To Wok or Not to Wok

Do You Need a Wok to Cook Chinese Food?

Oil In a Wok
Kent Wang/Flickr/CC

One of the questions I am often asked by novice cooks is: Do I really need a wok to cook Chinese food?

The answer is yes and no. You don't absolutely need a wok to create satisfying Oriental meals - I often make chow mein or chop suey in the frying pan. 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.

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 - 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. However, every Asian cook I've spoken with still swears by the traditional carbon steel wok, and I have to agree.

There have been a few other innovations designed to make the wok more compatible with western ranges. Since the 1960's, round-bottomed woks normally come with a "collar" - 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. However, 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. However, I prefer the modern woks that have one long wooden handle, like a skillet. As Barbara Tropp points out in The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, the long handle "eliminates the need to work with a potholder or mitt, and gives you wonderful leverage for tilting the pot." 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:

You may have heard that it is very important to season your wok before trying it out for the first time. Why is this necessary? 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 for me 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. However, below I do have step by step instructions for seasoning and cleaning a traditional carbon steel wok.

How to Season a Carbon Steel Wok
How to Clean a Carbon Steel Wok
Top 7 Chinese Woks