As a cooking method, stir-frying seems pretty simple: You cook meat and veggies at high heat while moving them around constantly. But stir-frying in a standard frying pan usually doesn’t give you the same depth of flavor you find at your local Chinese restaurant. The secret to getting that perfect combination of charred flavor and even doneness is less about technique than it is about equipment. A wok’s thick metal body is designed to maintain high heat, while its large bowl shape and long handle make it easy to keep the food in non-stop motion.
Both of those things contribute to a flavor no other pot or pan can provide: wok hei. Literally meaning “breath of the wok” in Cantonese, this refers to the slight smokiness and char that only proper stir-frying can provide. The science behind wok hei is that the constant stirring and tossing puts tiny droplets of oil into the air around the wok. When the heat is high enough to make those droplets combust—you might see little bursts of flame at the edge of the pan as you shake it—you get this unique flavor.
What is a wok?
First used well over 1,000 years ago in China, the wok is a fairly thick metal pan with a dome shape and tall, sloped sides that make it easy to toss food around. A traditional wok has a completely round bottom that sits over an extremely hot flame—a specialized wok burner looks like a jet engine and can be 10 times more powerful than a standard gas range—but most home versions have a flattened base that’s easier to use with a “normal” stove.
Woks come in many materials, including cast iron, carbon steel, and aluminum. Some are nonstick-coated, while other types must be seasoned like a cast-iron skillet. A long handle is pretty standard, as it makes shaking the pan easier, and some woks have a small “helper handle” on the other side for carrying the pan around or putting it in the oven. There are also lots of models of electric wok, all-in-one units that heat themselves, no stove required.
How do you use a wok for stir-frying?
The two most important things for successful stir-frying are heat and motion. Put your wok on your largest stove burner at the highest setting and let it get really, really hot. You want oil to be almost smoking, and ingredients should sizzle and spatter immediately when they hit the pan. Once it’s pre-heated, add your meats and veggies, and keep everything moving vigorously. You can do this by shaking the wok or by stirring with a spoon, but the idea is that nothing should sit on the hot surface long enough to burn.
Can't I just use a big frying pan instead of a wok?
Not if you want true stir-frying technique and results. Standard lightweight frying pans—especially nonstick ones—aren’t made to handle the extreme heat needed. A cast-iron skillet can achieve the temperatures needed, but it’s way too heavy to move around easily, and the low sides of either one will send food flying when you try to shake it. A saucepan has nice tall sides for shaking, but its sides don’t heat up as much as the bottom, leading to uneven cooking, especially at high temperatures.
Can you use a wok for more than stir-frying?
Absolutely! You can’t really use a big frying pan for stir-frying, but you can use a wok for anything you’d use a big frying pan for—sautéing, braising, even making pancakes. The bowl shape and great heat retention of a wok make it a good tool for deep frying (plus the tall sides help catch spatters). It’s also perfect for steaming with a bamboo steamer: The steamer rests against the sloped sides, leaving lots of room for boiling water underneath. A well-seasoned wok is an amazing tool for fried eggs, too. The high heat rapidly cooks the whites while leaving the yolks perfectly runny, and the nonstick surface lets the eggs slide right onto the plate, without even a spatula required.
Are woks compatible with all types of stovetops?
Any wok will work with a gas or electric stovetop. It can be awkward to hold a round-bottomed wok in place on top of a flat burner, however, which is why most woks made for home use have a flattened bottom.
When it comes to induction cooktops, the rules for a wok are the same as for any other pot or pan: It needs to be made of a magnetic material like iron or steel for the induction effect to work. Woks made of pure aluminum or copper cannot be used on an induction stove. (Not sure about your wok? Here's how to determine if cookware is induction-compatible.)
How do you season a wok?
You season a wok in much the same way that you season a cast-iron pan: Clean and dry it thoroughly, then spread vegetable oil over the surface and heat the pan up. This creates a thin layer of oil bonded to the metal, which helps protect the pan material from oxidation and keeps food from sticking. Water and soap break down the seasoning layer, so you have to carefully wash and dry the pan after each use and occasionally repeat the seasoning process to keep your wok in top form.
How do you choose a wok?
The most important decision is whether or not you want a nonstick wok. If you're a beginner, looking for a low-maintenance wok, or would like a multipurpose pan for everything from boiling pasta to searing tuna, a nonstick wok is probably the better choice. A pan with a bare iron or steel surface is the ultimate choice for highest heat and proper stir-frying, but it requires more upkeep and careful technique. There are a range of prices for both types, and one isn't really more or less expensive than the other.
Electric woks are a whole other category that combines pan and burner in one. It's a fairly specialized appliance that could be great for a small kitchen, but you have to consider the pan's material as well as the power of the heating element.
Calphalon Premier Hard-Anodized Nonstick 13-Inch Flat Wok
Heavy-duty nonstick coating
Oven- and dishwasher-safe
Excellent heat retention
What It’s Best For: Beginners, everyday cooking
This pan combines the effective high-temp cooking of a traditional wok with the easy use and upkeep of a dishwasher-safe nonstick skillet. The aluminum material doesn’t hold heat as well as iron or steel, but it’s thick enough here for effective stir-frying and authentic wok hei. Calphalon’s Premier line has a three-layer coating of nonstick material that’s extremely durable—the brand says you can even use metal tools on it. The ease of cleaning also means you can use this wok as an everyday tool for sautéing, braising, and even cooking pasta.
Mammafong Pre-Seasoned Blue Carbon Steel Flat-Bottom Pow Wok
Comes pre-seasoned and ready to use
Even heat dispersion
Must be washed by hand without soap
Difficult to maintain
What It’s Best For: Experienced stir-fryers
With its more traditional style, this hand-hammered blue carbon steel wok will make your foodie friends jealous whether it’s sitting on the stove or hanging from a rack. But it’s not just for looks: The material conducts heat incredibly efficiently, enabling super-hot cooking with a lightweight pan you can still shake around with one hand. Mammafong woks also go through an extensive pre-seasoning process that means they’re ready to use right out of the box.
The downside of a steel wok is that you have to maintain the seasoning to keep food from sticking. That means careful hand washing, drying, and oiling after each use. (Mammafong actually recommends against even using soap, which can break down the seasoning layer.)
NuWave Mosaic 14-Inch Induction Wok
Fast, powerful heating
Wok can be removed from base
Difficult to maintain
What It’s Best For: Small kitchens
A small, self-contained unit that heats itself efficiently with no stove required, the electric wok is very convenient. But in practice, electric woks suffer from a couple general issues: The pan is often attached to the heating element and can’t be properly shaken for stir-frying, and the underpowered element itself can’t achieve the high temperatures needed.
The NuWave solves both problems. Its 14-inch carbon steel wok comes completely off the base so you can shake it freely or use it to bring food to the table. Its traditional round-bottom shape gets the most even heating possible and also fits into the round base perfectly. The 1,500-watt heating element can bring the pan to 575 degrees in less than a minute. The main downside (besides the price) is that you have to season and maintain the wok just like any other carbon-steel model.
Is it worth buying a wok?
It's definitely worth it. A wok is a multipurpose vessel that can perform almost any stovetop cooking task in addition to being the only tool capable of authentic stir-frying. Even the fanciest models cost just a few hundred bucks and will last a lifetime—if not longer. But if you’re going to invest in a wok that needs seasoning, you should make a commitment to keeping it in good condition for best performance. (If that’s too much work, consider a nonstick wok instead.)
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Jason Horn is a commerce writer for The Spruce Eats who’s loved cooking since he was old enough to wield a spoon and has been writing about food and drinks for almost 20 years. His beautifully seasoned and completely indestructible wok is a prized possession, one of the oldest items in his kitchen, and used at least weekly.