You might not know it but cooking the wrong dish in the wrong wok can lead to murky sludge and bitter disaster. One Chinese netizen posts her frustrations, “Rust keeps appearing on the bottom of my iron wok, but I’m afraid the chemicals in non-stick or carbon woks will poison my food. Plus I hear the iron in iron woks is good for the blood. What kind of woks are you all using?” Clearly, choosing a wok isn’t as simple as picking the cheapest shiniest one off the store shelf. Follow this guide and know how to choose the one that’s right for you.
When looking at woks the first thing you might notice is all the different handles they come with. Some have two small metal loop handles on each side. Some have a long stick handle on one side and a loop handle on the opposite side. Others simply have a single long metal or wooden handle. All handles serve the same purpose—to lift the wok off the burner—so choose based on your own techniques and preference. Skilled chefs prefer the long handle as it allows them to toss easily. Always remember to test the weight of a wok before you buy. If it’s too heavy for you to handle, then choose a smaller one or one made from a lighter material, you certainly don’t want to sprain your wrist frying an egg!
A typical family-size wok is 14 inches in diameter (suitable for a family of three or four). But woks can be found as small as 8 inches and as large as 79 inches. Smaller woks are usually used for quick stir-frying at a high heat. Large woks, over a meter wide, are mainly used by restaurants for cooking rice or soup, or for boiling water.
Depending on what type of stove you have, you’ll need either a flat bottom wok or a round bottom wok. Flat bottom woks are best for cooking with an electric range. But if you cook on a gas range, the round bottom wok is a better choice. The flames can wrap around the bottom and sides allowing for even heat distribution.
Woks come in cast iron, aluminum, carbon steel, stainless steel and non-stick coatings. Each have their own advantages and purposes.
Traditional Chinese woks are made of cast iron. Thick and heavy, the iron wok (铁锅 tiěguō) takes more time to heat up, but it conducts heat evenly and retains heat longer, which makes it perfect for stir-frying vegetables. For a healthy fry, wait until the oil is hot; drop the vegetable in and stir-fry quickly at high heat for a short time to minimize the loss of nutrients. Chinese netizens claim that an iron wok is a good choice as traces of iron dissolve into the food and help boost your blood cells.
Ideal as an iron wok seems, it has several drawbacks. Iron rusts easily so remember to dry the wok thoroughly before and after use. It is also recommended to avoid cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes in an iron wok. Chinese foodies claim the acid can react with the iron and generate a harmful byproduct. And, if you don’t want to see your green bean soup to turn nasty black, don’t boil green beans in an iron wok
A good alternative to the iron wok is the stainless steel wok (不锈钢 búxiùgāng) which is rustproof and doesn’t have chemical reactions with acidic foods.
Aluminum woks (铝锅 lǚguō) are a thinner and lighter choice. Although an excellent heat conductor, aluminum does not retain heat as well as cast iron or carbon steel. Aluminum is also soft and not as durable. If you are looking for something light, a better choice is carbon steel (碳钢锅 tàn’gāngguō) which is thin and durable and can endure high temperatures.
Coated with Teflon, the non-stick wok (不粘锅 bùzhānguō) is ideal for steaming, stewing or boiling, but avoid deep frying, pan frying or stir frying dishes with it. At those temperatures the non-stick coating will break down into the food. Use this type of wok for making things like rice porridge. Fill the wok with ten cups of water and add one cup of rice. Bring to boil, reduce temperature and let simmer for an hour until the rice is thick and gooey. Great if you have the flu, upset stomach or relieving those inevitable Chinese banquet hangovers.