A Chinese wok is a handy and versatile vessel that can be used for cooking a number of dishes. If you are planning to invest in one, then do take a look at this wok buying guide.
In Chinese, the wok is called “dar shao” which directly translates as “Big Spoon”.
One of the most important pieces of Chinese cookware and used all over Asia, the wok is a great utensil known for its versatility. This conical metal pan can be used for stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, steaming, and stewing food. Choosing this handy utensil for your home can be a bit confusing. This is because there are many types of woks available in the market. While the classic woks used for Chinese cooking are round-bottomed, there are newer flat-bottomed ones available in the market that are suitable for conventional stoves. Moreover, there are different types of material and sizes to choose from. To help you choose the right wok for your kitchen, this HomeQuicks write-up dishes out a few tips.
How to Choose a Chinese Wok
The metal type is the most important consideration when choosing a wok. Each metal type has its own set of pros and cons. You need to choose the wok based on what you are comfortable with. While cast iron and carbon steel are more commonly used, non-stick woks have also gained popularity in recent years.
Carbon Steel Woks
This is the most popular type of wok and is often considered the best metal for woks. There are many professional chefs who will ask you to opt for these plain, uncoated woks.
▣ The quick heat conduction and even transfer of heat help in faster and better cooking.
▣ Due to seasoning or carbonizing, there is a distinctive “wok hei” flavor imparted to the dishes.
▣ Carbon steel woks are relatively inexpensive as compared to other metal woks.
▣ They are lightweight and easy to lift especially while stir-frying.
▣ These woks are durable and strong.
▣ They have to be seasoned so as to prevent food from sticking. Seasoning is also needed to remove metallic tastes and odors from the food cooked in these vessels. If seasoning is not done properly, food tends to stick.
Cast Iron Woks
Cast iron is a traditional metal wok used by the Chinese. While Chinese-made cast iron woks are extremely thin and fragile, the Western versions are often thicker and heavier.
▣ It’s the best wok for uniform heat distribution and retention.
▣ When seasoned, they impart a great flavor to the food.
▣ The Chinese version of cast iron woks are light, and thus, very handy when it comes to tossing food.
▣ The thicker base of Western cast iron woks leads to slow response to heat adjustments.
▣ They also take a long time to cool when taken off fire, and thus, food needs to be removed immediately to prevent overcooking.
▣ Heavier cast iron woks are extremely difficult to lift.
▣ They need to be seasoned to prevent food from sticking.
Steel or aluminum woks coated with Teflon and PFA are popular in western countries. They are popular among home cooks and many chefs.
▣ They do not need to be seasoned before being used. They are good for novices.
▣ Non-stick surfaces are easier to clean.
▣ They require less oil for cooking.
▣ These woks are expensive as compared to metal woks.
▣ They do not brown the food in the pan; instead, they retain the juices. There is also the absence of “wok hei” flavor that food cooked in seasoned cast iron or carbon steel woks have.
▣ The Teflon coating is unable to withstand very high temperature. They are, thus, not good enough for cooking stir-fry dishes.
Other material available include stainless steel and aluminum. While these woks may work for home chefs, they do not have even heat distribution or heat retention, thus, making them extremely inefficient for Chinese cooking. Moreover, they are likely to have dents and warps when used for high heat flash cooking. The ideal metal type for woks are carbon steel, which has been seasoned.
There are many sizes of woks available in the market. While you may be itching to get that huge wok you saw at the restaurant, it is advisable to consider certain things before choosing the wok size. These include:
▣ The size and power of your burner
▣ What type of food you want to cook
▣ The amount of food to be cooked
While the woks used in restaurants are several feet in diameter, the ideal size of woks for most households should be around 14”. If you have a huge family or need to use the wok to cook for several people, then a 16” wok should work well for you.
Woks vary from a round bottom to shallow, flat bottom. Ideally, the wok should be deep enough to allow you to toss the vegetables while cooking. Classic woks are round in shape, while the Western versions have a flat bottom that make them look like deep-frying pans.
Whether you need a round- or flat-bottomed wok, it depends on the stove you have. A rounded wok does have the advantage of a deeper bottom that enables flash cooking and easy tossing of food, but they do not sit well on a Western style stove and are, thus, unable to come in full contact with the stove’s heating element. That is why you need a flat-bottomed wok, especially if you are using electric burners. Unfortunately, tossing and stir-frying with a flat-bottomed wok can be quite difficult. Moreover, the food is not evenly cooked in these vessels. To avoid this, you can use a round-bottomed wok with wok rings that allow the wok to sit safely on the burner while cooking. You should ideally choose a ring that is 4″ smaller in diameter than the wok and fits the burner well.
Woks generally come with two loop handles on either side or a long stick-style handle on one side. The loop-style wok handles are seen in traditional woks and are best for large woks that cannot be lifted with just one handle. The long stick-style handles are good for smaller woks. In China, the popular stick handle woks are known as “Peking pans.” Some of the newer woks in the market have a loop handle on one side and a stick-style handle on the other. These handles are riveted or welded to the sides of the wok.
Apart from the style, it is also important to pay attention to the material of the wok handles. Long heat-resistant wood or plastic handles are your best bet. Stainless steel handles are heat-resistant, sturdy, and remain relatively cool for a long time.
Woks can be found in Asian grocery stores and restaurant supply shops. They are also available in many popular kitchenware stores or online. Getting a versatile modern wok is a decision you will never regret. So, choose one with care, and you are sure to cherish it for years to come.