Chinese

In Defense of the Wok

March 16, 2015

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.

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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!

48 Comments

Triveni J. July 31, 2015
This post is very good...this article is useful to people...and i think many people like this article..i already seen this article in http://www.imaddictedtoyou.com<br />
 
John R. June 7, 2015
Would be kind enough to tell me exactly what Wok you use?
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. June 20, 2015
Sorry I didn't see this til now. I like the 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok with the long wood handle. The best source is the WokShop.com. They've been in business for over 40 years in San Francisco's Chinatown. Apologies for not answering sooner.<br />
 
JennThomas June 3, 2015
As a home cook that uses both a wok and a cast iron skillet, I would choose the carbon steel wok over the skillet if I could only have one. The most versitile utinsil in the kitchen! Thanks to Grace, I know how to use a wok properly and I am quite proud of the patina my wok enjoys.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. June 20, 2015
Thanks Jenn!
 
Ziad March 18, 2015
I'm guessing that if you use the wok for roasting chicken (say at 425 deg F), then the wok does not have a wooden handle?
 
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Grace Y. March 18, 2015
You can use a wok with wood handles in the oven, but the handles must be thoroughly wrapped with very wet wash cloths (that you don't mind destroying.) The washcloths should be wrapped tightly with aluminum foil so that the cloth is not visible. You shouldn't do this for more than 45 minutes. After the chicken is cooked, really cool down the wok for an hour before very carefully unwrapping the foil as the steam build up can be dangerous and you can get a bad burn.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 19, 2015
I've used my wok with wood handles in the oven to roast chicken and vegetables. You must wrap wet wash cloths around the wood handles and then wrap the wet cloths totally and tightly in aluminum foil. I've put the wok in an oven at 475 degrees for up to 45 mins. Longer and the cloths may dry out. You do have to be extremely careful when you remove the wok from the oven. I let the wok sit for about an hour before I carefully unwrap the aluminum foil. There is bound to be steam build up from the wet cloths and you can get a nasty burn if you unwrap the aluminum foil sooner. You cannot put the wok in the oven if it has plastic handles.
 
Timothy C. March 17, 2015
My wife Janet and I were fortunate enough to be included in the crab feast for 25 people by Lisa and Tane last week. I can attest to what Lisa reports. The two of them put the meal together in just about an hour. I do not think there that is anyone faster than Tane when it comes to using a wok to cook crab. Tane used her woks to churn out those crabs with a feverish pace and 25 people were served with style and ease.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Tim, It's such a treat to read your comment. Lucky you to enjoy the Tane wok crab feast! There's no one in the world as knowledgeable about woks and as fun loving and generous as Tane Chan!
 
Swetha C. March 17, 2015
This is a great article! Thank you,Grace! I stir-fry on a regular basis and have been looking for a good wok.I have decided on the 14" flat bottomed carbon steel wok from the Wok Shop (as recommended by you on a different site :) ) I recently saw that the wok shop also sells a "hand-hammered pow wok". Is one better than the other?Which of the two would you recommend? Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Swetha, I prefer the 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel. If you're super experienced at stir-frying the pow wok is great. As you may know, the pow action is to jerk the pan up so that the food flies up in the air and then tumbles back down into the wok. This is done continually as you stir-fry. If you're not experienced with this technique, you're going to have a lot of food on the stove and on the floor. The pow woks also tend to be smaller. I think the 14" makes the most sense for home cooking.
 
Swetha C. March 18, 2015
Thank you Grace! I just bought the 14" carbon steel flat bottomed wok from wokshop.com.I also bought the lid,cleaning whisk,a spoon and a ladle! Can't wait for more wok cooking!
 
Gret March 17, 2015
Oh my gosh - been wok cooking for over 35 yrs, after taking a Chinese cooking class, at night time Adult Ed at our High School. The BEST place to get your wok is in Chinatown, or Oriental store. Not expensive, & they tell you how to season the wok, & how to clean it!
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Gret, It's great that you're an experienced wokker. That's beautiful that you've been wokking for 35 years. When I was growing up Chinatown was THE best place to buy a wok. These days however, I'm so sad to say that most Chinatowns in America mainly sell cheap, badly woks and the most frightening change is that the majority of the woks are teflon. The best source which I've mentioned quite a few times in the comments is the WokShop.com. They've been located in San Francisco's Chinatown for over 40 years and have an impressive selection of traditional woks---all excellent quality.
 
Gret March 18, 2015
Thank you for this information Grace. How sad about the Chinatown woks. In same mode, I also can no longer find certain cooking ingredients in Chinatown, & have to shop on amazon (of all places). I used to love shopping in Chinatowns, in different cities. I AM going to buy a wok, as a bridal shower gift from WokShop,com, and treat myself to another at the same time. <br />
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Yes, it's very sad. Chinatowns are not the way they used to be. So glad you're going to treat yourself to a wok from the WokShop! And a wok is the best gift for a new couple starting their culinary life together. It will evolve and develop with them! :-)<br />
 
Yosh B. March 17, 2015
hi grace, can you expand on how the carbon steel wok becomes non-stick over time. i.e. proper way to care for it. i have a stainless steel wok and have always been told don't use soap, let the steam clean it by running under water as soon as food comes out of it and to heat it up again to dry it and then oil while hot. but after years of this process its is far from non-stick. thank you in advance.
 
Gret March 17, 2015
Stainless steel never becomes non-stick, just dirty. Have to wash it like any other stainless pot.
 
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Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Great, I totally agree!<br />
 
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Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Yosh, carbon-steel is like cast-iron. With use it develops a patina which is a natural nonstick surface. Each time you heat a carbon-steel wok the pores of the metal open up and the oil or fat is fused into the metal creating the patina. The instructions you were given for washing your stainless-steel wok are meant for carbon-steel. In order to protect the nonstick surface you should only wash the pan with hot water and a sponge---no soap is necessary. Stainless-steel will never develop a nonstick surface like carbon-steel or cast-iron. It can become a little "seasoned" with use but never to the extent of carbon-steel.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Whoops Gret! Spellcheck changed your name to Great. I'm sure this has happened before. :-)<br />
 
Maria M. March 17, 2015
Any suggestions on a good wok? I have a cheapo one and I don't like it.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
As Cindy G mentioned below the best source is the WokShop.com. My favorite is the 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok with the long wood handle.
 
Cindy G. March 17, 2015
Why not buy one from the Wokshop? It is too troublesome to buy a wok from overseas. I have been woking for more than 30 years. I use my wok for cooking spaghettis, stir fry, steam and smoke (only if don't want the wok for other purposes). I have gone to Asia and still love my wok from the wokshop.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Cindy, I agree with you. The wokshop.com sells the best woks. They've been in business in San Francisco's Chinatown for over 40 years and it shows. No one has the selection or the knowledge!
 
GinaP March 17, 2015
Grace, I've always been wary of woks every since I once read Melissa Clark saying that they couldn't be heated properly up the sides on western stoves without the special burner, and that a skillet would work just as well. I've never bought one for this very reason...
 
Betsey March 18, 2015
That's why she recommends the flat-bottomed one.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
It's true that the traditional round-bottomed wok won't heat properly on most Western stoves. A wok won't be bathed in flames the way it is when used on a Chinese stove. That said, by using as flat-bottomed wok (as Betsey commented you) get all the advantages of a wok and because the wok sits directly on the flame it can get sufficiently hot. And the advantages are huge. Unlike a skillet a carbon-steel wok develops a natural nonstick surface the more you cook with it---like a cast-iron skillet. The high sides and well design allow you to toss and tumble the food when stir-frying --in a skillet you're just chasing ingredients around the pan. The high sides means you can turn your wok into a steamer or deep-fat fryer. Honestly, try it. Your cooking will never be the same!
 
Trena H. March 17, 2015
Grace - this is a great article! I've been traveling throughout SE Asia for the past 6 months and the wok is an amazingly versatile piece to add to your kitchen arsenal. When I do return to the U.S. I'm definitely bringing one home with me.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 17, 2015
When you're in Asia its amazing to see the wok in action. Depending on the situation it's a stir-fry pan, steamer, deep-fryer, smoker, it can be set up on a little make-shift burner on the street or it's so cool to see it used on a traditional hearth stove. It makes you realize how simply one can live. You should definitely bring back a wok as a souvenir of your travels. Just remember that the classic round-bottomed wok was never intended to be used on a Western stove. It needs a wok ring to stabilize it, and once you put a wok on a stand it's raised too high to get sufficiently hot. On an electric stove, induction/ceramic range it won't work at all. That's why I recommend the flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok.
 
Judy W. March 17, 2015
I agree with Grace Young's writings on the more versatile uses of a flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok versus a 10" cast iron skillet. With Grace's expertise uses of cooking with the wok, she IS "The Wok Queen." Tane Chan (The Wok Shop) has a passionate unique love affairs with woks. One can always count on the "Ambassador of Woks" Tane to find you the perfect wok for your "wok of life."
 
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Grace Y. March 17, 2015
Thanks Judy for bringing up the fact that there are many different styles of woks. If you have a stove with average power or a ceramic/induction range the flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok is the best pan. But Tane also knows how to match the cook with the wok that best suits their style of cooking and if you've got a stove with power.
 
esskay March 17, 2015
Also, Indians, especially the Eastern population comprising Bengalis, Biharis, Oriyas etc. swear by the wok and also, mustard oil!
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 17, 2015
Sayantani, Nice to know the wok is popular in India. Some historians feel the design of the wok is based on the Indian kuali. Are you saying mustard oil is used with the wok? If so, please give details!
 
esskay March 19, 2015
Dear Grace :) Yes, we also call the wok 'kadai' in India. And, I found someone worrying about high-temp cooking in the wok, well, even if you had just metal handles, you could use the Indian tongs called 'sharashi', because we have had metal handles forever on these vessels here.<br />As for the use of mustard oil, well, it is the dominant cooking oil in the eastern region. Given its high boiling point, we heat it for sometime in the wok, and then put in the stuff to be fried. Even our gravy dishes are cooked in mustard oil. Well, though I am sure for someone not used to it, they might get the pungent hit at the beginning...We shift to vegetable/olive oil only for preparations that would not be able to shake off its strong taste, say 'puris' (Indian fried bread) or when making pastas or noodles :)
 
Lisa March 16, 2015
Woks for all woks of life - this is my Mom's motto, the owner of The Wok Shop in SF (www.wokshop.com), and a good friend of Grace's. She helped me host a sit down crab dinner for 25 people last week and how'd she do it? In a wok, of course. She steamed 15 large dungeness crab in less than 20 minutes. It never ceases to amaze me. She used two woks, a 16" and 14", and after steaming, she stir fried the veggies to complement. All done in under 30 mins (while I was doing the dishes). Versatile and essential for any kitchen. Thanks, Grace, for yet another great wok piece!
 
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Grace Y. March 16, 2015
Lisa, I read, "Woks for all woks of life" and thought to myself, that's what Tane Chan says! ha ha ha to find your comment here. I heard about that amazing crab in a wok meal the morning your mom was preparing for it. I wish I could've seen her in action steaming 15 Dungeness crabs. Your Mom is THE Wok Ambassador! No one is more knowledgeable, charming, and hilarious talking about woks. I always tell students the WokShop.com sells the best woks. They are American-made and built to last.
 
Rohan K. March 16, 2015
I love my wok and use it often, but it has a wooden handle, as do many of the other models I see for sale, which prevents me from putting it in the oven: is it easy to find woks with oven-safe handles? If so, I'm sure I'll be a convert in no time.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 16, 2015
Hey Rohan, I use my wok w/wood handles in the oven all the time. Some woks have wood handles that can be removed. If they can't the wood handles must be protected from burning, by wrapping each handle with a wet washcloth (that you don’t mind ruining-- the heat will discolor them). Soak cloths in water until soggy but not dripping. Then, completely wrap washcloths with aluminum foil so cloths are not visible. Do not touch wok or unwrap foil while the wok is in the oven. Once the wok has been removed from the oven cool the pan for at least 45 mins before unwrapping the foil. Even after 45 mins be careful, as you can get a nasty steam burn as you unwrap the foil from the steaming hot cloths. After washing and drying the cloths I save them and reuse for the next wok oven session. <br />
 
Corin P. March 16, 2015
Always loved my wok for making just about everything, way superior to the skillet :)
 
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Grace Y. March 16, 2015
Wok love is a beautiful thing.
 
Sharon W. March 16, 2015
I love my wok but I should have bought a carbon steel one instead of enameled cast iron. It's a little finicky about sticking. I hardly ever use my skillets anymore.
 
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Grace Y. March 16, 2015
I have all kinds of woks and of course, couldn't resist trying an enamel cast-iron wok. You're right that the natural nonstick coating just isn't as good as a carbon-steel wok. I finally gave up and now only use that wok for steaming. You should invest in the flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok! You'll love it.
 
Nick W. March 16, 2015
I'm with Grace on this one. I will take my wok to my grave.
 
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Grace Y. March 16, 2015
Nice to meet another devoted wokker!
 
Zelda March 16, 2015
In terms of versatility, my preferred pan is my enamelled cast iron pan. I don't even know it's make (nothing as fancy as Le Creuset) or size (biggish), but have used it nearly every day for twenty years! I 'stir fry' veg in it (more of a gentle sauter, which I prefer to super high heat for delicate veg), sear meat, roast a chicken, pork belly, shoulder of lamb, confit half a dozen duck legs, make a pilau, a tortilla, gratins, braised short ribs, oxtail stew, coq au vin.... I like how it conducts heat evenly without ever overheating, so I don't have to watch it like a hawk. It's perfect for slow cooking, for someone like me, who prefers to cook at a snail's pace.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 16, 2015
Zelda, I'm sure your enamel cast-iron pan is great but I invite you to give a carbon-steel wok a spin! I predict it will be your BFF cooking tool!