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Should You Buy a Wok?

By Lisa McManus Published

After years of preferring nonstick skillets to woks for making stir-fries, we decided to take a fresh look at this traditional pan.

Because this is America’s Test Kitchen, we’re always questioning our assumptions. For years, we’ve tweaked conventional stir-fry recipes to achieve delicious results in a nonstick skillet rather than a wok, the traditional cooking vessel. Since American stove burners are flat, we aimed to get more contact with the heat source by using the broad cooking surface of a 12-inch skillet instead of the smaller bottom surface of a wok. Recently, we decided to take another look at woks.

There was a lot to learn. You can buy woks in a huge range of materials, shapes, and sizes. We turned to Grace Young, wok expert and James Beard Award–winning author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge (2010), The Breath of a Wok (2004), and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (1999). She and other experts advised us that carbon-steel and lightweight cast-iron woks are the top choices for cooks. These materials transfer heat efficiently, so they sear foods more effectively than woks made of stainless steel or clad materials or woks coated in a nonstick material. As we’ve learned from testing cast-iron and carbon-steel skillets, these metals also gradually acquire seasoning as you cook; over time, the polymerized oil naturally makes them more and more nonstick. With a well-seasoned wok, we might be able to skip using nonstick-coated skillets while retaining the benefits of their slick surfaces. 

The Showdown: Wok versus Skillet

Before we began testing, we invited Young to the test kitchen for a friendly “wok versus skillet” cook-off where she prepared a set of recipes in a wok while we used our winning nonstick skillet to make the same recipes. Test cooks and editors gathered to compare the techniques and results. While the recipes came out well in the skillet, all agreed that the wok-cooked versions tasted at least as good—many said better—than the skillet-cooked versions. These results were likely due to the wok’s hotter temperature and well-seasoned surface that resulted in food that had better browning and was more flavorful. Also, it was clearly easier to stir-fry in the wok. With its high walls and rounded shape, the wok allowed Young to stir less carefully and move food around more thoroughly during cooking. Another plus? Her stovetop stayed neater. Active stir-frying was much trickier in our low-sided skillet.

Executive Editor Lisa McManus invited wok expert Grace Young to the test kitchen for a friendly “wok versus skillet” cook-off. Grace and Senior Editor Lan Lam prepared a series of the same recipes side by side, with Grace using a wok and Lan using our winning nonstick skillet. Check out the video to see the results.

Next, we bought nine woks to test, priced from about $33 to about $55. All measured 14 inches from rim to rim, the size that our wok experts said is optimal for home cooks preparing anywhere from two to six servings. Smaller woks can crowd and essentially steam your food instead of searing it, while larger ones can take up too much space and be unwieldy on the average home stovetop. We picked woks with flat bottoms rather than traditional round bottoms. A flat bottom not only lets the wok sit securely on the burner but also negates the need to buy a “wok ring” to hold the wok upright; this shape also works on a wide variety of cooktops, from gas to induction to electric. All the woks we tested were made of carbon steel, cast iron, or lightweight cast iron, but only the cast-iron woks and one of the carbon-steel models arrived preseasoned. The rest were made of uncoated carbon steel and needed preparation before they were ready for cooking (see “How to Season a New Wok”). 

In each of the nine woks, we stir-fried a wide range of ingredients and used a variety of techniques, including cooking in batches, steaming and crisping vegetables, handling piles of slippery noodles, searing meat and seafood, scrambling eggs, and frying rice. We stir-fried green beans; prepared Fried Rice with Shrimp, Pork and Peas; and made Thai-style rice noodles with broccolini and chicken. We asked additional testers, both novice and experienced in wok cooking, to prepare a popular Chinese homestyle dish of stir-fried tomatoes and eggs. And throughout testing we noted how easy each wok was to use and clean, and compared recipe results. Here’s what we learned.

A thick, heavy cast-iron wok retains and radiates intense heat after a few minutes on the stovetop—just check out the red zone of the infrared image above. That may sound like a plus, but it made it hard to regulate the heat. Thinner, lighter carbon-steel woks heat up and cool down more quickly, giving the cook more control over cooking as ingredients are added to and removed from the wok.

Lighter Woks Work Best

Lifting a big, hot wok full of steaming food puts a real strain on the cook, especially if the wok itself is heavy. Most of our woks had helper handles, but we usually needed our other hand to help transfer food into a serving dish. You can leave the wok on the stove and scoop out the food, but that risks overcooking it, especially when the wok is made of cast iron and retains heat. We found woks much more efficient and versatile when we could lift them with one, nondominant hand. In our lineup, woks ranged from just less than 3 pounds to more than a whopping 11 pounds, and testers had a strong preference for the easy maneuverability of the lighter woks.

On a related note, we also preferred carbon-steel woks. While we were ultimately able to make food successfully in all the woks—and enjoyed skipping the seasoning step when using preseasoned cast-iron woks—all the cast-iron models were thicker, heavier, and slower to heat up and retained heat longer than the carbon-steel models. As a result, they were slightly less responsive and made it somewhat more difficult to control the rate of cooking than in woks made of thin carbon steel.

Grace Young's Method for Seasoning A Wok

  • Naked carbon steel rusts if it’s exposed to air or moisture, so cookware manufacturers coat it with a sticky, waxy protective substance. This must be scrubbed off before seasoning can adhere. For this testing, we used Grace Young's technique from her book Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge.

     

    1. Scrub the new wok with steel wool and soap, inside and out, and dry it thoroughly.

     

    2. Heat the wok over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of a high–smoke point oil, such as vegetable oil, plus one scallion cut into 2-inch lengths and 1/2 cup of sliced ginger, and stir-fry the mixture over medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes, moving the vegetables around the interior of the wok and pressing them against the sides of the wok as they cook.

     

    3. Discard the blackened food, rinse the wok under hot water, wipe it dry, and finish drying it thoroughly on the stove over medium-low heat. Now you're ready to cook. The pan may not look much different yet, but you've begun your seasoning process, and it will gradually change from blotchy brown to solid black in the months to come as you continue to use the wok.

One Handle or Two?

One of the biggest differences we saw in the woks was the material, location, and shape of the handles. All the models but one had metal or wooden handles (one had a plastic-coated metal handle), and we went into this testing assuming that metal, being more durable than wood, would be the way to go. But since stir-frying often happens over high heat, it didn’t take long before we realized we preferred the models with stay-cool wooden handles. We lost many valuable seconds reaching for a pot holder or towel to grab metal handles, which often surprised us by heating up halfway through a recipe.

Models with a single, straight handle—like on a skillet—gave us the leverage and control we needed to lift and move the wok, and we preferred this design to woks with a pair of small looped handles. Because they’re set close to the wok, these small, ear-like handles quickly got too hot. When we tried to lift those woks using a single loop (and a pot holder or towel), the opposite side of the wok sometimes suddenly swung down out of control. With the single-handed woks, the angle of the handle mattered, too: Long handles that were level with the wok’s rim, or tilted radically upward, felt unbalanced and awkward. But woks with handles that were angled only slightly gave us better leverage and made the wok feel lighter and more balanced. Moving it felt more natural and comfortable.

We preferred wok handles that were angled up slightly, such as those of the Taylor and Ng model (left). These handles gave testers better leverage and made the wok feel lighter and more balanced. Handles that were nearly level with the wok’s rim—such as those of the Joyce Chen wok (right)—or tilted sharply upward made the woks feel unbalanced and awkward.

The Hottest Zone on a Wok

When you’re cooking food in a wok, the flat portion at the bottom is usually the hottest area because it is in direct contact with the heat source, while the sloping walls form a slightly cooler zone. (That said, if you have a lot of liquid at the bottom of the wok or if you’re cooking with a gas flame turned up too high, the walls might become hotter than the bottom.) You can move food around the wok to use these zones to the best advantage. We measured the diameters of the flat portion at the bottoms of the woks and compared them to the woks’ cooking performances. They ranged from having no flat interior space (in the heavy cast-iron wok) to 7 inches; we preferred the model with the widest interior space. Having a bit more of the wok’s cooking surface at the hottest temperature helped us sear food and evaporate moisture more effectively as it cooked.

So, Do You Need a Wok?

Many of our test kitchen recipes show that you can stir-fry in a 12-inch nonstick pan with good results. But using a wok can be much easier, especially when cooking large volumes of food, such as noodles or rice, that tend to spill over the sides of a skillet unless you stir very carefully or cook in multiple batches. And because we don’t recommend heating a nonstick-coated skillet until it’s as hot as a typical wok, it’s harder to achieve the browning and flavor produced by cooking in a wok. Bottom line: We find it a very useful pan to have. We’re still going to rely on our nonstick skillet when cooking eggs and fish, but for stir-frying, we prefer a wok.

The Best Wok: Taylor and Ng Natural Nonstick Wok Set 12153 14″ Carbon Steel

After cooking batch after batch of stir-fried noodles, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, eggs, and fried rice in all nine woks, we had a favorite: the Taylor and Ng Natural Nonstick Wok Set 12153 14″ Carbon Steel (about $49.00). At 3 pounds, 4.6 ounces, it was one of the lightest woks we tested—and its comfortable, stay-cool wooden handles made it easy to lift and maneuver, even when full of hot food. It had the widest flat cooking surface of the woks we tested, and its thin carbon-steel construction made it heat and cool quickly and responsively as we cooked. It’s also the only wok that came with a lid, which is handy to have for some recipes, such as our Thai-Style Noodles with Chicken and Broccolini, which calls for briefly steaming the broccolini by covering the pan.   

A note about the name: While it’s called “natural nonstick,” this wok does not have a nonstick coating in the traditional sense. The company uses a high-heat treatment in the factory to preseason the wok, which oxidizes the surface of the carbon steel and turns it a deep blue color. As the wok is used over time, the blue will fade and be replaced by the normal brownish-black color of seasoned carbon steel, but the head start in attaining a “naturally nonstick” seasoning is helpful.

Do You Need a Wok Ring or Special Tools?

Cooking in a wok is much simpler than some retailers would have you believe. We’ve seen woks sold in kits with piles of special wok accessories. Are any of those necessary? 

 

For the most part, no. First, don’t buy a wok ring for a flat-bottom wok, which is stable on the stovetop without a supporting ring. (That said, a wok ring will provide extra stability when deep-frying in a wok, which can be dangerously tippy when filled with oil.) Another unnecessary tool is a wok “shovel.” Metal fish spatulas or silicone spatulas with wide heads work well for stir-frying. In fact, any tool with a fairly thin, stiff edge and broad head to help it get under and flip food will work. We recommend experimenting with a few tools in order to find a favorite. Similarly, long, thin cooking chopsticks take some practice for those unfamiliar with them. One accessory we do recommend is a wok lid. Domed and about 2 inches smaller than the wok so it can sit inside the walls, these lids are handy for steaming food in the wok, including for brief stretches during a stir-fry to help cook vegetables. 

 

Equipment Review Best Woks

After years of preferring nonstick skillets to woks for making stir-fries, we decided to take a fresh look at this traditional pan.

The Science of Stir-Frying in a Wok

Cooks have briskly tossed, turned, and flipped food in this vessel for centuries. We dug deep into this ancient culinary art to understand exactly why and how it works.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.