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In Defense of the Wok

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As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.

Today: If there was a competition for the best all-around pan, Grace Young knows her flat-bottomed, carbon-steel wok would win. Here's why.

Last spring, Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue magazine’s longtime food critic, wrote about the one indispensable item in his vast cookware collection: a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. To verify this, he used only the skillet for an entire month. I love the minimalist concept of relying on one pan and giving props to iron cookware, which is often overlooked. And while I’m a great admirer of Steingarten’s writing and cherish my own cast-iron skillets, I’ve got to set the record straight: Jeffrey picked the wrong pan. Obviously, as “The Wok Queen,” I’m a little biased. But if they held an Olympics for best all-around pan, I know my flat-bottomed, carbon-steel wok would win. Hands down.

Jeffrey boasts that his skillet makes a fine griddle, and he likes it for deep-fat frying, but with the caveat that it’s best for “deep frying only flat and skinny things.” Well, a wok is also fabulous for grilled cheese and pancakes, and in my big, roomy one, I can deep-fry plump chicken pieces or even a whole fish. Its 4-inch depth protects my stovetop from the oil spatters that must blanket Jeffrey’s when he deep-fries in his shallow skillet. And, like a cast-iron skillet, a carbon-steel wok acquires a natural nonstick surface with use.

I was a little surprised to read that Jeffrey has used his skillet for roasting a whole chicken or even a small turkey. I just can’t imagine a turkey fitting into a 10-inch skillet; I also hate to think of the oven cleaning required after roasting a bird in a pan only about 2 1/2 inches deep. I, on the other hand, have discovered that roasting a spatchcocked chicken with new potatoes in a wok is far superior to using a roasting pan because the drippings collect in the well and the high sides protect the oven from spatters while producing a succulent, golden-brown bird. 

Jeffrey reports on skillet-cooking pizza, a gratin dish, a sauté, German pancakes, and a pan-roasted chicken. You can also make these in a wok. And while Jeffrey managed to cook pasta (using just 1 1/2 quarts of water), I know the 5-quart capacity of my wok is more practical for cooking pasta thanks to its high sides. I can even make a big pot of soup or a stew. In fairness, I’ve never used my wok to make cornbread (as Jeffrey did), and I’ll admit it would be disastrous to flip a tarte tatin out of a wok, though a handsome free-form fruit crostata isn’t out of the question. 

More: Ten spring pastas to try out in your wok.

Can a 10-inch skillet be set up to steam dozens of dumplings or braise a whole duck? Can a skillet be lined with tea, rice, and a little sugar for smoking chicken or fish? And finally, can anyone dispute that no pan is more suited for stir-frying than a wok? The flared shape provides ample room for tossing and tumbling ingredients, unlike a skillet, where you can only chase the ingredients around the pan.

The wok is not a specialized cooking vessel for occasional use: For over two thousand years, it has been China’s culinary workhorse. Nothing approaches its versatility and efficiency. Even today, in many rural homes, the wok is the only pot or pan used in the kitchen. I rest my case. 

Check back all week for wok lessons and tips from Grace!

Tags: Essential Tools