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Buying Guide: The Best Woks and Stir Fry Pans For You

The authors of The New Cooks' Catalogue certainly know what to look for when choosing cooking equipment. These leading culinary experts have been evaluating cooking equipment for over 25 years. The following information is what they consider important when selecting woks and stir fry pans.

All Woks and Stir Fry Pans »

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What to Look For

  • Traditional Chinese woks have rounded bottoms and two side-handles. Most American-style woks and stir-fry pans have flat bottoms and one long handle.
  • Round bottom woks are suitable only on gas cooktops and must be stabilized with a metal ring support. Flat bottom woks may be used on both gas and electric burners.
  • Woks are primarily for stir-frying, but you may also use them for steaming, braising and deep frying.
  • Woks and stir-fry pans must be made of good conductive metals such as carbon steel, cast iron and aluminum. Nonstick woks should have a base pan made of thick gauge, heat-conducting materials.
  • Carbon steel and cast-iron woks must be seasoned well and should be dried thoroughly after washing.

More information

Introduction

Woks are the traditional pans of Chinese cookery, but during the past generation they have come into common use in the American kitchen. Home cooks in this country may use the classic Chinese style wok, which is rounded at the bottom, but more often choose a flat bottom wok. The differences have to do with stovetop design. The Chinese use open-topped braziers; the bottom of the wok sits inside. The pan is wider at the top, to prevent its falling into the heat source. Its rounded shape enables the ingredients to fall to the center, where the heat is concentrated.

Traditional vs. American Style

American cooktops are flatter; the wok sits on top. Round bottomed vessels are not stable on these burners and should only be used on gas ranges, and only with a supporting metal ring that mimics the Chinese brazier. In addition, the coil or surface of an electric range only reaches a tiny portion of the rounded bottom of a traditional wok and does not provide adequate heat. Flat bottoms are more suitable because their larger surface area has more contact with the heat. They are also more stable.

Another difference between traditional woks and American style flat bottom woks is the handle. Chinese woks usually come with two loop handles on the side. Americans are accustomed to pots with one long handle, so many of the newer style pans have a single handle; some also have a short helper handle on the opposite side.

Uses

Woks are tremendously versatile. The Chinese make good use of them not only for stir-frying, but for steaming, braising and deep-frying foods. Again, American cooking habits are different. We prefer to limit wok use to stir-frying. For this reason the stir-fry pan was created: it is typically smaller and designed for a specific purpose. But if you have a larger wok, rather than restrict it to stir-frying, you may want to reconsider its usefulness for steaming broccoli, deep-frying shrimp or chicken nuggets, stewing beef, braising meatballs or cabbage.

Material

Because stir-frying involves cooking small pieces of food over high heat, a wok or stir-fry pan must be made of good heat conducting metals. Carbon steel and cast iron are standard for traditional versions. These must be seasoned well so that cooking oil can be kept to a minimum. Seasoning also prevents rusting. Be sure to dry the pans thoroughly after each use.

Anodized aluminum and stainless steel lined aluminum also perform well and are the materials used for many of the newer American style woks and stir-fry pans. Nonstick is suitable only if the underlying pan is made of thick, heavy, heat-conducting materials.

Size

Some woks and stir-fry pans come with a cover. If not, it is a good idea to buy one for the times that you will be using the pan for methods other than stir-frying. A 10” stir-fry pan will let you prepare a single recipe of stir-fried chicken; larger 12”-14” pans provide room for larger stir-fries and for cooking by other methods such as deep-frying and braising.

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