What's the best wok?
November 17, 2008 12:02 PM   Subscribe

i'm looking to buy my first wok to start cooking and need help picking the right one. what's best?

i've read that cast iron woks are very good but need lots of maintenance, whereas non-stick woks are affected by hot oil. i also notice a split between people who prefer single to double handles etc.

my price range is about £50ish ($100ish) and i'll be cooking on gas hobs. i'll be trying to cook chinese food.

also, is it worth buying special utensils?
posted by jamestwofive to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not iron. High-carbon steel, round-bottomed wok. Go to a restaurant supply shop for the best deal on a high-quality wok.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:17 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

America's Test Kitchen / Cook's Illustrated did a review of several woks here:

Wok Review

It's a good place to start getting ideas, although I don't know how many of these brands you'll be able to find across the pond. FWIW, the final paragraph of the review says that they were unimpressed by all the woks, and recommend a regular old 12-inch (30-ish cm) non-stick skillet when stir-frying.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 12:24 PM on November 17, 2008

Seconding a good steel wok. I would stay away from treated non-stick woks (they do exist) - it gets too damn hot for that material and stuff like Teflon is very toxic when it starts to evaporate. A single handle is nice and allows you to treat it like a sauce pan (ie flipping or stirring without a utensil. You dont need any special utensils, but a small plastic spatula and a pair of tongs are useful. You should be easily able to procure one in your price range. Oh, and make sure it comes with a lid - some dont.
posted by elendil71 at 12:25 PM on November 17, 2008

The number of handles is personal preference, but like cast iron, woks do not really benefit much from your paying more. I got mine at The Wok Shop, which is world famous and has 1000% more $15 steel woks (no flat-bottom, unfortunately) than fancy ones, at least in the store.
posted by rhizome at 12:42 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cast iron is terrible for a wok.

If you go to an Asian food store, you will be able to get one for almost no money.

(I had one with two handles; except they were metal, so too hot for me to usefully use. So, I guess, make sure the handles are heatproof)
posted by ambilevous at 12:43 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I guess I will go against the grain and report that I have a cast iron wok and it works brilliantly. I bought mine two years ago from the wok shop's website, mentioned above. This one. I bought a ring to go with it and a steaming rack (i later found a bamboo steamer so this became outmoded) and it was about $25. i already had a lid for it from a previous carbon steel wok I hated. At the time I ordered it I had a gas stove and it worked very well with gas and actually works just as well with my electric stovetop.
Overall I think cast iron is somewhat fussy, especially in the initial seasoning stages, but if you have dealt with it before and like it the wok will be no different.
oh, and re: the special utensils. the wok shop sent a package of specially shaped bamboo wok utensils in my package as a bonus/thank you gift. And a little bamboo back scratcher that I still have!
posted by hecho de la basura at 1:06 PM on November 17, 2008

I second the restaurant supply store.
Go and buy the biggest one you think you can use. Keep in mind the heat output of your stove. Remember that you want this to get HOT.

I usally agree with Cook's Illustrated on many things, but nonstick skillets do not give you the flavor that hot steel does. Ignore this.

I have one with two loop handles. I want one with a one long handle and a loop handle.

When I want to make things quickly and more accurately, I make them outside on the LPG burner we use for beer making.

I imagine that cast iron would work if you were careful.
It takes longer to heat up, but it holds that heat longer.
Steel woks heat up quickly. An advantage for stir-frying, a quick process.
posted by Seamus at 1:21 PM on November 17, 2008

Seconding the carbon steel wisdom -- I'd also say that the quality of the pan isn't quite as important as ensuring that it is seasoned properly.
posted by bl1nk at 1:23 PM on November 17, 2008

I also have a cast iron wok, and I'm a pretty big fan. It also only cost me $14 at the local Asian market. (One handle, flat bottom, used on the electric range).
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:25 PM on November 17, 2008

After reading wok buying advice across the web, I put this one on my Christmas wishlist. The advice boiled down to "get any uncoated carbon steel wok with a flat bottom and a lid".
posted by PueExMachina at 1:58 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Start with a cheap spun-steel wok with one loop handle and one long handle. You'll need a ring to support it on your stove (hob, if you insist) so try to get a wire one rather than sheet metal, to let the heat flow up the sides of the wok more evenly. It will probably come with a curved spatula; if not, try to find one whose curve matches that of the wok. You can't use a straight-edged spatula in a wok and I greatly prefer a spatula to a spoon for pushing things around in a wok.

You'll find that spun steel works pretty well although it tends to develop hot spots right over the gas flame. Keep the food moving briskly and it won't be too much of a problem. The real pain in the butt with spun steel is that it has to be seasoned, and kept seasoned. This means that every time you cook with it you have to re-apply the seasoning patina after washing the wok (unless you are so gentle with cleaning that it builds up a residue of ... carbon, shall we say). I could never clean it gently enough to preserve the patina without leaving nasty globs of stuck-on food - blame those hot spots.

Also, if you use the wok for steaming, the patina will be destroyed and the wok will rust. I tried many different ways to season my steel wok and none of them resulted in a durable patina, so every time I used the dang thing it had to be treated again. And needless to say, you can't put non-stainless steel in the dishwasher.

So ... after you decide you enjoy stir-frying, you may want to ditch the cheap wok and invest in a stainless steel All-Clad wok. They're about twice your starting budget (in the US - probably more in the UK), but what a difference they make! Thick metal with a conductive aluminum core means no hot spots, and the stainless steel interior and exterior mean no seasoning is required. They're also very heavy so they stay put in the ring, meaning you don't need a long handle to hang onto. And stainless steel can go in the dishwasher. I hesitated a long time before dropping that kind of money on an American wok (I mean, what the hell do we Yanks know about woks?) but I'm really glad I did. I love that thing! I cook tons of stir-fries and I will never go back to a spun-steel wok.

Some people find a flat-bottomed Dutch oven works well as a wok substitute on Western stoves (I think frying pans are too shallow to really get the food flipping around like it should). If your storage space is limited, this might be a better pot for you since you can use it for lots of things in addition to stir-frying. But I like the geometry of a wok for stir-frying - no corners means no place for stuff to stick and burn, and it's big so it tends to catch any flying food.

Note: the hardest thing about learning to stir-fry, for me, was developing the sense of timing. Ingredients are added in a certain order so that everything ends up properly cooked at the end, and knowing when to add the next thing took some practice. Expect a few flops at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's a wonderful way to cook. MeFi mail me if you want some cookbook suggestions for newbies.
posted by Quietgal at 3:32 PM on November 17, 2008

-Don't spend more than $30 on a wok. In the UK, I wouldn't spend more than 25 pounds on a wok. What makes a wok good is not so much the quality of the pan or construction, but how good the seasoning is on the wok.

-nthing the carbon steel over cast-iron. No non-stick woks.

-Size matters. You want a big wok if you're trying to make a stir-fry, so you can get more heat into the food faster. Overloading the wok means you end up boiling or steaming the food rather than stir-frying it.

-My wok looks a lot like this one (from Amazon). I haven't measured my wok, but 14 inches sounds about right for someone starting out. Don't get anything smaller. Since you appear to be from the UK, this might serve you well.

-I've gotten by without special utensils on the wok for years. A sturdy metal spatula will serve you well, especially when it comes to scraping food from the surface of the wok. That still happens when I make fried rice or other moist, starchy items in the wok. This spatula looks like the one my parents use.
posted by zompus at 4:35 PM on November 17, 2008

Roll with a Volrath. Here is the LA Times article reviewing woks. I can attest to Volrath being a nice wok that does the job very nicely on my gas range.
posted by jadepearl at 6:40 PM on November 17, 2008

All of the America Test Kitchen models tested are crap. No wonder they all did so poorly. There's no point in getting a wok that's nonstick or flat-bottomed. I bought mine from the wok shop and was very happy. Yes, I know it would work better in a fire pit, but gas stove + wok ring + round bottom = me very happy with the results. In all honesty I don't know if my food is better or worse for being cooked in a wok, but I know that I enjoy making a stir fry in a wok much more than in a normal skillet. Actually, probably my favorite aspect of it is that it is incredibly easy to toss the contents around, whereas in a skillet they'd go flying everywhere and in a saucepan there'd be less flame surface.

Definitely get the double handles. Woks tend not to be as balanced as normal pots so holding one handle doesn't give you enough leverage. I like my pot handles to be metal, just so I don't have to worry about them burning or melting, but wood handles would also probably be find (avoid plastic handles for woks).

People always piss and moan about how careful you have to be with cast iron. The truth is, it is very forgiving. If you mess up the seasoning somehow, worst case scenario you simply scrub that part of the pot, cover it with some oil again, and heat it up to reseason. I'm constantly messing up the seasoning on my wok and it still cooks food fine, it just sometimes sticks a bit. But I find that food comes right off the wok once you give it plenty of hot water. If you can't get a wok scrubbing brush, you can just use a standard vegetable brush to scrub it.

Unlike normal cast iron pots, the cast iron in most woks is pretty thin, so you get a pretty fast transfer of heat. But, like cast iron you also tend to get nice even dissipation of heat. I don't generally have "hot spots" anywhere on my wok.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:58 PM on November 17, 2008

I don't know much about woks, although I prefer stainless steel or cast iron - do NOT get non-stick.

As for special utensils, you only really need one stainless steel turner (such as this: http://www.theasiancookshop.co.uk/chinese-turner--cooking-spatula-801-p.asp). My 50+ yr old mom has been cooking Chinese food for my family of 5 all her life with just a wok and a turner. :) You can use the sharp edge for cutting things in the wok, and the flat side for turning, flipping, and stirring.
posted by Xianny at 11:18 AM on November 18, 2008

Oh and I forgot to add: I got my turner for about $4 in a regular canadian supermarket. they shouldn't be too expensive.
posted by Xianny at 11:19 AM on November 18, 2008

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