reason. In truth, cast iron and carbon steel shouldn’t be exposed to soap! Cleaning your carbon steel wok should consist of a simple rinse with hot water, followed by a wipe with a sponge or wet cloth. If food does stick, a bamboo wok cleaning brush or a stainless steel cloth (the one I have resembles Medieval chain mail) can be used. See my recommendation of some good non-abrasive sponges.
When cooking with your carbon steel wok, many recipes will call for oil in the pan so that the ingredients do not stick to the cooking surface. Never use olive oil or any other oil with a low flashpoint in your wok. Another benefit of a carbon steel wok is that it requires less oil with each use and becomes more nonstick over time.
What features should a good carbon steel wok have?
Chances are you won’t be pulling out the wok to cook an Asian stir-fry for one. Asian cuisine is as much about being with others as it is about nourishment. Be sure to choose a wok that can accommodate the number of people that you plan on feeding. A big wok is great for cooking and entertaining.
If you’re not sure what size to get, the Wok Shop provides these recommendations:
- 12″ for up to 5 people
- 14″ for 6 to 12 people
- 16″ for over 12 people
For a big wok, I’d recommend choosing a model that has a wooden handle, as well as a helper handle on the other end of the wok. A wok that’s full and heavy will be difficult to lift by just one handle. The downside to wooden handles is that the high heat can damage the wood. Many Asian grocery stores, however, do sell replacement handles, and they are usually held in place by a screw or two.
As for the shape of your carbon steel wok, choose one that isn’t too shallow. Ensure that it has a wide enough base so that it won’t topple over on your range. If a wok is too narrow, heat won’t be distributed evenly, which could affect the quality of your stir-fry.
Now that you’ve decided to venture into wok cooking, make sure that you have the right utensils. I have a serious kitchenalia fetish, so you never have to twist my arm to get me to buy specialty kitchen equipment.
There are four wok utensils that you should have, in addition to a pair of long-handled tongs and good, non-slip pot holders. They are a ladle, a spatula, a spider, and cooking chopsticks (which are much longer than the chopsticks you would use to eat your stir-fry).
Why can’t you just use traditional utensils? I’m glad you asked! Wok utensils have longer handles and are less angled than western utensils, making it easier for you to maneuver in your pan and less likely to get burned (remember, we’re dealing with hot stuff)!
Asian utensils can be made of wood, bamboo, solid stainless steel, or stainless steel with wood or bamboo handles.
I’m sure that you are all familiar with spatulas and ladles, but you may be less sure about the spider and the cooking chopsticks. A spider is a wooden handle with a small strainer attached. This is great for pulling things out of boiling liquid or hot oil. Woks are great for deep frying (you may even end up using it for southern fried chicken), so the spider is an important tool. Cooking chopsticks make it easy to flip food over in the pan and to mix liquids.
Now that you’re all kitted out for Asian cooking, let’s look at some carbon steel woks.
Here are some great models on the market today which meet all the requirements we’ve discussed.
Joyce Chen 21-9978, Classic Series 14 Inch Carbon Steel Wok
The Joyce Chen 14-inch wok is a good option for the stir-fry enthusiast. The 1.5 mm gauge carbon steel body is designed to heat evenly and is safe for gas, electric, and induction stoves.
This wok has that helper handle I mentioned earlier. The handles are made of birch wood, so they’ll stay cool while you manipulate it on the stove.
The interior of this wok does not come pre-seasoned, so it will need to be seasoned before use.
Wok Shop 14 Inch Carbon Steel Wok w/ Helper Handle
The Wok Shop offers a heavy 14-gauge carbon steel wok with a flat bottom that can be used on an electric stove, gas stove or a grill. The distinctive wooden spool handle and helper handle will help you control the wok as you flip, stir, and flip.
The Wok Shop also produces a model with a round bottom if you cook with gas. These woks also need to be seasoned.
KEN HOM Carbon Steel Wok
The KEN HOM is made 1.8mm gauge carbon steel, optimized for the transfer of heat from the wok into your food. This is another unseasoned flat-bottomed wok, featuring beech wood handles.
As a nice extra feature, this cookware comes with a 10-year guarantee. The 13.5-inch model should be sufficient for smaller households.
Craft Wok Heavy Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok with Wooden and Steel Helper Handle
The Craft Wok 16″ round bottom wok is made 1.8mm gauge carbon steel. This wok is a heavy one and will conduct heat well. It also comes unseasoned. It has a wooden handle and a steel helper handle – be sure to use a potholder, as the helper handle gets hot!
What impresses me about this wok is that it is hand hammered and the inner surface has a little bit of texture to it. Although it will become very slick and nonstick with proper seasoning and care, when using the wok to brown ingredients, food is less likely to slide down the sides of the wok.
Eastman Outdoors Gourmet 22-inch Wok Kit
Perfect for outdoor gatherings, campfire meals, or just adding some extra variety to your family barbecues.
This wok kit includes; 22-inch deep dish carbon steel wok, stainless steel spoon, and spatula, Big Kahuna propane burner with gas regulator and adjustable legs to raise or lower the cooking surface.
Why do I love this set up so much?
It’s simple really.
An easy wok setup within arms reach at all times has been the single greatest addition to my outdoor cooking arsenal since I purchased my first off-set smoker. With this, my cookouts are able to have a wide range of food options. Stir-fry might be my favorite outdoor meal at this point.
In order to do a proper stir-fry, you need extremely high temperatures and stove-top skillets often don’t get hot enough (particularly on electric stovetops). But take it outside, and not only do you have an atmosphere more conducive to “wok cooking”, but the propane fuel source it utilizes is infinitely hotter.
The Eastman wok kit reaches upwards of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, combining these high temperatures and the true wok shape you’ll be able to recreate authentic stir-fry cuisines.
Helen Chen’s Flat Bottom Wok With Lid
Most of us will need to purchase a flat bottom wok because most of us have traditional stovetops with flat surfaces. Using a rounded wok is completely out of the question in these moments. Thankfully flat bottom woks are still capable of recreating authentic stir-fry.
This 14-inch wok includes a domed lid and a wooden spatula (a 14-inch wok is as small as you want to go, otherwise your food will be difficult to stir). There is a long wooden handle and a wooden helper handle for easier lifting when it’s full.
The only real downside to this wok is that you will have to season it before use. This really isn’t a difficult task at all – if you have cast iron cookware you already know how to do this.
Cook Pro Professional Lightweight Wok
Another 14-inch wok with a gorgeous matte finish and a wooden handle (this seems to be the norm for carbon steel cookware), this wok is great for throwing together a quick stir-fry for the family after a long day of work.
There are a couple of things I don’t like about this wok though. First, there is no lid included – but that is something one can look past. What bothers me more is it has a nonstick coating on it, and I’m not sure that it will hold up well when exposed to high temperatures for extended periods.
I’m not sure what the nonstick coating is made from, but if it is made from Teflon then it won’t be very useful for very long. I would much rather have a wok with no nonstick coating and requires seasoning.
Before using your new wok
When you purchase a non-pre-treated wok, it will require some TLC before you can start using it. Let’s go through the steps needed to pre-treat your wok.
Wash before use
When you first purchase your wok and bring it home, you’ll notice there is a waxy film on the surface. This is because the manufacturer has to coat with something so that the pan doesn’t oxidize and begin to rust.
In order to get this off, wash the wok with detergent (it is very important to make sure that you get all of the wax/oil off before proceeding to the next step
Next, you’ll need to treat the pan with oil – this helps keep the pan protected from oxidation and rust buildup. Heat the wok up and once smoke starts to come up take some canola oil (flaxseed oil is good for this as well), spread the oil around the entire wok to create a thin coat over the surface.
Do this a couple more times and you’ll be ready to use your new wok.
Note: You should season the pan after every use, after preseasoning you only need to do this once after each time you cook.
Before you make your first stir-fry, you will need to know that this method of cooking goes very quickly. Unlike French or Italian food, you cannot throw the onions in to brown and then go clean and chop carrots and celery.
You must NEVER overcook a stir-fry, use the technique the French call “mise en place”, or “everything in its place”. You should always finish your meal prep before you start cooking. Maintaining proper meal preparation ensures ingredients can be added at the precise moment and in the correct order.
For a truly authentic-tasting Asian dish, add a carbon steel wok to your arsenal of cooking tools. Without a wok, you’re sure to miss out on the beautifully developed flavors of an all-in-one pan that sears, simmers, fries, and steams—resulting in the most amazing Asian-inspired dishes you’ve ever made at home!
Prefer using an electrical wok? Here are my recommendations for the best electrical woks on the market.
My top wok choice
I’m going to do something a little different with this and call it a tie. My reasoning for this is simple. The actual top choice for me isn’t one that is viable for everyone. I am talking of course, about the Eastman Outdoor Wok Kit. It adds so much variety to outdoor cooking that it is an absolute must for me.
If an outdoor wok set-up isn’t an option…..
For those who don’t have the space needed for an outdoor wok, I will recommend the Wok Shop 14 inch walk with a helper handle. It is lightweight, very durable, and has every quality you need in a wok.
Sources and Additional Reading