Wok -- round or flat bottom?
June 24, 2006 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I want to buy a wok. For the typical American (electric range) kitchen, which style is best? Flat or round bottom?
posted by 10ch to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Round. The pit stays a lot hotter than the upper sides, so you can move your ingredients around and control the heat.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 10:38 AM on June 24, 2006

flat! you can't get much more than a tiny pinhole hot if you don't have enough contact.
posted by soma lkzx at 10:47 AM on June 24, 2006

Round, for exactly the reason Terminal Verbosity laid out.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:53 AM on June 24, 2006

Cook's Illustrated, which does exhaustive testing of all kinds of kitchen appliances, prefers a 12" nonstick skillet to a wok (even a flat-bottom wok) for stir frying. A 12-inch skillet has twice as much surface in direct contact with the heating source as their first-place flat-bottom wok (14-inch Joyce Chen Original Stir Fry Pan).
posted by Joleta at 10:53 AM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Woks don't function well at all on electric ranges. You're better off using a regular non-stick sautee pan in order to get some heat.
posted by trey at 10:57 AM on June 24, 2006

Round woks suck on electric ranges. I usually end up useing a frying pan.
posted by Good Brain at 11:02 AM on June 24, 2006

An electric stove really can't get a wok hot enough. A flat bottomed wok or even a frying pan will get the hottest but even then you don't get true wok heat.

Your best bet is to buy an external high btu wok burner.

You need a good exhaust hood to use a wok in a kitchen. Or you can use a burner outdoors.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:14 AM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't use a round wok on an electric range. There's absolutely NOTHING in contact with the range ... which works by contact.
posted by SpecialK at 11:15 AM on June 24, 2006

Exactly what SpecialK said. Stir-frying in a wok isn't really designed for electrical ranges. It's all usually over in 3 minutes, and quick heat changes are called for, not to mention very high heat in the first place.

For a regular gas range in a home kitchen, you should probably go with a flat bottom carbon steel wok. In my restaurant, we use very high temperature burners with round bottom woks. The heat can singe your eyebrows if you're not careful. ;)

And with all due respect to Cook's Illustrated, a skillet is nowhere as versatile as a wok.
posted by madman at 11:21 AM on June 24, 2006

Get an element that's intended for a round wok (i.e. concave) and then get a round wok.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 11:53 AM on June 24, 2006

Woks don't function well at all on electric ranges. You're better off using a regular non-stick sautee pan in order to get some heat.

This advice is downright dangerous!
posted by Neiltupper at 12:00 PM on June 24, 2006

It's my understanding that non-stick skillets only reach that kind of heat if they're completely empty and allowed to over heat. A bit of oil should take care of this, no?
posted by trey at 12:07 PM on June 24, 2006

If you decide to go with a round bottomed wok you should know that the ring that stabilizes the wok come in different sizes/designs and you shouldn't settle for the one that came with the wok if it doesn't work. If the bottom is too far from the heat source try inverting the ring or get a smaller one. The ones designed for electric stoves don't have any holes in the ring and should sit on the inside of the burners metal ring to help concentrate the heat and if your wok will balance on the top of the burner, you could always cook stir fry's without it.

I have a round bottomed one and on some of the electric stoves I've used it on I get great results, other stoves not so much (or it could just be my cooking methods have improved - heh).
posted by squeak at 12:10 PM on June 24, 2006

It's my understanding that non-stick skillets only reach that kind of heat if they're completely empty and allowed to over heat. A bit of oil should take care of this, no?

Precisely. Standard wok cooking technique is to preat the pan before adding the oil. Temperatures will reach 396° F in less than two minutes, and over 700° in 5 minutes. A little oil won't have that much of a cooling effect.
posted by Neiltupper at 12:30 PM on June 24, 2006

Woks work poorly on electric stoves. I strongly second the advice that you invest in a gas burner to go with your wok. It makes all the difference in the world.
posted by Crotalus at 12:37 PM on June 24, 2006

Alton Brown's Gear for your Kitchen is the best resource on this and all other kitchen topics.
posted by frogan at 1:27 PM on June 24, 2006

Do not use a round bottom wok on an electric burner, that would be silly. How much heat do you think will actually transfer? That is why they sell flat bottomed woks. A gas burner and a round bottom wok is nicer, but the flat bottom one will work. Wok cooking uses lots of oil; why bother with a non-stick pan or wok. The whole idea is to have a pool of oil down at the bottom of the wok (hence the great advantage of a round wok over a flat bottom one). If you are chasing fat you can make most of these dishes with far less oil in a non-stick pan if you would like.
posted by caddis at 1:44 PM on June 24, 2006

I believe I have seen woks for sale with a fully concave cooking surface but also with a flat conductive bottom, designed for electric stoves. They tend to be rather heavy, though, making it hard to toss the food.
posted by randomstriker at 3:06 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Using an electric skillet has worked fine for me in the past.
posted by devilsbrigade at 4:49 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Google found this electric wok. I guess that might be another alternative. It appears to have a round bottom.
posted by caddis at 5:35 PM on June 24, 2006

Best answer: I've never used a flat-bottomed wok but I once had a very nice electric stove with one extra-large burner. I used a traditional steel wok on that burner with a solid metal collar/stand, and it worked quite well. Oil got hot enough to start smoking.

Now, on my mediocre gas stove, the same wok with a wire collar doesn't get hot enough to smoke the oil. But the shape of the wok is just so darn perfect for the action of stir-frying that I use it anyway instead of a skillet, I just allow more time for cooking. A skillet has such short walls that food goes flying all over the place if you flip and toss it for stir-frying. Stir-frying is considerably more energetic than ordinary stirring (which works fine in a skillet), and you're virtually guaranteed to fling stuff out of a skillet if you do it right.

I once tried to stir-fry in a Dutch oven (sort of a stew pot with walls about 10 or 15 cm high) and the heat transfer was indeed better so food cooked quickly, but stuff either flew out of the pot when I stirred vigorously, or I had to stir so daintily that things scorched in one area of the pot while I was ushering stuff around in another spot. (Turn down the heat? Well, OK, but that defeats the whole point of using that flat-bottomed pan in the first place.)

It seems to me that the shape of a flat-bottomed wok gives you no advatage over a Dutch oven - the pan is shorter and smaller than a traditional wok, so food will fly out more easily. To scrape food around on the flat bottom means you need a flat spatula, but it won't make good contact with the curved walls so if anything is stuck there you need to scrape it off with a curved wok spatula or spoon. I've never seen any reason to try a flat-bottomed wok - I just crank up the heat and spend a longer time stirring after each ingredient is added.

If you're new to stir-frying it can take a while to get a feel for how fast to keep things moving, as it depends on the particular ingredient and the temperature of the wok. Occasionally you can spread stuff out and let it sit for a little but that's the exception. Normally, I don't let things sit around; there are hot spots near the bottom of the wok and things will burn there. I stir quickly but allow more time between additions (compared to a skillet). If your electric stove doesn't have much oomph, you may find that the timing suggested in cookbooks is too fast - the authors probably have restaurant-type stoves and their woks get way hotter than yours. Keep your heat cranked up but don't be surprised if you need to stir-fry A for 2 or 3 minutes instead of 30 seconds before adding B. (I have one cookbook where I swear the author does her cooking on red-hot ingots in a steel mill!)

The action of stir-frying is not the gentle flat circular motion used to stir a pot of soup; you need to scrape and pry and flip and tumble and toss. You'll hear the spatula clanging against the wok and the wok itself will boogie in its stand. For this reason I highly recommend a wok with a long wooden handle so you can grab it firmly and keep control of it. Those little metal ears get too hot and don't keep your hand out of the blast of heat rising up the outside of the wok.

I'm a tidy cook and generally meticulous and highly controlled, but stir-frying just has to be done with wild abandon. You need to get that food moving and the only way to keep it off the floor is to work in a wok.

So, to sum up: get a round-bottomed steel wok with a long wooden handle, a collar/stand, and a long stainless steel spatula whose curve matches the wok's. (You can re-shape the spatula a bit with a metal file if necessary - it's really important to have good contact between the spatula and the wok so you can scrape off anything that's sticking and scorching). Use your next AskMe for advice on seasoning, washing, and storing the new wok!
posted by Quietgal at 5:59 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm surpised there haven't been more recommendations for electric woks like the one caddis posted. We tried numerous ways to stir fry on our electric ranges, but none were even close to as satisfying as the Maxim we have (curved for her pleasure). Gets plenty hot, has a nice handle and plug is removeable for easy cleaning.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:02 PM on June 24, 2006

Whoa, didn't read properly the first time. For an electric stove, definitely skip the round wok. Maybe skip the wok for now and just save up for a gas range? (Sorry, I hate electric stoves.)
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 8:10 PM on June 24, 2006

#Rock Steady: I'm surpised there haven't been more recommendations for electric woks ... . We tried numerous ways to stir fry on our electric ranges, but none were even close to as satisfying as the Maxim we have.

If you have to go electric (instead of buying a wok burner) then an electric wok could be best.

But I don't think a non-stick device that maxes out at 400° will produce wok hay.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:28 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Electric woks don't produce enough heat to cook proper Chinese food, though a simple stir-fry ought to be possible.

Using a wok on an electric stove is also difficult due to the lack of control you have over the heat. I use a flat-bottomed wok (more stable and more surface area in contact with the heat source). I then keep the heat as hot as possible and move the wok on and off the stove to control the cooking.

As gas isn't really an option in my tiny flat, one day I will buy a purpose-built induction wok - much more effective. Still, there's nothing to beat cooking on gas, particularly in a Chinese restaurant.
posted by ifenn at 5:55 AM on June 26, 2006

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