Published September 1, 2003. From Cook's Illustrated.
The traditional wok is designed to sit in an open cooking pit with flames licking the sides of the vessel—could we find one that worked as well on a stovetop?
We don’t like stovetop woks—at least not conventional rounded models. The traditional wok is designed to sit in an open cooking pit with flames licking the sides of the vessel. Of course, on a flat American stovetop, a round wok wobbles and has little direct contact with the heat source. For these reasons, we prefer a 12-inch nonstick skillet for stir-frying. When we decided to revisit the wok issue, this time with flat-bottom woks, we thought we’d wait to pass judgment. We needn’t have bothered. We can now safely say that we don’t like stovetop woks, period.
There are dozens of flat-bottom woks (also sold as stir-fry pans) on the market. To narrow the field, we set a few guidelines. First was size. We chose woks that had a diameter of at least 12 inches when measured across the top. Second was interior material. We like to use a nonstick pan in stir-fries, so we limited our field to nonstick woks only. We found eight popular brands of nonstick flat-bottom woks and brought them into the kitchen for a marathon stir-fry session, making batch after batch of beef and broccoli. The woks ranged in price from $16.99 to $139.99. Did price correlate to quality? Not at all.
The best performer held a roomy 6 1/2 quarts and measured 6 1/2 inches across the bottom (the widest bottom area we could find). The wok was balanced, sturdy, and easy to use, though it was a bit heavy for one petite tester. The best thing about this wok was that it got hot quickly and then stayed hot, taking a respectable three minutes to get the oil smoking initially and a quick 49 seconds to get it smoking for the second batch of beef. That heat is key to developing a brown crust on the beef, which this wok achieved to some degree, though not quite as nicely as our trusty 12-inch skillet. A 12-inch skillet has twice as much surface in direct contact with the heating source as even this wok. This larger area allows for the meat to be spread in an even layer, ensuring even browning.
Our second-place finisher had the same size bottom as the winner but was significantly smaller overall, with a 12-inch diameter at the top and a 5-quart capacity. Beef and broccoli browned somewhat, but the wok’s tipsy, unstable design made us nervous. What’s more, this thin wok didn’t hold heat well; it took almost twice as long to heat the oil hot for the second batch of beef.
We found one other wok to be sturdy and easy to work with, but its relatively small bottom (5 3/4 inches) made browning difficult; instead of lying in an even layer across the bottom, the pieces of meat stacked up in a pile, oozing juice and steaming rather than searing. Despite the heft of this wok, it didn’t hold heat at all; at 2 minutes, 15 seconds, it took the longest to heat up again after searing the first batch of beef.
Though we did finally decide to award our "recommended with reservation" title to one wok, we’d still reach first for a 12-inch nonstick skillet when stir-frying. If you were using a bamboo steamer, for which you need a wok, or cooking a large batch of fried rice, this wok might come in handy. But if you’re sticking to stir-fry, stick to your skillet. Its large, flat bottom is better suited for flat Western stovetops.