Woks are certainly an authentic choice for making stir fries as it’s the traditional way to cook them. But they are also expensive pieces of kitchen equipment when you’ve got a decent pan or skillet already. If you don’t have a wok, is it really necessary?
Woks aren’t necessary to make a stir fry but they can add the smoky “wok hei” flavor from the shape and extreme heat of a seasoned wok. A large skillet will work almost as well but the shorter sides can let food overflow.
If you’re into your Asian cooking and have the cash, then it’s well worth investing in a wok as they will take your stir fries to the next level. I’ve got a few recommended woks below to buy.
In this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the key differences between woks and skillets to help you decide if a wok is really necessary for making a great stir fry or if a regular pan will suffice for your needs.
What Is Special About A Wok?
A key specialty of woks is the material they are made from.
The best woks are manufactured from carbon steel, which makes them light, non-stick when seasoned, and very durable. They conduct heat very well and can withstand high temperatures.
Cooking at extreme heat is one of the most important aspects of a wok. High heat under a well-seasoned wok gives the smokey, charred flavor known as “wok hei” (meaning wok’s breath). It’s this characteristic flavor and aroma that you’ve probably tasted at a good Chinese restaurant.
High heat also retains a crisp texture and vibrant color – this temperature is best when stir-frying as I covered in a previous post.
Carbon steel being light, durable and conductive makes it ideal for stir-frying, as you want the pan to be hot enough to sear the ingredients and create that crunchy texture. The only downside to carbon steel woks is that they can rust if they aren’t properly seasoned or cared for.
Frying pans, on the other hand, are usually made from aluminum or stainless steel. Aluminum is a good conductor of heat but it isn’t as durable as carbon steel so it isn’t used as often in commercial kitchens. Stainless steel is more durable but it isn’t as quite as good at conducting heat.
A benefit a wok has over a pan or skillet for stir-frying is its unique bowl shape. Woks are typically round with deep flared sides while frying pans are usually flat with shallower sloping sides.
The characteristically round bottom allows for even heating over an open flame and allows you to contain lots of ingredients inside. The shape of a wok allows you to cook food evenly over the entire surface of the pan while still being able to toss and turn the ingredients easily.
The flared sides of the wok also make it easy to add ingredients and remove them from the pan without making a mess.
Woks are also incredibly versatile. Apart from their great strengths in stir-frying, they are a great choice for deep frying, making curries or stews, steaming, and even boiling. You can essentially buy a quality wok and use it as your main kitchen pan.
Best Types Of Wok To Buy
If you’ve decided that a traditional wok is the way to go, then you need to choose the best one for your needs.
If you want a quick answer then the most popular would be a 14″ carbon steel wok that has a flat bottom.
Flat Vs Rounded Bottoms
One of the most important factors to consider is the type of stovetop you have. Traditional woks have rounded bottoms that will not sit properly on flat-topped stoves with induction or electric burners. They don’t even sit well on many modern gas stoves.
You can buy a special ring for them to sit on such as this one, which does help but you can also now buy flat-bottomed woks.
Non-Stick Vs Without Non-Stick
The best woks are made without a non-stick coating and build up a natural non-stick layer.
Non-stick coatings are made by spraying layers of an extremely slippery material called polytetrafluoroethylene. This works well for frying eggs but actually has a temperature limit before it starts to break down and become toxic.
This means that these woks are unadvisable to be heated extremely hot to the temperature you need to properly stir fry and achieve wok hei flavors.
The coating is also delicate to metal utensils as it scratches off the surface. This means you have to use wooden or plastic ladles or spatulas.
What Size Is Best?
A standard wok size at home is 13-14 inches. This is ideal for serving 2 people and can hold food for 4-6 people at a maximum.
If you are cooking for 1 person regularly then you could buy a smaller wok to save on cost and space. If you want to buy a wok larger than 14 inches then check it will fit on your stove top first.
Best Woks On Amazon
Flat bottomed – One of the best flat-bottomed woks available is the Yosukata Chinese Wok with Flat Bottom which comes already seasoned. There is also the slightly smaller Bielmeier Carbon Steel Wok with Lid for all Stoves which has thousands of reviews.
Rounded bottom – Some great examples of a classic carbon steel wok with a rounded bottom are this Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok which is very popular and the Yosukata Carbon Steel Wok Pan which comes pre-seasoned for added convenience.
Cast iron – Cast iron woks are uncoated like carbon steel so they will also rust if not seasoned. The downside of cast iron is that it’s heavy so it’s harder to move. But they transfer even heat very well to the food and can withstand the highest temperatures. Check out this Wangyuani Cast Iron Wok Pan.
Nonstick – If you want a wok that is easy to care for and doesn’t require seasoning but is still lightweight, then you may want to consider a non-stick pan such as this non-stick wok. This type of cookware is made from aluminum or another type of metal that has been coated with a non-stick material, such as Teflon.
Can You Use A Pan Instead Of A Wok?
So, we’ve established that woks are the ideal choice for stir-frying, but what if you don’t have one? Can you use a regular frying pan or skillet instead?
You can definitely use a pan to stir fry, but non-stick pans are not suited to extreme heat as the coating breaks down. Only pans without a non-stick coating are advised to be heated when empty until smoking hot.
There are a couple of things you should keep in mind if you decide to stir fry with a pan.
First of all, woks have a larger surface area that gets very hot, which means that you can cook more food at once.
If you’re using a pan, you only have a flat surface area to work with so you’ll probably need to cook the food in batches which can be time-consuming.
Secondly, woks have deep flared sides which make it easy to toss the ingredients and not make a mess.
If you’re using a pan or skillet then the sides will not be as deep so you’ll need to use a spatula to stir the food. It also tends to end up pushed over the sides and makes a mess of your kitchen so you’ll have an extra job of tidying after.
Is Cooking With A Wok Healthier?
One of the main reasons people choose to stir fry is because it’s a quick and easy way to cook. But is cooking with a wok actually healthier than other methods?
Cooking with a wok can be healthier than a frying pan because you tend to use less oil and move the food around quickly to stop burning.
This does depend on the recipe though as some dishes do require you to keep adding oil when adding new ingredients to the wok. Overall, the healthiest way is if you only add a small amount of oil at the beginning.
Compared to shallow frying in a pan, stir-frying means the food cooks more quickly and doesn’t spend as much time sitting in the oil, unlike a flat-bottomed frying pan.
The speed of the cooking means that you retain more of the natural goodness of the food such as vitamins and nutrients.
Disadvantages Of Cooking With A Wok
The disadvantages of woks are the seasoning to stop it rusting, the weight and size when storing it and the price.
While there are many advantages to cooking with a wok, there are also a few disadvantages that you should be aware of.
Carbon steel and cast iron woks need to be seasoned before use and then re-seasoned on a regular basis otherwise they will rust. This can be time-consuming and may not be something you’re willing to do.
Woks can also be very heavy, particularly when full of ingredients, which can make them difficult to handle, especially if you have a smaller stove top.
When they are not in use they are large and take up a lot of space. Flatter pans definitely take up less space when you only have a small kitchen.
A good quality model can be more expensive than other types of cookware such as regular frying pans and skillets. Woks are one of those items worth spending money on and keeping for a lifetime.
You may also need a wok support ring if you have a flat-topped stove.
So, now you hopefully know whether a wok is necessary to make a good stir fry.
The best stir fries will come when investing in a wok for that restaurant-quality taste and aroma of wok hei. If you’re looking for the quickest and easiest way to stir fry then a wok is definitely the way to go.
However, if you have a flat-topped stove with electric or induction burners, you may need a flat-bottomed version or just settle with getting by using a regular pan or skillet.