Web Exclusive: Choosing the Right Wok

April 8, 2010

A carbon-steel Chinese-style wok and a hammered stainless steel Indian karahi.

When buying a wok, there are so many factors: Gas or electric burner? Northern Chinese wok (deeper in its curve) or southern style (wider, flatter, shallower) or even perhaps an Indian cast iron karahi? Just playing around with a few snow peas or attempting pad thai? Cooking for one or feeding a family? Just trying to be healthy or trying to impress your in-laws visiting from Hong Kong?

Purists will insist on only round bottomed woks over a very hot gas flame in a special wok burner that lets the pan sit very low and close to the flame (and NOT the same thing as a wok ring that you place over the burner — which just lowers the heat even more.)

A note on heat: Regular home burners have maybe 10,000-15,000 BTU (a standard heating measure), while a fancy Viking stove has maybe 30,000 BTU. A restaurant's wok burner can have 100,000 to 200,000 BTU. You will never get the same wok heat at home, as you will never create the same intensity of heat that instantly sears food on their surface while retaining moisture and tenderness inside.

But let's say that the Kitchen God has cursed you with the sensibility of a purist and the reality of an electric coil. You can invest in a good (gasp!) flat-bottomed wok to maximize contact with the heating element. It's the only — and I do mean ONLY — reason to use a flat-bottomed wok. However, there is NO reason for a nonstick wok, in my opinion.

The Science of the Wok story in the Inside/Out Issue made an interesting point about “distribution of fats and different zones of heat,” but that would not stop me from using a wok in my home kitchen, as I try to keep everything moving anyway. The latter is present in other types of pans, too. I teach my professional culinary students about the different heat zones in a skillet, Dutch oven and rondo. 

For day to day cooking, I use a northern-style pow wok  made of carbon steel that has nearly 20 years of good seasoning. It's jet black and virtually nonstick. More importantly, I do not use a ring but rather set the wok right down on my gas burner to get as much heat on the metal as possible. Cantonese-style woks , however, tend to be more difficult to use and require even greater levels of heat. If you must use one of those extra wok rings, then flip it upside down so that its wider taper is at the top, thus allowing the wok to sit lower.

Just for the record: Lots of people have the right equipment but overload their wok (steaming instead of stir-frying), cut their vegetables wrong (not enough surface area or uneven pieces) and don't have everything ready before they turn on the heat (thus compromising the elusive magic of brow-burning high heat and frenetic high speed).

A few years ago, wok burners became one of those things increasingly appearing in "prosumer" kitchens along with the gleaming stainless steel appliances, dishwasher drawers and a stupid extra faucet by the stove. High-end kitchen designers here in Northern California often include them in their plans. Check out this stove with a wok ring  in the center.

Serious DIY cooks who have a flair for the authentic will buy a free-standing wok burner  and rig up a wok in the back yard. The burner's intense flame combined with the lower-sitting wok means they can stir-fry like real men. Yes, it's men that tend to do this. Most women I know are fine with adapting to Western stoves. Often, a really wide and heavy cast iron skillet is a better bet for the high heat stirring and ease of mixing that some recipes require. Think of one of those lovely pans that are used in the south for fried chicken. It's certainly cheaper. That's what my mom's been using since I was a kid, and she makes really good food.

Thy Tran is a San Francisco-based chef instructor and a freelance writer specializing in the history and culture of food.