The wok has been in common use in China for hundreds of years, and is in fact the only cooking pan that many Chinese families use on a regular basis. Traditional woks can be distinguished from Western styles of pots and pans by their large size, dramatic rounded shape, and in particular, their rounded rather than flat bottoms.
Variation in Wok Shape
When the wok became a popular cooking pot in Western nations, it underwent some shifts in design.
Traditional round-bottom woks are available, but so are variants that have a flat bottom along with dramatically flared or rounded sides. These "flat-bottomed" woks can be placed directly on an electric burner, something that is not feasible with a round-bottomed wok. Flat-bottomed woks also work well on gas burners and are able to sit directly on the burner cover.
Round-bottomed woks are best used with gas hobs, but even there they may need a wok ring, which is a circular accessory designed to go around the burner cover and provide a stable surface on which the wok can balance.
The average size of a wok intended for home kitchen use is 14 inches or 360 millimetres in diameter. Among woks available at retail or online shopping outlets, this is fairly small, but it is sufficient for a family of three or four persons. Much smaller woks also exist, measuring about 8 inches or 200 millimetres across. Woks intended for the home may be as large as 36 inches or 910 millimetres in diameter. Very large woks also exist; they may measure more than a full metre in diameter. These types of woks, however, are much more difficult to find as they are intended for use by community kitchens or commercial establishments such as restaurants.
Major Wok Varieties
Woks are available in two major varieties: cooker top and electric. Depending on brand and model, both electric and cooker top woks can be found in flat-bottomed and round-bottomed varieties.
The choice of cooker top versus electric has several implications. Because electric woks create the heat that will be used for cooking, they contain additional components not found in other woks. These include legs or some other support structure to elevate the heated bottom of the wok away from a tabletop or worktop. Electric woks obviously also contain a heating element. These additions mean that a high-quality electric wok may be considerably more expensive than a basic variety. Electric woks can be used in a greater range of situations, however. Because they are powered by a simple electrical plug, they make true tabletop cooking a possibility; they also provide a family with an intriguing outdoor cooking option assuming electrical power is available.
Cooker top Woks
Cooker top woks, in contrast, are more limited in their use since they do not feature a built-in heating element. On the other hand, they feature easier cleaning because there is no need to be careful about not damaging electrical components. In the end, the choice of conventional versus electric is largely a matter of personal preference. Both types can be used for a huge range of cooking tasks such as braising, boiling, searing, steaming, and poaching. The most common type of food preparation done in a wok, however, is stir-frying, a staple cooking technique not only in China but also in other nations located in East Asia or Southeast Asia.
Western-style pots and pans are available in a seemingly endless array of metals and other materials. Woks, in contrast, tend to be made from only a few metals. Among these, the two most common are cast iron and carbon steel. Less commonly seen are aluminium woks. Both plain metal and woks with non-stick coatings are available.
Carbon Steel Woks
The single most widely utilised materials for woks today is carbon steel, primarily because it is durable, lightweight, and inexpensive, yet still provides rapid heat conduction so that foods can be quickly seared, an essential task in proper stir-frying technique. These four characteristics make carbon steel an almost ideal material for wok construction. The material does have its drawbacks, however; carbon steel woks need to be seasoned with oil in order to create a surface that will resist rust and become somewhat non-stick. The seasoning process for carbon steel woks is more difficult to accomplish than is the case with cast iron woks. Seasoning involves carbonising the interior surface of the wok and is essential because it helps to prevent a carbon steel wok from imparting a metallic taste or odour to cooked foods.
Stamped Carbon Steel
The most inexpensive woks made of carbon steel are manufactured using a stamping process in which a single sheet of relatively thin carbon steel is stamped into a wok shape by means of physical pressure. This produces a wok of relatively low quality, which can be problematic because under high heat, the metal may become deformed. Stamped woks also tend to distribute heat unevenly, which can cause portions of them to act as "hot spots" that may scorch foods.
Alternatives to Stamping
Traditionally, woks were hammered into shape by means of manual labour. The modern analogue to this process is machine hammering of heavy gauge steel, which means steel with a thickness of at least 14 gauge. This produces a wok that resists deformation better than one that has been stamped. Spinning carbon steel into shape is another option that produces a higher quality wok. Sometimes, however, traditional methods truly are best. The finest quality carbon steel woks remain ones that are hand hammered into shape from multiple layers of carbon steel. These layers are forged by hand to create the final product.
Cast Iron Woks
Cast iron is the second most common metal used in modern woks. There are two main varieties of cast iron woks available today.
Chinese Cast Iron Woks
Woks made in China tend to feature thin cast iron walls. This allows the wok to heat up to a high temperature very quickly, which results in significant fuel savings. China in fact developed this style of wok centuries ago to contend with the shortage of burnable fuels that characterised large regions of the nation. Because their cast iron walls are thinner, sometimes measuring only 3 millimetres across, Chinese-made woks tend to be quite lightweight for their size. They can also be relatively inexpensive since less material goes into their manufacture. Their major drawback, however, is that they can be damaged more easily.
Western Cast Iron Woks
Woks that are produced in Western nations tend to feature cast iron walls that are approximately three times the thickness of a Chinese wok. This produces a cooking implement which is much heavier and sturdier, but also one which takes considerably longer to reach the desired high temperatures that make true stir-frying possible.
One of cast iron's great advantages is that compared to carbon steel, it forms a much more permanent and stable layer of carbonisation when seasoned with oil. Cast iron woks also retain heat better than carbon steel ones and distribute heat more evenly. On the other hand, they are slow to react to heating adjustments and remain hot for a considerable time even when taken away from the heat source. This has strong implications for the quality of cooked food and means that adjustments must be made when using a cast iron wok. Expert Chinese chefs who use cast iron know that cooked food must be removed from the wok at once to stop the cooking process.
Like other types of pots and pans, woks are now available with a non-stick surface made of Teflon, PFA, or another high-tech coating. Such woks must be used with utensils made of plastic, wood, or silicone rather than metal lest the surface become scratched. Foods prepared in a non-stick wok will not be the exact equivalents of those cooked in a traditional metal-only wok. This is because the non-stick surface inhibits true browning, which means that foods will tend to retain more of their own juices. The final taste of a dish cooked in a non-stick wok is also affected by the fact that the lack of a carbonised surface tends to produce a less nuanced overall flavour profile.
Find Woks on eBay
Woks have a category of their own on eBay. Shoppers interested in examining their wok choices should begin in the category Home & Garden and navigate through the choices Furniture & Living; Cookware, Dining, & Bar; and Pots & Pans. At this point there will be a tick box specifically for Woks. Woks can also be found by using the search box and entering a description of the type of wok desired.
Woks originated in China, but have become a popular and useful cooking implement in Western nations as well. They are used to perform a great variety of different cooking tasks, but are particularly helpful for preparing authentic stir-fried dishes that will rival those available from Chinese and Southeast Asian rest