You don't absolutely need a wok to create satisfying Chinese meals. Nonetheless, the bowl-shaped utensil has several advantages - it spreads heat evenly, uses less oil for deep-frying than a traditional deep-fat fryer, and ensures that food tossed during stir-frying lands back in the pan and not on the stove. A good wok will make it easier to cook Chinese food.
What Type Should You Buy?
Remember that old adage “You get what you pay for?” This is one of those rare cases where it doesn’t apply. There is no substitute for a good carbon steel wok. Not only is it relatively inexpensive, but it conducts heat evenly.. While there many other types of woks on the market today – aluminum, stainless steel, even copper – every experienced Asian cook I’ve spoken with still swears by carbon steel, and I have to agree.
Flat or Round Bottom?
If you are cooking with a western electric range your best option is to use a flat bottom wok. Round bottom woks can reflect heat back on the element, damaging it. A flat bottomed wok can also be used on gas stoves.
Handle with Care
Originally, woks came with two metal handles to make them easy to lift in and out of the traditional Chinese wood stove. Today, flat bottom woks normally have a long wooden handle, like a skillet. The long handle makes it easy to move and tilt the wok when stir-frying. Most also have a small “helper” handle on the other side, so the wok is still easy to lift. Round bottom woks may follow the traditional wok design with two small metal “ears,” or have a single long metal or wooden handle.
Woks come in a variety of sizes - restaurants may use woks that are several feet across. The size of wok you choose will depend on several factors, including your own preferences, the type of stove you have, and the depth of the wok.
What about Non-Stick?
With the current interest in low-fat cooking, many manufacturers now offer woks with a non-stick coating. How well non-stick works will depend on the individual coating and how it is applied. However, in general non-stick coatings don’t work well on carbon steel. If you want the non-stick coating, try a heavy gauge aluminum wok, such as those made by Calphalon.
Care and Maintenance
It's very important to season your wok before using it for the first time. Seasoning removes the preservative oil manufacturers place on the wok to prevent rust, replacing it with a light coating of cooking oil. It is also important to clean your wok after each use. Given the variety of woks on the market today, it's difficult to give a general set of seasoning and cleaning instructions. However, below I do have instructions for seasoning and cleaning a carbon steel wok.