Stir fry, soup, egg rolls, lo mein - you name it, you can make it in a wok. One of the most versatile cooking pans in the world, the simple design of these famous pans originated in China and are now used the world over. They come in a variety of materials and forms, but the signature style of these round cooking pans is as useful as it is recognizable.
Carbon steel combines fast and even heating with durability, making it a favorite of many chefs in the industry. With proper seasoning, a good chef can easily reduce the chance of food sticking to the pan. A prime balance between price and quality, 14 gauge carbon steel woks are both strong and induction-ready while maintaining the light weight required to flip popular foods like stir fry during cooking. And since they're magnetic, carbon steel pans can also work with wok induction ranges.
Stainless steel woks are an alternative to carbon steel, but they tend to be heavier and have a longer heat-up time, making it more difficult to create stir fry. Also, if they don't include an aluminum plate sandwiched in the base of the pan, stainless steel woks will not work with an induction range. Last, unless properly seasoned early, stainless steel pans can become sticky, especially when cooking proteins like chicken and beef.
Cast iron woks can be a strong alternative, but only when they are made thick. Cast iron is naturally fragile when thin, so these woks wind up being heavy from the added weight of extra material. This bulk makes cast iron impractical to use for high-volume or display cooking, which are essential qualities in businesses like Japanese steakhouses and other Asian restaurants.
Last, copper woks are designed with a stainless steel interior so you can heat and cook food quickly, safely, and efficiently. While copper is an excellent conductor of heat, it is not safe for direct cooking, which is why it includes a bulky stainless steel interior. Because of the shiny exterior, these pans are mostly used for showmanship or residences, as they can be impractical when used in a real commercial kitchen. And unless properly cared for, copper can oxidize and develop a seafoam green color. It looks great on the Statue of Liberty - not on your cookware.
Learn to season your wok with these step-by-step instructions!
How to Use
Cooking with a wok is easy with the proper equipment. For the best results, it's a good idea to have your own wok range. These ranges are specially designed to cradle the rounded bottom of the wok to evenly distribute heat. When placed on flat burners, woks can heat unevenly and result in cold or undercooked dishes. However, if you don't have the funds to purchase a specialized wok range, you can invest in a wok ring. Wok rings are lightweight and large to sit overtop a traditional gas or electric burner to heat the wok as though it were being used with a wok range, protecting both your cooking equipment and wok from potential damage.
When actually cooking, it's important to pick a spatula (chahn) or ladle (hoak) that fits your cooking style. Both kinds of utensils work fine for creating a wide variety of dishes - it just boils down to a matter of preference. The important thing is that you're able to stir your food as it cooks for an even, hot product.
Handles and Covers
Like the languages of China, most woks can be identified in one of two categories: Cantonese or Mandarin. Cantonese woks come with two U-shaped handles riveted on either side and are best used for serving large quantities of food to groups. They can also be used for cooking, but the shape of their handles makes these woks more difficult to use for flipping food. The Mandarin style features the distinctive round-bottom shape of a wok with a single long wood or metal handle attached on the side. This handle is there to make it easier to flip popular dishes like stir fry, and it also lets a chef easily portion out food after cooking.
Covers are also available to cover up food when it's not needed at the moment. It's important to remember that your wok cover will not cover the entire top of your pan. Wok covers are designed to sit inside the pan and only cover up the lower portion, where the food would rest after cooking. They can come in different materials, but the most popular is aluminum, and they're domed to help trap in heat and humidity.