With a simple design originating from China, today woks are used all around the world as one of the most versatile cooking pans. Continue reading to learn more about this unique cookware!
What is a wok?
The word “wok” literally translates to “cooking pot” in Cantonese.
Woks are traditionally high-walled, deep-shaped cooking pots, typically used in Chinese-style cooking. Woks with a flattened bottom are gaining popularity as they can be used on a stove-top; originally, they were made with rounded bottoms. Regardless, both designs still allow ease in stirring and tossing food.
Woks usually come with either one long, stick handle or with two loop handles on opposite sides of the pan. Sometimes the stick handle will also have a ‘helper’ loop handle to assist with handling.
What is its history?
There are various beliefs as to why the wok was created: due to a strong need to preserve fuel for cooking as it was a limited resource; lack of food and the wok made it possible to create a variety of dishes, in big portions, out of limited ingredients; or out of convenience as the versatile cookware allowed cooking an entire meal in a single cooking pot.
Historians are uncertain as to whether the wok was an invention from China or if it was a ‘borrowed idea’ from elsewhere. This is because the same sort of pan has been found to be used in India and other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Laos.
Furthermore, Central Asian nomads have been known to adopt creations from several places for their own benefit and bring them along as they traveled. The Mongols, for instance, carried woks as they were portable and required little fuel and maintenance, making them fit with the Mongols’ traveling lifestyle very well. As a result, cultures would have been exposed to the wok wherever these nomads traveled.
Why should a wok be used?
Its concave shape is what really puts woks to an advantage- it distributes heat much more evenly compared to the traditional frying pan. This ensures everything in the wok is cooked at the same time.
The curved sides on woks allow for easier tossing of food to let all the ingredients mix properly; its long, deep sides also reduces the risk of spillage.
What is Wok Hei?
In literal Chinese translation, wok hei means “breath of the wok.”
Since woks are typically used over a high flame, it heats up to great temperatures. When the cooking process involves cooking oil inside the wok, the “breath of the wok” refers to the effect that happens when flames burst from inside the cookware.
This occurs when the wok is being tossed and the cooking oil from inside the wok catches the high flame beneath it. When the fire subsides, this creates a smoky flavor among the ingredients.
What is the difference between a Cantonese wok and a Mandarin wok?
Cantonese woks have two loop or U-shaped handles, where each handle is placed on opposite sides of the wok. They are high-walled and concaved. Their design is suitable for serving large quantities of food. Although their handles make it a bit more difficult for tossing, Cantonese woks can still be used for everyday cooking.
Mandarin woks, on the other hand, have a round-bottom shape with a single long handle attached to one side of the wok. This handle may be cast with wood for better heat insulation. It also enables easier tossing of food, such as stir fry.
What is a wok made of?
Woks are made out of many materials, and each material has its own benefits and features.
The most common materials used today are cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, and non-stick.
Cast iron woks
This material is a highly capable in retaining heat better and longer than other cookware materials. This allows one to continue cooking food even after the wok has been removed from a heat source.
Cast iron is also durable, making this kind of wok last for long periods of time. They are heavy, hence using a wok spatula would be ideal.
Carbon steel woks
This material is immensely popular and the most traditionally used for woks, as it combines quick and thorough heating with durability. It is also inexpensive and lightweight. Food does not stick to the sides of the wok either. Furthermore, they are magnetic, making them capable of working with wok induction ranges.
Stainless steel woks
This material is also durable, like carbon steel and cast iron, but is much less porous than them. Its appearance is sleek and the stainless steel allows for easy cleaning.
However, food may stick to the wok as a non-stick surface cannot be made by seasoning.
This is a great option for beginners as it is easy to clean and does not require any seasoning. But it may not generate the same level of sear on meats or vegetables as you would get from other woks.
Are there accessories for woks?
Yes- these accessories can help optimize the use of a wok and help make it easier to cook with one.
If the cooking station one has is not quite suitable for woks, particularly as the rounded-bottom that woks tend to have makes them wobble on a flat range or gas stovetop, using a wok ring would make one’s range wok friendly.
A wok ring is a piece of metal shaped in a hollowed-out circle that is placed over a gas stovetop or electric range. This supports round-bottomed woks and keeps it close enough to a heat source.
Wok rings may also have holes on its sides which allows heat to transfer better from the heat source to across the walls of the wok.
This wok accessory is designed to keep food inside the wok hot until it is ready to be transferred.
Furthermore, it keeps any hot liquids from spilling outside of the wok, such as soups or oil.
Although wok covers come in various shapes and sizes, they are mostly dome-shaped to lock moisture in and enable air circulation.
What can you cook with a wok?
While it is commonly used for stir fry, woks can be used in almost every cooking technique out there, including:
- and Making Soup!
What popular wok recipes are there?
Taken from recipe website Yummly, below is one of the most popular meals that can be prepared on a wok.
Fried Honeyed Chicken
This is an Asian inspired dish that is claimed to be “easy on the guilt, high on flavor.”
Only eight kinds of ingredients are needed, which are:
- 2 chicken breasts
- 3 garlic cloves
- 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons of honey
- 2 tablespoons of Nuoc Mam sauce
- 1 tablespoon of finely diced ginger
- Chili paste
- Olive oil
The chicken breasts are sliced into cubes and the garlic, chili paste, honey, soy sauce, Nuoc Mam sauce, and ginger are mixed in a large bowl. This mixture is then thoroughly coated over the cubed chicken breasts. The coated chicken is set to rest in the refrigerator for two hours. Afterwards, olive oil is put in a wok and heated, followed by adding the chicken pieces. The chicken is to be stirred continuously and cooked until tender.
What are the best woks on the market?
Taken from review site AllRecipes, below are four of the top-rated woks currently on the market in 2020, based on overall feel, durability, ability, and overall value.
Best Value Round Bottom Wok – Wok Shop Carbon Steel Wok With Metal Side Handle, Round Bottom, 14-inch
For a price of $35, this wok is ideal for those seeking to invest in a traditional round-bottomed wok.
This has been highlighted to be able to achieve the desired temperature quickly and adapts just as well to any heat changes. Even with its low price, it delivers great feel and weight, making tossing and flipping easy, has a comfortable handle and sleek style.
Best Splurge Round Bottom Wok – Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok, Round Bottom, 14-inch
At a price of $50, this wok has been found to still be relatively easy for tossing food, even with one hand, despite its slightly heavy weight.
It has a more traditional, or artisan, look and feel – being hand-hammered in China – with a wooden and carbon steel handle, round bottom, and a natural, non-stick surface. It quickly heats and adjusts to heat changes as well.
Best Value Flat Bottom Wok – Taylor & Ng Starter Wok Set
With a price tag of $43, you will receive a wok cover, a flat-bottomed wok, and a pair of bamboo chopsticks.
This set is ideal for those who prefer the convenience that comes with using a flat-bottomed wok, in which it can be used on any stovetop without wobbling over. It has been recommended for its lightness and comfortability.
Its wooden handle is technically connected to the wok by a metal rod, which protrudes into a hole at the end to allow for easy hanging storage.
Best Splurge Flat Bottom Wok – Christopher Kimball for Kuhn Rikon Covered Wok Skillet
Being the priciest out of the group, at $55, this set comes with a glass lid with a steamer hole that is very premium-looking.
The wok itself is flat-bottomed and is praised for its capability of quick and even heating- it is one of the fastest to preheat out of all the other woks that were tested. Its light-to-medium weight and heatproof handle allows the wok to be handled easily, even with one hand.
Which type of wok is suitable for me?
This all depends on how one will cook with it.
- If you cook with a gas stove, a round-bottomed, either carbon steel or cast iron wok would work best for you.
- If you cook on an electric stove, a flat-bottomed, either carbon steel, aluminum or non-stick would work best for you.
- Induction stove-tops are almost made for cooking with woks as they naturally heat up the entire pan evenly through magnetic induction. The best wok for induction stoves are cast iron ones.
- What if you don’t have a stove? Electric woks are manufactured just for that. Whether you’re taking it with you to a party, going camping, or your stove doesn’t work, electric woks will do it all for you.
- Want to go old-fashioned? Try using a fire pit with a round-bottomed wok.
The wok is a very helpful cookware for in the kitchen. Since it is used worldwide, this proves that its versatility lets one cook many different kinds of food without having to use other utensils. The kind of wok one needs would depend on factors such as their budget, preference and range or cooking area.
- “What is a Wok?”, Webstaurant Store, https://www.webstaurantstore.com/guide/619/types-of-woks.html
- “The History of the Wok”, Wok History, https://wokhistory.wordpress.com/
- “What is a Wok Ring?”, 2020, WiseGeek, https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-wok-ring.htm
- “Wok-Fried Honeyed Chicken”, Yummly, https://www.yummly.com/recipe/Wok-Fried-Honeyed-Chicken-2046535
- “The 4 Best Woks You Can Buy, According to Our Test Kitchen”, 2020, AllRecipes, https://www.allrecipes.com/article/best-woks/