There's nothing better than freshly made stir-fry. Healthy, simple, and delicious, these dishes are what has made Chinese cuisine stand in a class of its own. If you’re looking to try your hand at your own stir-fry, there’s one indispensable tool you’ll need.
The wok is a distinctive pan with thousands of years of history behind it. However, it is often feared by beginners who haven't learned how to use its round shape and tall sides. Luckily, with practice, using a wok is just as easy as any other pan.
In this article, I’ll answer all of your wok-related questions. Take a look below for information on its history, maintenance, and more. I’ll also offer my recommendation for the best wok available today, as well as accessories.
What is a Wok?
A wok is a unique type of pan that looks a little different from your average household cookware. It is characterized by its high walls and deep, round bottom. This unique design gives the wok a few essential advantages when cooking.
The most significant advantage of cooking with a wok is that it concentrates heat better than other pans. This allows you to quickly sear foods near the center of the pan and cook more slowly around the edges. This gives an experienced wok chef a lot of control when cooking.
While woks are used for a variety of cooking techniques, stir-frying is where they excel. The rounded shape allows oil to pool at the bottom requiring less oil overall. The high sides contain splatter and make it easy to flip and stir the food.
Where Do Woks Originate?
Woks have deep roots in Southeast Asia and originated in China during the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. Its name comes from the Cantonese word for "cooking pot."
Scholars believe the wok was originally a tool of convenience. Its size and shape make it a versatile cooking tool that can create large meals quickly. Plus, since it used less oil than other pans, it saved money for poor families.
Woks were originally made of cast iron to maximize durability. Today, cast iron woks are still available, as are carbon steel, aluminum, and other materials.
How to Stir-Fry With a Wok
If you are looking to create authentic stir-fry dishes, a wok is an indispensable tool. There are many recipes available online, but making your own stir-fry dishes can be just as easy. Simply follow these steps and begin honing your skills.
1. Choose Base Flavors
In many ways, choosing the right base flavors is even more important than the decision between beef and chicken. If you want to keep it simple, choose a stir-fry sauce you like, such as hoisin or plum sauce. Dried chiles, fermented black beans, garlic, and bitter melon are other popular choices.
If you are looking for inspiration, check common stir fry recipes like Beef and Broccoli or Mapo Tofu.
2. Choose Meat and Veggies
There are many vegetables that are well-suited to stir-fry. Broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, and mushrooms are all good choices. When it comes to meat, it’s best to choose more tender cuts of beef, chicken, or pork.
The key to a successful stir-fry is making sure all your ingredients are cooked evenly. This means knowing how long each of them takes to cook and adding them at the right time.
For example, carrots tend to take longer to cook than bell peppers and should be added earlier. It’s not an exact science, so don’t worry if some of your ingredients are a little over or undercooked.
3. Prepare Your Ingredients
Wok cooking happens in a flash, and so it’s crucial that all your ingredients are ready to go before you start. Aromatics and sauces should each be portioned in small bowls that are ready at hand. Meats and vegetables should be chopped and portioned as well.
When cutting meats and vegetables, make sure all ingredients are cut to a similar size and shape. This will help them cook evenly and make them easier to eat.
4. Heat Your Pan and Add Oil
Once all your ingredients are ready, it’s finally time to cook. Stir-frying is best done at very high heat. On most home stoves, this means turning your burner up to high.
Next, add your oil directly to the wok. You should only need a single tablespoon. Learn more about which oils are ideal for stir-frying below.
Once the oil begins to shimmer, it’s ready to start cooking.
5. Stir Fry!
While all the prep work may have taken some time, the stir-frying itself should be much faster.
If you’re using dry aromatics like garlic, ginger, or onions, now is the time to add them. Sautee for one minute until their flavors have had time to meld with the oil.
Then add your stir-fry ingredients. Remember to put slow-cooking ingredients first. This includes meat, tofu, and carrots, and other dry vegetables.
It’s important to keep stirring once you add your ingredients. Keeping them in motion will ensure they cook evenly and prevent burning. Cook times will depend on the type and thickness of ingredients, around three to five minutes.
Once all your ingredients are golden brown around the edges, add your sauce. About three tablespoons should be perfect–just enough to lightly coat everything.
After another two minutes, your stir-fry is ready. Plate immediately and enjoy!
Choosing the Right Stir-Fry Oil
The key to choosing the right stir-fry oil comes down to its smoke point. Oils with a high smoke point can be heated to a high temperature without ruining their flavor. These include peanut oil, avocado oil, canola oil, and vegetable oil.
While olive oil adds great flavor to other dishes, it has a low smoke point and should not be used for stir-frying. The same goes for coconut oil.
Other Wok Cooking Methods
Even though woks are the perfect tools to use for stir-frying, they are also highly versatile. Try using yours for any of these cooking methods.
Since woks are so large, they are a perfect choice for boiling. You can use them to boil pasta or even make soups and stews.
They are particularly handy for soups. You can cook your ingredients in the wok beforehand and add the broth directly to the pot.
If you’re thinking of steaming dumplings or vegetables, a wok can help you here too. Start by putting some water in the bottom of your wok. There should be just enough so that your bamboo steamer can rest on the sides of the wok above it.
Heat the water, fill your steamer with food, and place it inside the wok. The steam will collect inside the steamer, and cook your food in just a few minutes.
Just like with boiling, the wok’s large volume becomes a big asset when deep frying. Fill your wok with enough oil to submerge your food and heat it to 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Carefully lower your ingredients into the oil, and in a few minutes, they will be golden brown and delicious.
When deep frying with a wok, make sure to take extreme caution. The oil inside can cause severe burns if spilled or splattered.
You might be surprised to learn that a wok is a perfect pan to cook popcorn in. Unpopped kernels will naturally fall to the center of the pan, where the heat is concentrated. As they pop, they will rise to the surface, where they will be protected from burning.
If you want to get adventurous with your wok, try using it for smoking.
All it takes is a few layers of oil inside the base of your wok. Put a bit of sugar on the foil, along with some tea leaves, and heat until smoldering. Then, put your ingredients on a wire rack and cover them with a lid.
Pairing a Wok With Your Cooking Surface
When cooking with a wok, your heat source definitely matters. Whether you're working with gas, electric, or induction, see how yours plays a role.
Gas ranges are the ones most commonly used for wok cooking. The reason is because of the way gas burners disperse heat.
In most cases, gas stoves actually waste more heat than electric or induction. However, the wide sides of the wok capture this heat and redirect it to your food. The temperature on gas stoves can also be controlled more quickly, which can help prevent burning.
The other advantage of gas stoves when cooking with a wok is in the grilles above their burners. These are a better fit for traditional round-bottom woks, as they cradle them in place.
Electric stoves come in two main varieties, those with exposed and unexposed burners. However, neither of these are very accommodating to a round-bottomed wok. The curved surface has nothing to stabilize it as it would on a gas stove, making it unsafe to cook with.
When wok cooking on an electric stove, a wok ring is recommended. This can stabilize the wok and also protect its bottom surface from damage. Learn more about wok rings in the Must-Have Wok Accessories section below.
If you prefer to work without a wok ring, you can try a flat-bottom wok as well. These work in much the same way as traditional woks, but with a flat section on the bottom. This helps stabilize the work, though it does affect how it works.
Induction cooktops are covered in smooth ceramic glass, which means a round bottom wok is not a good match. Also, wok rings can’t be used on induction stoves. This is because the magnetic field used to heat your pan requires direct contact.
This means that those working with an induction stove require a flat bottom wok to get the job done. Don’t forget to choose one made of carbon steel or cast iron, since induction stoves don’t work with all materials.
Outdoor wok cooking is actually closest to the way they were used thousands of years ago. When paired with a charcoal or gas grill, it can be a fun and easy way to make stir-fry.
The major advantage when using a wok on a grill is that it can reach temperatures much higher than a household stove. This allows you to caramelize meats and vegetables more quickly and produce a deeper flavor.
All it takes is for you to fire up your grill and follow the same steps outlined in the How to Stir Fry section above. Just remember that since you are working with higher heat, extra caution is required.
Choosing the Perfect Wok for You
A wok is a good investment for cooks of all kinds. Since they are so versatile, they can even be a good starter pan for those just learning.
However, to choose the right wok, you need to know what to look for. Make sure to keep all of these criteria in mind when making your decision.
Woks come in a wide range of sizes, and the right choice for you depends largely on your needs.
For most people, this means a wok around 14 inches in diameter. This offers a good balance that can feed a whole family while also staying small enough for your kitchen stove. While it does require larger storage space, its versatility should make up for this.
If you’re only cooking for one or two people, a smaller wok could be a good option. A 10 to 12-inch wok is large enough to make two servings. Plus, its more compact size means it can heat more evenly on a home stove.
For professional cooks, woks as large as 18 inches are available. These should be avoided by home cooks, as they are just too big to be heated properly on most kitchen stoves. Unless you’re cooking for more than six people, they’re not even necessary.
Cast iron woks are the most traditional option and are still used today. They heat evenly and rapidly, meaning they are perfect for stir-frying.
The main drawback when cooking with a cast iron wok is the weight. Because of this, they are made with two handles on either side of the wok, rather than just one. This makes them a little more difficult to handle.
Today, the most commonly used type of wok material is carbon steel. Just like cast iron, carbon steel heats evenly and quickly. However, it also is lightweight enough to be easily maneuvered with one hand.
In addition, carbon steel wok pans develop a natural nonstick coating, which is ideal for stir-frying. You can learn more about this in the Seasoning section below.
The third common wok material is aluminum. The main advantage of an aluminum wok is that it’s inexpensive. While you will be able to cook some simple dishes in these, they are less durable and not recommended.
What About Non-Stick?
There are plenty of good uses for non-stick pans. However, for wok cooking, they are not the best choice.
The reason for this is because the high heat required for wok cooking will rapidly degrade the PFOA coating found on non-stick wok pans. This will render your slick coating useless and possibly harm your health.
Flat-Bottom vs Round-Bottom
Choosing between flat-bottom vs round-bottom woks is one of the first decisions you need to make when choosing your own.
Round bottom woks are the traditional style and come with several distinct advantages. They concentrate heat, require less oil, and allow you to make use of hot and cool cooking zones.
However, round bottom wok pans are not always compatible with all stoves. Even when they are, some home chefs prefer the stability and familiarity of a flat-bottom wok pan.
The design of a flat-bottom wok is simple, consisting of a traditional wok with a flat section on the bottom. While this change is slight, it results in less concentrated heat.
For most wok users, the ideal choice is a wok with a single long handle. Also called a pow wok, these allow the users to easily handle the pan when stir-frying. This style also allows you to hold the wok further from your body, which helps avoid grease burns.
The other style of wok is called a Cantonese wok. Rather than a single, long handle, these half two smaller handles on either side. These save a bit of space and are necessary for safely handling heavier cast iron wok pans.
Cantonese wok handles are almost always metal, while pow wok pans can be either metal or wood. In general, wood handles are more convenient as they allow you to handle them with your bare hands. However, metal handles have the advantage of being able to go in the oven.
Traditionally, woks were hand-hammered, leaving a pattern of small indentations across the pan’s surface. These are still the most sought-after style today since the indentations help keep food from slipping.
However, hand-hammered woks are a little more expensive than other types. Also, they are not compatible with induction stoves which require a flat surface to heat evenly.
Aside from these, there are also spun woks, which are created on a spinning lathe. You can see the manufacturing process in the small grooves that coat the inside of the pan. These grooves work the same way as the indentations in a hammered wok, keeping food in place.
Finally, stamped woks are the third option. Usually made of aluminum, these woks can be purchased more affordably. However, food tends to slide around on them, and they are less durable.
For stir-frying, a lid is usually not required. However, if you plan on using your wok for boiling, steaming, or braising, it’s definitely a must-have. Traditional lids are made of wood, though glass and metal ones are also available.
My Recommended Wok: Hand-Hammered Carbon Steel Craft Wok
This wok is our top choice due to its lightweight and durable design.
Pros: Quality hand-hammered construction, double handle styles
Cons: Carbon steel requires a bit of extra maintenance, no lid
One high-quality wok that checks all the right boxes is Craft Wok’s Hand-hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok. Both lightweight and durable, it’s made to be used for various meals and to last for years.
At just 4.6 lbs, this wok is easy to maneuver, letting you toss and flip while stir-frying. This is the best way to take advantage of the round-bottom design. Unlike flat-bottom wok pans, food will slide seamlessly across the entire surface.
The elongated handle helps here, too, keeping you out of range of splatter. The handle is attached securely, with a wood grip designed to prevent slipping. On the opposite side, a metal helper handle makes it easy to lift heavier loads.
The only thing to keep in mind is that it requires seasoning before use. However, once it’s properly prepped, this wok will offer an ideally slick surface.
However, if you’re working with an induction stovetop, this may not be the ideal choice for you. The round bottom design won’t get the stability it needs on a ceramic glass cooktop. Instead, a flat bottom wok would be a better option.
Must-Have Wok Accessories
To make the best use of your wok, it’s crucial to have all the right accessories. Don’t forget to add these to your shopping list.
A wok ring is good to have on hand no matter what kind of stovetop you have. On gas stoves, they provide round-bottom woks additional support and stability. When working with electric stoves, they prevent the wok from rolling around the surface.
Remember to choose the right style of wok ring for your burner. Gas stove wok rings have a thin wire design, made to increase airflow. Electric stove wok rings, on the other hand, are designed to trap heat.
Keeping food in motion is crucial when wok cooking, which means you’ll need a good wok spatula. Wok spatulas have long handles that keep you away from the heat and broad bases to work with large quantities of food.
The ideal spatula should also be comfortable to hold, lightweight, and dishwasher-friendly.
If you’re planning on using your wok for soups and stews, a quality ladle is a must. Just like with a spatula, it’s a good idea to find one with an elongated handle and a big scoop. Look for options that are at least 16 inches long.
Every wok owner should be aware that woks require specialized cleaning and maintenance. When you’re done creating your next stir-fry dish, it’s important to have a good bamboo brush on hand.
These stiff bristle brushes allow you to remove food debris from your pan without harming its surface. The best ones have heat-proof bristles that can be used while the pan is still hot.
Otherwise, you can also try one of the many cast iron brushes available today.
Maintaining Your Wok
To keep your wok healthy for years to come, learn how to properly care for it. This includes regular maintenance, cleaning techniques, and repairing any damage.
Carbon steel and cast iron woks require seasoning before they are used. While this takes a bit of extra effort on your part, it provides a natural non-stick coating.
This comes from layers of polymerized oil that have built up on the wok’s cooking surface. When properly applied, this coating will protect the pan from rust, even when boiling water.
Several layers of seasoning should be applied when you first purchase your wok. After this, reseason your wok every two to three months, or when otherwise necessary.
If you’re using a stainless steel or aluminum wok, you can clean it just the same as you would any other pan. Make sure the cooking surface is clear of any food particles that might burn or cause further sticking.
However, for cast iron or carbon steel woks, a different cleaning method is used. To protect their coat of seasoning, it is important to avoid all soap and cleaning chemicals. Rough scrub brushes and steel wool are also off-limits.
Instead, run a bit of cool water over your wok and scrub the surface with a bamboo brush. When you’re done, remember to dry the wok completely and wipe it down with a bit of oil.
Carbon steel and cast iron woks can be susceptible to rust. Luckily, in most cases, the damage caused by rust can be reversed.
Simply scrub the rusted area with a scrub brush until it is completely removed. This may take some time. Once it’s completely gone, dry the wok completely and apply several new coats of seasoning.
It is critical that rust be removed as soon as it is spotted. Rusty patches will only grow with time and ultimately will undermine the durability of your wok.
Frequently Asked Questions
With such a rich history, there’s always something new to learn about woks. See some of the most commonly asked questions here.
Usually, when we hear the word ‘fry’, we think of greasy, unhealthy foods. However, when it comes to stir-frying, this is far from true.
Woks use much less oil than traditional pans, meaning lower fat content in the food itself. Plus, most stir-fry dishes are loaded with vegetables and tofu, making for a well-balanced meal.
Especially when stir-frying, it’s important to choose an oil with a high smoke point. These include grapeseed oil, peanut oil, canola oil, and avocado oil. These will retain their flavor even when cooked under very high heat.
Olive oil, coconut oil, and sesame oil should be avoided completely. Once your pan reaches its full temperature, these will burn, ruining the taste of your food.
The main advantage of a wok boils down to heat distribution. Unlike regular pans, the purpose of a wok is to offer both hot and cool zones within it. This allows you to cook at very high heat near the center of the pan while leaving the edges cool.
For dishes like stir-fry, this is essential. The hot heat reached in a wok can drastically improve the flavor of meats and vegetables.