Published January 1, 2003. From Cook's Illustrated.
We don't like woks in principle—but we were willing to give electric woks a try.
We've said it plainly several times: We don't like woks. The relatively small base of a wok means only modest burner contact, which translates to less than maximum heat. Quite simply, the design of a wok is not meant for cooking on a Western stovetop; there, a large open skillet is much more successful at achieving optimum sizzle and sear.
We wondered, however, if electric woks offered advantages over stovetop woks. Are their heating elements capable of really cranking up the heat and producing first-rate stir-fries? We collected six electric woks ranging in price from $35 to $100 and set up shop in a corner of the test kitchen. We stir-fried and deep-fried in each wok and looked for differences in heating ability, the design of the wok and temperature control unit, and ease of cleaning. Quite frankly, we were surprised to find one wok—and a modestly priced one at that—that excelled in all areas and another that did quite well. The rest weren't worth the space they occupied on the countertop.
The runaway winner heated up nice and hot, and quickly, too. It stir-fried on par with a skillet, and it managed the oil for deep-frying like a pro. The temperature dial stayed cool during cooking and was relatively accurate as well as easy to read and to adjust. This wok's size was generous and its construction solid, while its long handle made it easy to hold the wok with one hand while scraping out ingredients with the other when cooking in batches. Cleanup was a breeze.
The runner-up had the heat output of the winner, but it was not nearly as commodious. With use, its temperature dial became hot to the touch, and its two short handles were less than ideal for cooking in batches because it was impossible to scrape out food while turning the wok to empty it. The nonstick interior made cleaning a snap.
Several models fared poorly. Problems were flimsy construction, odd design, and hot spots. Moreover, none of these four woks had good heat output; in fact, three couldn't get the oil for deep-frying above 350 degrees, even though their thermostats were set for 375 and indicated that the temperature had been reached (in one, the oil hovered at only 312 degrees).
Should you purchase an electric wok? Probably, if you're a frequent fryer or like to use a bamboo steamer (which requires a wok of some sort, electric or not). Definitely, if, in addition to the above, you enjoy gadgetry and have the storage space. However, if stir-frying is your limit, stick with a large, heavy, utilitarian skillet.