During some of my years as a professional cook, I sweated over busy wok stations. And after many hours of cooking with them, I’ve found the wok to be one of the most versatile pans in the kitchen.
The wok is made for stir-frying in every way. The sloped walls make it easy to toss in ingredients, the wide mouth lets liquids evaporate quickly, and the thin walls help it get and stay very hot.
So, a wok is the clear choice for stir-frying. But are there other times when a wok is better than a frying pan? Well, we’re here to find out.
The Anatomy Of A Wok
Before we start cooking, let’s take a moment to look at how a wok is made.
You can get a wok in a lot of different sizes, but they all look and work the same. If you’ve never seen a wok before, think of a very large metal bowl with one or two handles.
Even though all woks look about the same, there are two different kinds. There are woks with flat bottoms and woks with round bottoms.
Woks with round bottoms are traditional, but they can’t be used on electric or induction cooktops because they don’t have a flat bottom. And if you use them on a gas stove, you should use a wok ring. Or, you can use a wok burner outside to make it feel more like a restaurant.
If you cook on an electric stove, you need a wok with a flat bottom. You can get good results with a wok that has a flat bottom, but a wok with a round bottom is better for cooking and tossing stir-fries.
No matter which option you choose, the wok is unique because of its deep, rounded sides. This lets the pan hold a lot of food and makes it easy to stir ingredients so they cook quickly and evenly.
The size difference between a wok and a frying pan is one of the most obvious differences between the two. Most frying pans have sides that are only 1 to 2 inches high, but most woks are at least 4 inches deep.
Because of this, the wok is much better for cooking with a lot of liquid. So you can use a wok for things like making soup, deep-frying, and steaming that you would normally do with a pot.
The high, sloping sides also help keep grease or other splatters inside the pan. If you’ve ever shallow-fried, stir-fried, or just cooked bacon in a pan, grease splatters probably covered your cooktop.
With a wok, grease splatters have to climb a high wall before they can land on your kitchen surfaces and make a mess. Most of them will get stuck in the wok, where they belong. This means there will be less cleaning up to do at the end, which is always a plus.
Perfect Design For Stir Fry
You can make stir fry in a frying pan, but a wok is much better for the job.
Since a wok is shaped like a bowl, the bottom is close to the flame when it’s on a stove and gets very hot. As you go up the sloped sides, the heat gets less and less.
So, as you flip and toss ingredients up the rounded sides, all of those bite-sized pieces are constantly exposed to very hot temperatures. This makes the liquid go down, turns sugars into caramel, and browns the proteins. All the things that make a dish taste better.
At the same time, ingredients spend time in the higher parts of the wok, where it’s not quite as hot. This gives them a break from the very high heat at the bottom so they don’t burn.
All of this happens quickly, but it’s the ease with which ingredients can move around and touch different parts of the pan that makes the food taste better and cook more evenly.
As I just said, stir-fries are best cooked in a wok. But they are also one of the most useful pans you can buy.
Again, the wide and deep shape of a wok is a big part of its versatility. It’s like a cross between a frying pan and a large pot. So, it’s great for dry cooking, but you can also fill it with liquid or oil and use it for a lot of other ways to cook.
What’s Your Wok Made Of?
If you go to almost any professional wok station, you’ll almost certainly see a carbon steel wok being used. This choice gives you the most choices and is usually the least expensive. The best of both worlds.
The only thing that could be bad about carbon steel is that it needs a little extra care to keep it from rusting.
Woks made of cast iron are thick and heavy. This helps heat spread evenly and is a good choice for deep frying and braising. But because of their weight, it’s hard to mix the ingredients, and they don’t respond quickly to changes in temperature. Plus, they usually need the same extra care as carbon steel.
Most of the time, woks made of stainless steel cost the most. The best thing about stainless steel is that it doesn’t need special care like carbon steel or cast iron does. So you don’t have to worry about soap or acidic ingredients causing rust.
But stainless steel won’t get the same patina or nonstick properties as carbon steel. And that can make them more likely to stick and harder to use if you don’t have much practice.
Most non-stick woks are made of aluminum, and the cooking surface is coated with a non-stick material.
The best thing about woks that don’t stick is that they are easy to use. Because the ingredients won’t stick, it’s very easy to cook and clean.