Guide to Cooking With and Buying a Wok

Oil In a Wok
Kent Wang/Flickr/CC

If you cook a lot of Chinese food, you may be debating if you need to buy a wok.
The answer is yes and no. You don't absolutely need a wok to create satisfying meals. Nonetheless, the bowl-shaped utensil is the one piece of equipment that you really should consider purchasing if you want to get serious about Chinese cooking.

A wok has numerous advantages over the frying pan. It distributes heat more evenly, requires less oil, and ensures that food tossed during stir-frying lands back in the pan and not on the stove. A good kitchen knife can take the place of a cleaver, and rice can be boiled in a saucepan instead of steamed, but it is hard to find a satisfactory substitute for a wok.

Choosing the Right Wok

Once you've decided to add a wok to your supply of kitchen equipment, you'll want to shop around to choose the best model. Originally, all woks were round-bottomed and made of iron since they were designed to be used with the traditional Chinese wood stove. Gradually, the iron was replaced with carbon steel. Today, there are all types of woks on the market: aluminum, copper, stainless steel. Many chefs still prefer the traditional carbon steel wok, but find what works for you.

There have been a few other innovations designed to make the wok more compatible with western ranges. Since the 1960s, round-bottomed woks normally come with a "collar," which is a circular device with holes to allow for the transfer of heat. It ensures that the wok is evenly balanced over the heat source. While people with gas stoves often prefer not to use it, the collar should definitely be used if you are cooking with a round-bottomed wok on an electric stove. Your best option when cooking on an electric range is to purchase a flat bottomed wok. Round-bottomed woks can reflect heat back on the element, damaging it.

Design Considerations

Traditionally, the wok came with two metal handles, making it easy to lift in and out of the stove. Modern woks that have one long wooden handle, like a skillet. This gives you more leverage for moving and tilting the wok and eliminates the need for a potholder. As for size, woks come in a variety of sizes (restaurants may use woks that are several feet across) but a 14-inch wok is a good size for home use.

Seasoning and Cleaning Your Wok

It is very important to season your wok before trying it out for the first time. Seasoning removes the preservative oil manufacturers place on the wok to prevent it from rusting, replacing it with a light coating of cooking oil. It is also important to properly clean your wok after each use. Given the variety of ​woks on the market today, it is difficult to give a general set of instructions on how to season and care for a wok. The best thing you can do is pay careful attention to the manufacturer's instructions.