Is carbon steel really better than stainless or cast iron? Learn all about different types of woks, how to care for them, and which ones you should buy!
Woks offer a uniquely versatile approach to cooking. While they’re great for stir-frying, they’re more than capable of performing a number of other kitchen tasks. I’ll frequently find myself using a wok for both deep-frying and steaming, while I’ve seen my friends use theirs for baking, smoking, and more.
Despite this, too many kitchens don’t have a proper wok. Part of the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of wok manufacturers. Too many companies produce low-quality woks made from inappropriate materials, making them useless.
These serve as a poor introduction to wok cooking, leading home chefs to believe (incorrectly) that all woks perform equally poorly.
In order to avoid wasting money on such a product, here are a few general tips you can follow when looking for a wok to purchase:
1. PAY ATTENTION TO SHAPE
Your range probably wasn’t designed with a round bottomed wok in mind. Even if you have a special wok holding attachment, your range won’t transfer heat to the wok in a very effective way. Look for a wok with a flat bottom in order to ensure that it will actually get hot.
With that being said, one of the major things that separates wok cooking from other cooking is the ability to move food in and out of a high heat zone. A flat bottom is necessary in order to get a high heat zone at all, but you don’t want it to be too big. Experts recommend a 4-5” flat bottom with about 13” of sloping sides.
2. AVOID STAINLESS
Woks are usually made out of one of three materials: stainless steel, carbon steel, and cast iron. While there are advantages and disadvantages to carbon steel and cast iron, stainless steel woks aren’t very good. For one, they’re super heavy, making them tedious to use. Worse, they don’t distribute heat very well.
Even when equipped with an aluminum or copper core, a stainless steel wok won’t respond to quick temperature changes very well. Given than stir-frying often involves quick temperature changes, this makes it a poor choice for your wok.
Finally, stainless steel is harder to season than either cast iron or carbon steel, so you’ll have to put in more work to clean your wok.
3. NOT CREATED EQUAL
The construction methods employed in making your wok will dictate how well it holds food. As mentioned previously, you often want to be able to move food to the sides of your wok so it doesn’t cook as quickly. If the sides of your wok are too smooth, they won’t hold food well.
There are three methods used to shape woks. The first, stamping, involves taking a piece of metal and bending it. This will result in a wok with very smooth sides. Your food will slide around like Apolo Anton Ohno in the 2002 Olympics.
The other two methods, spinning and hammering, produce woks with granular sides. Hand hammered woks have hundreds of little divots and indentations that are produced with each hammer blow. You won’t notice these unless you get really close and look, but they’ll keep your food in place on the edges.
Spun woks are made on lathes. This construction method leaves a telltale trace in the form of ridges that make concentric circles all the way down the wok. These circles act like the tread on your shoes and help food stay where you put it.
Neither hammered nor spun woks are particularly expensive, so it’s absolutely worth springing for one.
It’s absolutely imperative that you do not buy a non-stick wok.
There are three reasons for this, with the last being the most important. First, it’s not really necessary. As you use your wok, you’ll naturally work oil molecules into gaps in the steel. Under high heat, these oil molecules will form a polymer layer that’s naturally non-stick. This process is called “seasoning,” and it’s been used for hundreds of years to produce non-stick pans without any Teflon.
Second, non-stick pans have a short lifespan and are difficult to care for. Woks are big, heavy pieces of kitchen equipment. You’ll want yours to last a long time. You also probably want to be able to stir things in your stir-fry without worrying about scratching off a non-stick layer. In order to ensure your pan lasts, it’s a good idea to avoid non-stick.
Finally, non-stick coatings don’t perform well under high heat. This doesn’t just mean food will stick (although it can), but rather that the actual non-stick coating will start to break apart at temperatures well within the range of what you’d like your wok to reach.
In some cases, the non-stick coat will literally release toxic fumes. “Safe” non-stick chemicals are often only safe below 500 degrees, which is pretty easy to hit on a medium high burner.
There are two main types of woks handles. Cantonese-style woks have two small handles, making them easy to lift. Northern-style woks feature a long handle that’s more reminiscent of a frying pan.
Your choice should be heavily informed by your own preference and style of cooking. If you prefer to leave your wok stationary and do all of your stirring with utensils, Cantonese handles are fine.
If you’d like to move your wok as you cook (and I know I do), be sure to buy one with a handle that’s long enough to use while the wok is hot. Alternately, get a set of really nice pot-holders.
CARBON STEEL OR CAST IRON?
While I’m quick to recommend that you stay away from stainless steel woks, the choice between carbon steel and cast iron is a little bit more nuanced. I personally recommend carbon steel quite strongly, but there’s certainly an argument to be made for cast iron woks.
Cast iron woks take a long time to heat up and cool down. They’re not always heavy, but if they’re not, it’s almost always because they’re very thin. The thinner your wok, the more likely it is to break under stress. This can happen when you add cold food or water to a hot wok, but it usually occurs when you’re just moving the wok around in a cupboard.
These downsides might seem pretty big, but they’re not the whole picture. Cast iron holds heat particularly well, so while your wok will take a little bit of time to heat up, it will stay hot for a long time. It’s especially good for high heat cooking. It’s also very well suited to being seasoned, so you’ll build up a very nice non-stick surface over time.
That said, I recommend carbon steel because it offers a similar set of advantages. Carbon steel is almost as easy to season. While it doesn’t hold heat quite as well, it’s much more responsive to changes in temperature. This means that you can turn the heat down and your wok will drop in temperature much faster. Carbon steel is less fragile than cast iron, too, so it’s less likely to break. Still, be sure to make sure that your wok is thick enough. If you’re buying in a store, make sure it doesn’t bend much if you press on it. If you’re buying online, look for 14-gauge steel or a thickness of 2mm.
The best part about carbon steel is that it’s fantastically cheap. Carbon steel woks tend to be quite a bit less expensive than their stainless and cast iron counterparts, meaning you can spend more money on delicious things to cook!
SEASONING AND CARING FOR YOUR WOK
Carbon steel woks (and cast iron ones, for that matter) usually are packaged with a thin layer of non-edible oil to keep them from rusting. Some are additionally wrapped in plastic. Before you use them to cook, it’s important to wash this layer off. Most wok manufacturers will include specific instructions. These usually involve placing some water in your wok, getting it pretty hot, and then scrubbing off the layer of oil with plenty of soap.
After this is done, your wok will be bare to the elements. Not only should you season it (to prevent food from sticking), but you should also brush it with a food-safe oil before you store it. This will help prevent your wok from rusting. If it does rust, however, it’s not a big deal.
You can just scrub off any rust spots that appear in the sink! You will have to season your wok afterwards, however.
Most wok manufacturers suggest that you season your wok by hand on the stove (Here our cookware for gas stoves guide) . It’s not recommended to do it in the oven because your wok has sloped sides, so oil won’t stay put for very long. On the stove, you can manually apply oil directly to all parts of your wok while it’s still hot.
When it comes time to season your wok, the exact order of operations isn’t particularly important. Put the wok on the stove over medium-ish heat. Let it get hot. Spread cooking oil evenly around, using a paper towel held between tongs, a cooking brush, or simply swirl the pan around until things are evenly coated.
Ideally, your wok is just hot enough to avoid burning the oil. After it’s coated, some experts think you should remove the wok from heat and let it cool, then repeat the process several times. Others think you should simply lower the heat a bit and sauté aromatics for a while until the wok changes color. In any case, your wok’s seasoning will change over time. As long as you cook with plenty of fat, you’ll naturally add to your layer of seasoning and fix any imperfections with your initial season.
Once your wok is seasoned, be sure to AVOID USING SOAP. The polymer layer you’ve built up will withstand both scrubbing and hot water, but you’ll completely destroy it if you use a detergent or soap on your wok. You should be able to easily clean out your wok with a quick rinse and a bit of work with a sponge. If you do use soap (or you let someone else do the dishes), you’ll have to season it from scratch all over again. This isn’t a giant deal, but it will eat up a few minutes of your time.
You’ll need to follow this process with any carbon steel (or cast iron) wok you buy. No matter how highly recommended a wok comes, you can’t escape your obligation to season it and store it properly. If you don’t, food will stick to your wok and it rust spots will quickly appear.
As a final aside, the oil you use to season your wok with absolutely matters, but only a little. Almost any cooking fat will do an okay job of producing the desired polymer coat. If you want the absolute best, experts suggest that you should use pure, organic flax seed oil. While it’s rather expensive, it also produces slightly better results than any other oil when it comes to seasoning. In practice, however, it’s unlikely to make that much of a difference.
MY RECOMMENDATIONS – Top 3 Review
As I’ve stated above, I absolutely prefer carbon steel over the other types of woks. As a result, all three of my choices are carbon steel. While they all exhibit the features discussed above, each one is suited for a different type of kitchen.
This wok has everything you want. It’s a 2mm thick carbon steel wok that’s 14” across. It’s got both a long handle (so you can move it while it’s hot) and a shorter handle on the opposite side (so you can lift it). While it’s got quite a bit of heft, it’s still lighter than its cast iron counterparts.
Don’t confuse this with the other popular Joyce Chen wok. While this is a robust 2mm thick carbon steel wok, Joyce Chen also sells a 1.5mm version. You really want the extra half millimeter of thickness to keep your wok durable and sturdy. The thinner version may even warp under normal cooking conditions!
Durability isn’t the only concern when it comes to the thickness of your wok. Another advantage that a 2mm wok (like this one) offers over a 1.5mm wok comes via the way heat is distributed. A 1.5mm wok will heat less evenly on the bottom while distributing more heat up the sides. This hinders your goal of being able to move food out of a high-heat zone and necessitates that you stir food on the bottom more frequently. A 2mm wok, however, will retain an even amount of heat on the bottom. While the sides will still get hot, they’re a bit thicker, so heat won’t travel upwards quite as quickly. This allows you to have better control over how much heat reaches each individual ingredient.
The flat bottom on this wok is generous enough to allow it to work on induction and electric ranges while still giving you plenty of sloped space to work with. It’s made via spinning, so concentric rings will keep food on the slopes without too much hassle.
While the included handles are a nice touch, they’re only rated to 350 degrees F. Be sure to remove them before throwing your wok in the oven or cooking on high heat for a long period of time. It’s especially important to remove them before seasoning, as you’re sure to get your entire wok quite hot.
If you’re looking for a basic spun carbon steel wok, this Joyce Chen is a great choice. It offers everything you need in terms of size, shape, and features. You’ll be producing great stir-fries in no time!
If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional, this hand-hammered carbon steel wok is a great choice for your kitchen. The old-fashioned construction technique used in its production creates hundreds of little indentations to keep food from sliding down the sides. That said, this round bottom wok might be too traditional for some kitchens depending on the type of range you have.
To elaborate: the round bottom on this wok is wholly inappropriate for electric and induction ranges. If you have a wok ring and a high BTU gas range, however, you should be fine.
This wok is quite big. It measures a full 16”, so make sure you’ve got enough space in your kitchen. While this might be a downside for some, I think it’s an absolutely killer feature for others. The ability to cook a full, large dish in a single wok is incredible. Once you’ve taken the plunge and upgraded to a full 16” wok, you’ll never go back.
The handles on this wok are Cantonese style, so they’re quite short and they get very hot. They’re very handy when it comes to moving the wok, but you’ll want to be very careful with them during or after cooking. Be sure to have pot holders handy for any adjustments in your wok’s position. When it’s time to serve food, you’ll probably want to keep your wok where it is and use utensils to place food onto other dishes.
While this wok isn’t the right choice for everyone, it’s a stellar example of a hand-hammered round-bottomed wok. It’s fantastically large, solid, and absolutely incredible if you’ve got the space and equipment to handle a large, round bottomed wok.
Available in both 12 and 16-inch styles, this 2mm thick carbon steel wok is absolutely perfect for almost every kitchen. It’s got a generous flat bottom, enabling you to use it on all types of ranges, and wooden handles that stay cool so you can move the wok around.
While it’s not obvious from the product description, this is a spun wok, meaning it’s got small circular ridges that keep food in place on the edges. This means that you can place food on the sides and it won’t slide down, enabling you to control the rate at which different pieces of food cook.
The flat bottom on this wok is suitable for electric ranges, induction ranges, and flat grills. Again, the product description fails to mention that the magnetic carbon steel works brilliantly with an induction range. It’s also amazing on a gas range, of course.
Despite the relatively low price of this wok, it’s made by American workers in San Francisco. If you’re looking to support American manufacturers, you don’t have to go all the way to All-Clad. Instead, consider this well-made wok at a much more competitive price.
While this wok is quite comparable to the Joyce Chen above, it’s a slightly better choice for some kitchens due to the welded handles. The Joyce Chen has removable handles. They’re convenient to remove, but you’ll need to tighten them every few months under normal use.This wok has welded handles in both the 14 and 16” styles, meaning you’ll never have to worry about them coming loose (or worse, you losing them somehow).
Like the 16” round-bottom wok above, the 16” version of this wok is quite large. Unlike the round-bottom wok, however, you don’t need any special considerations to use this one on your range. I firmly believe that the 16” version of this is the best choice for any kitchen that cooks large dishes often. If you prefer to cook smaller dishes, the 14” version is still an excellent choice. It offers all of the features you want while maintaining a competitive price.
THE BEST CARBON STEEL WOK
All three of the woks recommended above are excellent buys under the right circumstances. If you’ve got a wok ring and like cooking big dishes, the round-bottomed 16” wok is absolutely the best choice. If you cook for family but you have an induction or electric range, or you just don’t want to fiddle with a wok ring, the 16” flat-bottomed model is the best choice for you. Finally, if you cook for a smaller number of people, either of the 14” woks will work wonderfully in the kitchen.
The key features offered by these woks are a result of their 2mm carbon steel construction. While two are spun and one is hammered, they offer the same end result: excellent heat distribution and the ability to use the sides without food sliding down.
With a bit of care, all three of these woks will last you for decades. The care is important, however. Make sure you strip the machine oil coating on your wok before you cook with it, and make sure you season it well before your first use.
Once you’ve done so, oil it lightly before you store it. It’s worth a little bit of hassle to keep your wok rust free. You’ll be able to use your wok to produce absolutely amazing stir-fries and other dishes whenever you want!
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