Let’s Talk Woks

I have always invited readers to email me with any questions they may have on matters culinary; every now and then the questions I get give me the idea for a post.

This is one of those times.

I have talked about woks here in the past, holding forth on my opinion that thin Cantonese cast iron or good carbon steel woks produce a superior result compared to non-stick, stainless steel or anodized aluminum woks, and have given my thoughts on what are the most essential bits of kitchen equipment for the cooking of Asian foods. However, a reader asked me some specific questions about woks that I thought merited a further post about the subject.

Gordon, from Brisbane, Australia, wrote to me asking about flat-bottomed woks. Here is an excerpt from his email:

“I had tried a flat bottomed, carbon steel wok on an electric cooktop in the past. Based on the advice of people such as Grace Young I purchased a wok that only had a smaller flat surface area of around 5 inches as it was suggested that any more than this and it is not really a wok and no more useful than a skillet. However I found this surface area too small and needed to cook in very small batches and sometimes ended up stewing the food. This time round I’m thinking of buying a carbon steel wok with a larger surface area on the bottom of around 8 inches after seeing a few Asian home cooks using wider based woks on TV shows? But before doing this I would be grateful of any advice you can provide on what I should look for in a flat bottomed wok. Note I have also tried a thick, cast iron, flat bottomed wok but it turned out to be a real pain because of lack of temperature control, handling difficulties and having to wait around for it to cool down before I could clean up etc. I’m also nervous about using a thin Cantonese type, cast iron wok because of their fragility.”

As much as I admire and love Grace Young’s work, and find her writing and herself to be charming and filled with a wealth of information on wok culture, I disagree with her on the point about the flat surface area of a flat bottomed wok needing to be very small in order to properly function as a wok. This is just not the case in my experience. The Cantonese flat-bottomed thin cast iron wok I purchased from Tane Chan at The Wok Shop has a bottom diameter of 6 1/2 inches, and it functions just as well as a round bottomed wok. I purchased it originally to use on flat top electric stoves, but have since been using it on my AGA gas range and have only had great results with it.

I suspect that an eight inch bottom diameter of the wok would still work -so long as- the outer edge of the wok was proportional to the bottom. In other words, the outer diameter would have to be rather wide for the wok to function really well as a wok.

However, in my experience, the 6 1/2″ diameter bottom allows me to cook quite a bit of food without steaming or stewing it, even without cooking batches. I can cook dishes for up to four or five people in the wok without much in the way of batching.

What would I look for in a flat-bottomed wok? I would choose either thin cast iron with enamel on the outside, or carbon steel. I prefer a single, long handle (Northern style) on the wok to the two small “ear” handles that you see on my Cantonese wok, but as you can see in most of the illustrations on this blog, I haven’t let the two handles on my wok slow me down any!

Nonstick is right out, as far as I am concerned, as is heavy, thick-bottomed cast iron. I have had both types of woks and disliked them both intensely. I used nonstick woks for years as a personal chef because they cleaned up easily, but the food was never exemplary; there was not enough of the “wok hay” present to really make my stir-fries sing. Now that I have gotten used to making great stir-fried food in my thin cast iron, I could never go back, nor would I ever counsel anyone else to use a nonstick wok.

As for the thick cast iron woks–for the reasons cited by Gordon above–they suck. Leave Le Creuset to their French Ovens and skillets–they do those beautifully, and get a wok made in China. Please.

As for the fragility of the Cantonese cast iron woks–I believe that this reputation is undeserved.

I have had mine for about four years now, and it has survived being used at least three times a week in all that time. It has survived being shipped across country and moved by really rough moving guys. I do not treat it gently. I scrub the hell out of it after each use under cool to hot running water when it is directly off the heat of the stove, and I have banged it around pretty mercilessly in the cast iron sink, on the cast iron stove and on the stone countertops.

It has not shattered yet.

Compared to carbon steel the thin cast iron may be fragile in a general sense, but in my experience, it just isn’t that fragile. The enamel on the outside toughens it up considerably, and I guess that unless it is dropped from a considerable height on a tile or stone floor, it will be okay.

Gordon also wondered about what sorts of utensils to use with flat bottomed woks:

“I have read a few times that flat bottom woks should be avoided because food sticks and burns in the corners and the metal spatula also catches in the corners resulting in the patina being scratched off. Therefore would I be better off using a wooden implement or plastic spatula (as used for non-stick pans) with a flat bottomed wok?”

Food really doesn’t stick and burn any more at the edges of a flat bottomed wok than it does in the edges of a regular pan. If one leaves a food item too long without moving it on the bottom of a round bottomed wok, it will burn; the same is true with a flat bottomed wok.

I only use metal wok shovels in my flat bottomed woks and have had no problem with scraping off patina. If one uses them at very high heat like I do, one cannot use plastic anyway, as it would melt. You can get bamboo wok shovels that look like the metal ones, but they are hard to find–they work pretty well as an alternative, but really, I haven’t had that much of a problem with losing patina. But then, I cook so much that the patina on my woks is probably building up so fast that it doesn’t get a chance to get worn away. But really, I think that some people overstate the fragility of a wok’s patina.

Woks are much tougher than people let on; I guess that there is a considerable amount of mystique surrounding them because they are very different to work with at first, but really, a design that doesn’t change for thousands of years doesn’t change because it works! And if it didn’t work well–well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

But one could say that flat bottomed woks are different, since they represent a considerable change in the traditional form of the wok, and a very recent one at that.

That is true, but it is also a natural evolutionary adaptation to a changing environment. Urban-dwelling Chinese and Chinese-Americans by and large do not have traditional wood or gas wok stoves that are built to suit the unique round bottom of the wok. Because many of these people are now using flat-topped electric stoves, a demand for woks made to work well on those cooktops arose and has been fulfilled by the modern flat-bottomed wok.

It is a compromise between ancient form and modern function, and in my opinion, it functions very well.

Gordon–thank you very much for emailing me, and I hope I have helped you on your quest for wok hay.

Happy wokking!

26 Comments

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  1. I know it’s not traditional or a favourite with anyone else, but I’m a student and cook on cruddy, low-powered electric stoves in apartments. My carbon-steel flat-bottom wok would not stay hot enough with, say, a good volume of noodles in it, but the Lodge behemoth my in-laws got me does. It’s huge, heavy and difficult to clean, but it does give me good wok hei. A thin cast-iron wok might do the same, but I can’t compare until I have more kitchen space.

    Comment by persimmon — January 25, 2007 #

  2. Great timing on the post, I’ve got a birthday coming up in a few weeks and am trying to figure out which kind of wok I want to request. Leaving aside the issue of material for a moment, I’m having trouble deciding on shape. The grate on the gas stove I’m using is very difficult to balance pots on, since it slopes. I currently have a round bottom wok that requires me to constantly hold it as it will just about not balance on its own. However, I was learning towards the cast iron option at The Wok Shop but it only comes in a round bottom.

    I believe you mentioned that you have both the carbon steel and the cast iron – can you still get the wok hay with carbon steel, or should I continue to struggle with the round bottom for the sake of the cast iron?

    Comment by Becca — January 25, 2007 #

  3. Hi Barbara,

    Many thanks for your help in this matter. Based on your original brief email reply to me I promply went out and purchased a 14″, carbon steel wok with a flat bottomed area of around 6 inches. I think the wok I owned years ago was actually struggling to be 4 inches at best rather than 5 inches as mentioned in my email to you. My knowledge of how to cook with a wok was also less back then. I was actully wanting to get the thin cast iron wok with enamel exterior as you recommended but haven’t been able to locate one of those with a flat bottom over here yet (shipping is too expensive to buy one from the US). But I’m sure I will find one sooner rather later.

    Just as you have mentioned here there has been no problems with using the metal shovel, food burning or sticking in the flat bottom edges or loss of patina etc.

    In fact after seasoning the wok on the outside BBQ burner even during my first use it was pretty much non-stick.

    In summary my new wok is producing a significantly better stir fry result compared to stainless steel & non-stick pans which I have used in recent times. The combination of using a steel wok, marinating the meat with the addition of cornflour and allowing it to sear for a minute or so before turning has resulted in the meat tasting close to the real thing from a Chinese resturant.

    Regards – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon Austin — January 25, 2007 #

  4. Oops also meant to add…

    I hope you don’t mind me jumping in here Becca but the Wok Shop does have flat bottom cast iron woks (see Barbara’s link above or mine below) but it is listed under iron/enamel:

    http://www.wokshop.com/HTML/products/woks/woks_ci_classic.html

    I have seen a round bottom version of this at our local Chinatown precint. It seems much more robust that the thin cast iron version without the enamel exterior.

    Cheers – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon Austin — January 25, 2007 #

  5. We should see more informative articles like this on food blogs. Really excellent.

    Comment by Trig — January 25, 2007 #

  6. Thanks Gordon, I hadn’t seen it there before. If that’s the same type of iron then that should be what I need. I should email them.

    Comment by Becca — January 25, 2007 #

  7. Becca–you can get wok hay with carbon steel–there is no worry there.

    Persimmon–it is great to hear from you again!

    The flavors one can get from the heavy American or French cast iron woks is exemplary–once you heat them up. (They take a while.) But, they are a pain to lug around and clean, so I switched over to the thinner Chinese cast iron and have never looked back.

    But you should use what you have and what works for you, certainly! It is what you have, and if it makes great stir fry for you–then I am very happy. I would rather people make good stir fry in whatever they have than pine for something that they don’t have and can’t get.

    Gordon, I am glad to have helped.

    Trig–thanks!

    Also–I bet you have some strong forearms from lugging the heavy wok around!

    Comment by Barbara — January 25, 2007 #

  8. i got a joyce chen for a wedding gift and use it three or four times a week. i love it. properly seasoned, meat does not stick and food has the lovely wok hay essence.

    my electric range is ancient but i love it; the wok is fairly large and i can cook large amounts at one time.

    mmm…wok….

    Comment by smokeyJoe — January 25, 2007 #

  9. Fantastic. I already know how to cook on cast iron, so the thin iron wok might just be the ticket. I had been leaning towards carbon steel originally, because an Asian-American friend said that that’s what his grandmother had, and that you can’t beat food that was cooked in a properly-seasoned carbon steel wok.

    Is that where ‘wok hay’ comes from — the seasoning of the pan? I know how to do that with cast iron, too.

    Comment by Indefatigable — January 25, 2007 #

  10. I was given a wonderful carbon steel wok at Christmas 2 years ago. I seasoned it and it worked just great. One day hubby decided to “do me a favor” and he soaked and scrubbed my wok in detergent. No matter how hard I try, I cannot now seem to return it to its original seasoned goodness. (And, no, he won’t be washing the wok after this — that is, if I can ever return the wok to functionality!)

    Comment by Suzanne — January 25, 2007 #

  11. Hey Barbara,

    In relation to your comment:

    “However, in my experience, the 6 1/2″ diameter bottom allows me to cook quite a bit of food without steaming or stewing it, even without cooking batches. I can cook dishes for up to four or five people in the wok without much in the way of batching.”

    Was this also the case when you were using the wok on your previous flat top electric cooktop or only now that you have your high powered gas burner? I’m still finding that I have to batch on our electric stove or I lose too much heat and hence stewing results. Maybe I need to leave it heat up longer but I find it starts to smoke quite a bit.

    Also, I’m curious about the overall diameter of your enamelled iron wok? It appears to look larger than 14 inches wide in your pictures. I thought this worthwhile asking because the smaller the wok the less the flat bottom diameter will be.

    Many thanks – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — January 25, 2007 #

  12. Oooh, thanks for the post! I am using a nonstick wok that I inherited, which is okay, but since I use a wok for about 90% of my cooking and would prefer carbon steel, I shall keep this in mind for when I have money again.

    Comment by Mel — January 27, 2007 #

  13. Hallo!

    I don’t know much about woks, I have one though. It’s a little carbon steel rig and works exceptionally well. Especially since I adjusted the burners on my old wedgewood to the extent they’ll lap around the edges of my 13″ wide soup pot. Tee hee.

    One thing about carbon steel and cast iron, more so with cast iron, is that if it was poorly made they’ll snap apart because of air bubbles in the steel. They can’t take the expansion and contraction during warming and cooling. Or if the ore they used had been recycled too many times or again, poorly done, they’ll snap.

    Hey Suzanne,

    There’s one method you could try to bring back the pan. Surely you’ve tried to season it back in to health? No workie? Rub lightly with cheap oil or lard or duck fat. Turn your exhaust fan and jack the heat. Let it smoke until nearly done. Let more than fully cool and lightly rub with oil. Try to cook something simple in it and see what you come up with. What this does is accelerate the carbonization of the fats on to your pan. Your food is sticking cause this build up of old oily carbon has been removed.

    If that helps at all, then more cooking is in order. Start with deep frying !!! Then brown some rice in butter!

    It’ll be FINE.

    xo, Biggles

    Comment by Dr. Biggles — January 27, 2007 #

  14. Hi Barbara, took me years to learn from my mom bout woks, and you just sum them all up in one post, thanks a lot !!

    Comment by MeltingWok — January 28, 2007 #

  15. I’m going to share this post with the cooking class that’s arriving tonight to do some Chinese cooking. Right now my stove is piled high with woks of various sorts, including the one you have (also purchased from Tane Chan’s Wok Shop). But I must say that my favorite all-purpose “woks” are actually restaurant-supply stir-fry pans made by Vollrath. They have one long handle, and are light enough to flip, but deep enough to stir fry, and with a flat bottom. I have several, and I use them for everything. And they are nonstick (though you can get them with or without a nonstick surface).

    Comment by Lydia — February 1, 2007 #

  16. Hi Gang,

    I have been very pleased with my carbon steel wok but due to the significant amount of smoke I seem to be generating my wife demanded I go back to using the thicker aluminium, non-stick large skillet. Unfortunately we don’t have a ducted range hood so any smoke generated stays in the apartment. Plus it is very hot over here at present and hence we have the air conditioner running so obviously the windows are closed which means the smoke can’t get out.

    I’m very new to using a carbon steel wok so if anyone can offer any advice on how to reduce the amount of smoke I would be grateful. Note that I’m using a high smoke point oil being Peanut Oil.

    Many thanks – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — February 1, 2007 #

  17. Gordon–sorry I took so long to get back to you.

    My wok is a seventeen inch wok.

    As for the smoke issue, try turning your heat down just a little bit. You may have a stove that is able to pour out -more- heat than you need. Try that first.

    If that doesn’t work, in other words, it cools the wok too much, scoot the wok back and forth on and off the burner to cool it off a little bit and then heat it back up. It starts to smoke too much, off the heat, it cools down too much, back on the burner. With a two handled wok, this is awkward, but doable.

    Finally, you may have to wait until fall and winter when you can open windows, for fun on carbon steel wok cooking, I am sad to say.

    But, keep it up–it sounds like you are on your way to great cooking.

    Suzanne–Biggles may not know from woks, but he knows from metals! And what he says will work great if you try it out.

    And here is the thing–deep frying will help any troubled wok come back from the dead. Trust me–it is what I do when the patina gets a bit dinged from improper use–and it always works like a charm. I also deep fry first thing in a brand new wok to kick start the patina building.

    indefatigable–yes, that is where wok hay comes from–the seasoning on the pan reacting with high heat. That is what makes that scent and flavor that is hard to recreate at home. Hard, but not impossible.

    Melting Wok–glad to have helped.

    Lydia, I am glad you are sharing this post around. Thank you. And thanks for the recommendation on the Vollrath wok. I will have to check it out!

    Comment by Barbara — February 5, 2007 #

  18. Hey Barbara,

    Thanks for the further info.

    I have continued to experiment and found that by momentarily raising the wok off the burner when smoking is getting out of control seems to be helping a lot. Fortunately my wok has a long wooden handle on one side and short wooden handle on the other so sliding or raising the wok is easy to do. Practice will make perfect I’m sure. One just can’t get that wonderful caramelisation in a non-stick wok which makes all the difference in flavour so it will be worth making the effort to master this I’m sure.

    Should be getting loan of Dunlop’s “Sichuan Cookery” and “Revolutionary …” very shortly so can’t wait to try some of the recipes.

    Many thanks – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — February 6, 2007 #

  19. I have the very same wok that you do Barbara, and got it from the same place.It is a treasure, and the only wok I’ve ever been able to maintain a proper patina with.
    The only thing is, I hate the stupid, ineffective rubber coating on the handles. I can’t imagine what it is for, it doesn’t deal with the heat at all-I wish they were just the plain iron.
    But that is a small thing, and the wok shop is wonderful to deal with-so nice.

    Comment by lindy — February 6, 2007 #

  20. Hi;

    Could anyone offer details for idiots on how to season a carbon steel wok?

    Many thanks,

    Peter Sturken
    Santa Barbara

    Comment by Peter Sturken — March 2, 2007 #

  21. Thank you, Rob for pointing out a typo up in this post where I said circumference in one reference, when I meant diameter.

    It has been corrected.

    Comment by Barbara — July 18, 2007 #

  22. Peter–it really is easy. I know because I”m an idiot and I seasoned mine yesterday. :)

    I used the oven method as it seemed the easiest. Just make sure your wok is clean and dry, then rub a bit of peanut oil on the inside. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and put the wok in for 20 minutes. Take it out, let it cool, scrub, then repeat. Do this three or four times.

    If your wok has wooden or plastic handles, wrap with wet paper towel and aluminum foil. Also, when you put it in the oven, put it in upside down–this was recommended to me by Tane Chen of the Wok Shop and it eliminated the problem of oil pooling in the bottom. I put a cookie sheet on the oven rack below to catch any drips.

    Comment by Kat — February 10, 2008 #

  23. Thank you for answering him, Kat–I must have missed his question all those months ago!

    Tane is the best!

    Comment by Barbara — February 11, 2008 #

  24. I have been doing so much wok-work in an effort to find the perfect wok for myself. The Wok Shop is a great site. I gave my Joyce Chen (not impressed) wok to my son and have been using a teflon coated and not getting the results I want. Plus, I scratched the teflon and from then on everything stuck. Last week I purchased a carbon steel from Target and it had a nonstick coat that gummed up when I seasoned it per their instructions. Scrubbed with steel wool and have not tried to reseason. I am now looking at the unseasoned carbon steel or the cast iron/enamel at the wok shop. I only cook for 2, sometimes 4 people so the 14 inch seems the perfect size. I am just so confused and don’t want to make another poor choice. I am cooking on an electric stove, YUK……….. And advice would be appreciated. I went to the local Asian makets today and all they had were teflon coated! I was shocked.

    Thanks,
    Sandy

    Comment by Sandy F. — February 23, 2008 #

  25. I have a question, and I hope you can answer it. I bought a pre-seasoned wok a month ago, and I did everything they said to do in the pamphlet. It works pretty well with meat and vegetable stir-frys, but with rice it sticks alot. And then after I clean it, I feel the bottom and it’s not smooth- it always has little black burnt bits that are really hard to get off. What can I do to prevent this, and why do you think it is happening? And does it mean I0 need to reseason it? Thanks!

    Comment by Steph — April 27, 2008 #

  26. No need to “wait until you have money again” to buy a new wok. Just bought myself a new 12″ hand-hammered steel wok from for $14

    Arrived in two days and works like a champ. You gotta love wok cooking

    Good luck everyone

    Mary

    Comment by Mary Little — February 5, 2010 #

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