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Flat-Bottomed Woks

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2003

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*