If you frequently like to cook Asian cuisines, particularly Chinese or Thai cuisines, then a wok is a must-have. These wide, round-bottomed cooking pans are perfect for make stir-frys, pad Thais, fried rice, or even dosas.
Today, the wok is commonly used in China, Vietnam, Thailand, several other Asian countries, and the United States as well. They can be constructed from different kinds of materials but the most popular one is the carbon steel wok.
Although no one knows the true origin of the wok, everyone is clear on what it can do. Not only are they good for stir-frying but they are also great for boiling, steaming, poaching, braising, searing, roasting, and so much more.
Woks are a one-of-a-kind kitchenware that everyone should have at home and we’ll tell you why.
Why a Wok?
If you’ve never owned a wok before, you might be wondering, “Do I need one?” Well, the answer is no, you don’t, but like how you don’t need a toaster, it’s still good to have one because your food will taste better.
And if you want authentic stir-frys and braised noodles then yes, we would recommend one. But what makes a wok different from other frying pans?
To start, woks are much larger in comparison to normal pans. They have a large opening and their sides are deep and curved. This was purposeful so food can rest at an angle when cooking instead of sitting at the bottom in a pool of grease. Also, you don’t have to worry as much about food spilling over when stirring.
In addition, woks are also excellent at conducting heat, which allows you to cook food with less oil. If you’re cooking something fatty like meat, the fat will drip down from the curved sides while you’re cooking. This makes your dishes healthier.
One last thing to mention about woks is that they add a very distinct taste to food known as “wok hei.” “Wok hei” is a Cantonese phrase that literally means the “breath of a wok.” It describes the slightly charred aroma and piping hot steam of a dish.
In Cantonese cuisine, “wok hei” is something chefs commonly judge a dish by. If it has good “wok hei,” it means the chef knew how to handle a wok. It’s similar to how we look for smokiness in barbequed food in the United States.
“Wok hei” happens when food, protein, sugar, and oil are all cooked together at high temperatures. And when we say high, we mean higher than what most home stoves are capable of achieving. You might’ve seen a chef achieve “wok hei” on T.V when it looks like they tossed flames inside the wok.
Different Types of Woks
Now that you know what makes a wok special, let us introduce you to the different types of woks. There are three main types of woks in the market: cast iron wok, aluminum wok, and carbon steel wok.
Cast iron woks are the most old-school type of woks and are in most traditional Chinese homes although carbon steel ones are becoming more popular.
Cast iron woks range from 3 mm to 9 mm in thickness and they are the heaviest of all between the three types of woks. This thickness, however, does have its advantages because they also make the woks very sturdy.
Generally, cast iron takes a bit longer than most other metals to heat up but when they heat up. The upside to this is they can retain and evenly distribute heat very well. When cooking with a cast iron, make sure you take it off the stove when you’re done and plate your food otherwise it’ll keep cooking.
All cast iron woks do require a seasoning process just like a cast iron skillet.
Aluminum woks are less common but some people prefer them because they are light and conduct heat fast. The downside of this is food can also burn food faster if you’re not careful.
In terms of durability, aluminum is not as durable as the other metals because it’s easy to scratch or dent. If you’ve dropped an aluminum pot, you probably know what we’re talking about.
One last thing to note about aluminum is that if they are not coated properly, aluminum can leach into your food which is harmful to the human body. And even if they do have the coating, they can peel off after awhile after several uses and washes.
Carbon Steel Wok
Carbon steel woks are a good middle ground between cast iron and aluminum woks. They contain the best of both worlds. How?
Structurally, carbon steel and cast iron are similar except cast iron has more than 2 percent carbon, while carbon (or cast steel) has 0.1-0.5 percent carbon. This makes carbon steel lighter than cast iron, which makes them better for handling when making stir-frys.
Carbon steel is more durable than both cast iron and aluminum. Although cast iron may look stronger, the metal is actually more rigid and brittle. If you drop a cast iron cooking, it can shatter.
If you’ve ever owned aluminum kitchenware then you know how easily they dent. Carbon steel, on the other hand, is much more flexible and pliable than cast iron steel but stronger than aluminum
High Heat Conduction
Carbon steel can handle high heat very well. They are thick enough for open flames on gas stoves but they are also thin enough for the heat to transfer from electric stoves. And since carbon steel doesn’t absorb water as much like cast iron, your food will also retain more moisture.
One thing that is important to know about carbon steel is they are all non-stick and they must be seasoned with oil before use to prevent sticking. But unlike aluminum, it is not toxic.
Round Bottom vs Flat Bottom
You might’ve noticed that some woks have round bottoms while others have flat bottoms.
Round-bottomed woks are only meant for gas stoves while flat-bottomed stoves work on both gas and electric stoves. If your gas stove top isn’t wide enough to fit a round-bottomed wok, you can buy a wok stand to prop it up.
Electric stoves also take more time to heat up, which is why carbon steel works better on them than cast iron woks.
Best Flat Bottom and Round Bottom Carbon Steel Woks
When shopping for the best carbon steel wok, there are a few things you should look out for.
One is steel gauge. The higher the steel gauge is, the thinner the wok is, meaning the lighter it also is. But if you want something to last longer, thicker can be a good thing too.
Next is the size. Most standard sized woks have a 14-inch diameter on the top. This is large enough to create dishes for 12 people. 12-inch woks are good for up to 5 people and 16 inch woks are good for up to 12 people.
The third thing you want to pay attention to is the construction of the handles. Bamboo, wood, and phenolic plastic are the best materials because they can stay cool in high temperatures.
Now let’s get to some of the best flat-bottomed and round-bottomed woks in the market right now. To keep things simple we made the title of each section into a link that takes you to the product listing on Amazon.
Joyce Chen was a prominent Chinese-American restaurateur who popularized northern-style Chinese cuisine. She has a series of highly rated woks but this one is one of our favorites.
The Pro Chef Flat Bottom Wok is 14-inches at the top and 2mm thick, which is the standard size for woks. It has a flat bottom, which makes it perfect for all kinds of stoves, especially electric stoves.
The wok also has phenolic handles, a type of material that can stay cool even when it’s in 350 F heat. This wok weighs 4.19 pounds.
This is another one of our favorite Joyce Chen flat bottom woks. It is also 14 inches in diameter and features two long Birch wood handles.
The Classic Series wok is slightly lighter than the Pro Chef wok at 1.5 mm thick, which makes it one the lightest woks on our list. It weighs only 3.35 pounds.
The thinness of the wok also allows it to heat up faster than most woks and it is perfect for making healthy tofu and vegetable stir-frys.
Helen Chen is the daughter of Joyce Chen. She is also a culinary expert and a cooking instructor. Like her mother, she also has a line of high-quality kitchenware. One of her stand out pieces is the Asian Kitchen Flat Bottom Wok.
This wok is 14 inches, made out of 1.6mm of heavy gauge carbon steel, and it has concentric grooves for rapid heating. The handles are wooden and we recommend hand washing. This wok is 5 pounds and the flat bottom makes it perfect for electric or gas stoves.
This 14-inch, round-bottomed wok designed by Craft Wok consists of 15 gauge commercial grade carbon steel. Its thickness is 1.8mm and weighs 4.6 pounds.
The rounded sides are perfect for stirring but if you choose to, you can also use it to deep fry food or even steam dumplings. It has steel helper handles to prevent your hands from burning even if you’re using it over high heat.
As with most carbon steel kitchenware, make sure you season it before you cook and wipe dry before storage to prevent rust.
A lesser known brand than the previous ones but with great reviews. This flat-bottomed wok is 14 inches wide and constructed out of 14-gauge carbon steel.
The handles are natural, blond wood, and can withstand high heat. 14-inch woks can cook food for up to 12 people. If you love cooking for your friends then this is the perfect wok for you.
The helper handle is a life saver, especially when you have the wok loaded up with a ton of ingredients.
The M.V. Trading wok is also made in the U.S.A.
Less expensive than most woks in the market, the Keilen China Villag flat-bottomed wok is excellent for beginners. It is 14 inches wide and has beautiful curved sides like the more expensive models.
The only thing that we didn’t love as much were the plastic handles but they stayed cool throughout cooking. This wok weighs 4.21 pounds.
If you need a less expensive wok to practice your stir-frying skills and learn how a wok works in general, this a is a great starting piece to try.
Before you hit checkout, make sure you have the proper wok accessories too. Without them, you won’t be able to use your wok the way you want too.
The best ones come with long handles designed to use with woks. They come shaped in a specific angle that is perfect for stirring in woks. They also have thin lips to scoop up every scrap of food to prevent burning.
Contrary to popular belief, you should never use soap or harsh metal scrubs on your carbon steel wok. If you must scrub it, you can use warm water with a rubber scrub or bamboo scrub, then finally, a normal dish sponge to wipe off excess. Once cleaned, dry it and pour some vegetable oils onto a clean cloth to season the surface.
If you plan on making a lot of stir-frys, we would also recommend installing a range hood in your kitchen to help you keep it clean and smelling good.
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