(2015 update! Currently, I use an enameled flat bottom “perfect pan” instead of a real wok. This is much better for my weak stove and is very easy to take care of, no worrying of patina or rust or carcinogen nonstick chemicals. It adds wonderful flavor to food too. It is VERY pricey but worth it for people like me. Purists will be like “OMG THAT’S NOT A WOK!!!” but it works like a wok, better than carbon steel on a small stove, so it’s fine with me. I would still rather have a traditional cast iron wok because I love them, but too hard to get here and not worth it to order online. So it’s your own choice on what wok to get. :))
The wok（锅 – guo – gwuh; “pot/pan”）is the most important pot/pan for Chinese cooking. It is necessary for stir fried dishes, and it can also deep fry, steam, braise, and smoke! Currently, there are many, many types of woks, which is very confusing for those who do not know how to choose a good wok. In this post, I will explain what kinds I like the most.
First, let’s immediately take out the kinds of woks that are unnecessary. The worst wok to get is the nonstick wok, sadly also the most popular wok in the USA. Even Chinese families often use a nonstick wok. Now, what is so wrong with it? I can say many things but I will give a list of three important things:
1. Using nonstick cookware on high heat releases poisonous chemicals, and some can cause cancer!
2. Nonstick cookware’s nonstick qualities will go away after some time!
3. Nonstick woks can cost more compared to other woks.
Do you still consider a nonstick wok? I hope not.
The second type of almost useless wok is stainless steel wok. Everything sticks like crazy to stainless steel, and stainless steel conducts heat very, very unevenly (it has “hot spots”). The only thing stainless steel woks can do is steam with bamboo steamers, however I would much more recommend buying a stainless steel Chinese steamer set, which is much easier to care for and use than bamboo.
Now that we have those two kinds of woks out of the way, time to explain the two kinds of woks I recommend:
1. Traditional cast iron wok (the best one)
2. Joyce Chen style flat bottom carbon steel wok, or round bottom carbon steel wok, or hand-hammered carbon steel wok
Traditional cast iron woks are very different from western cast iron (like Lodge); they are very thin and light (about 3 lb), and heat very quickly. They have a rounded bottom, the best for stir frying because the spatula can move better on a curved surface. They also have two small loop handles, so you must use a mitt to hold it, but this creates better balance than a long handle, and stir frying only takes a few minutes anyways. Cast iron seasons better than carbon steel and builds a better nonstick patina in a faster time. It also retains heat much better than carbon steel. It does not rust as easily as carbon steel, and this makes it easiler to care for. Cast iron gives special flavor to food, and lasts a lifetime, building a better patina as time gies on. Traditional cast iron woks are almost always unseasoned, but you can season it at home. Make sure you get a 14-15 inch wok. Cast iron is the best wok to have. It is very hard to find, though. If you live in San Francisco area, you can buy one in Chinatown at the Wok Shop. You can also order one from the Wok Shop on Amazon, or the Wok Shop website itself, although the $15 shipping is too much for me.
Joyce Chen invented the flat bottom carbon steel wok with one long handle and one small loop handle. Currently, it is the most popular wok that is not a nonstick wok. It is not as good as cast iron (see above for the reason why), but it is very easy to find at both Asian supermarkets and western cookware stores. It is also very affordable. The Asian supermarkets carry it for very cheap prices and costs about $12, or even less. Even Williams-Sonoma sells carbon steel woks for $25, and they are hand-hammered. If you can find a round bottom wok, you can use that too. Make sure you buy a 14 inch wok.
After getting a wok, you need some tools for it:
Wok spatula – It looks like a shovel, and you can find it at a Chinese grocery store. The shovel is made of stainless steel and the handle is plastic.
Wok lid – These are domed and unlike western pot lids. Both stainless steel and aluminum are ok. Stainless steel costs more (even more than the actual wok sometimes!) but many people do not use aluminum for cooking because it can be poisonous. Wok lids are not used often for stir frying, so it is not necessary to buy one.
A mitt if you are using a traditional cast iron wok – You must hold the wok by one of the short handles with a heatproof mitt.
A wok brush – This is optional for cleaning the wok. It looks cool though, but I just use a paper towel. Maybe I will buy one sometime.
A green scrubber – often on one side of a yellow sponge
Buy all of these tools at a Chinese supermarket. They are found on Amazon, but with ridiculously large prices and shipping fees.
Next you need the following for seasoning the wok, and you will never use them again after unless you want to season another wok:
Stainless steel scourer – also found at Chinese supermarkets for cheap prices
Liquid dishwashing detergent
For both types of woks, you MUST use a gas stove. An electric stove does NOT work for wok cooking. The flat bottom carbon steel wok was designed by Joyce Chen for use on electric stoves, but it will produce much better results on a gas stove. You can buy a portable butane gas stove for wok cooking.
For how to season a wok, click here.
My carbon steel wok (4 months old) (April 2014)
The scratches are from the wok spatula… People say it doesn’t scratch but it does… The patina is very good though. The fried rice no longer sticks to the wok, like it did a month ago.
Update! (July 2014) The patina is very strange; it sometimes doesn’t stick but it sometimes does. Last time, a quite thick layer of fried rice stuck and I had to soak the wok and scrape it, and it removed a lot of the brown part of the patina. I reseasoned by heating, spreading oil, and heating every side evenly, but the reseasoned part wasn’t brown anymore. Vegetables do not stick to the wok, but fried rice, egg, and meat stick. Cast iron woks form a better patina as they are more porous; if you have used any cast iron pan, you should understand.