Woks can be used to steam fish, make fried rice, boil stew, and even pop popcorn — but there’s a reason you see them employed most ubiquitously for stir-fries. J. Kenji López-Alt, whose forthcoming book is dedicated to cooking with woks, explains that while Western skillets are more concerned with heat retention, woks are built to dial in on heat reactivity. This means they get hot really fast and stay that way if you want them to — but also cool down quickly as needed. What’s more, the bottom is hotter than the sides because of the V shape, further assisting each component of a given dish to get to the temperature it should be. Bottom line: Woks seamlessly cook large quantities of vegetables, meat, noodles, and whatever else you like in a matter of minutes. “If you are quick-cooking, make sure you have all your ingredients portioned out and ready to go,” advises Brandon Jew, chef at Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. “The process goes fast.” We chatted with López-Alt, Jew, and other chefs and cookware experts to get their recommendations for their favorite woks.
What we’re looking for
Material: Woks come in carbon steel, cast iron, anodized aluminum, stainless steel, nonstick, and enamel-lined cast iron. Most experts prefer carbon steel because, as “stir-fry guru” and cookbook author Grace Young explains, it “impeccably sears ingredients and gives stir-fries the elusive, smoky essence prized by Chinese gourmands.” She’s not the only one with a preference for that particular material. Nearly every wok on this list is made of carbon steel. López-Alt notes that “it is strong but not brittle.” This is “unlike cast iron, which will crack if you make it thin enough to be lightweight.” Eventually, the surface of carbon steel will develop a nonstick patina.
Shape: Woks are traditionally round-bottomed, meant to be placed on burners that specifically hold that shape (you’ll often see full ranges like this in Chinese restaurants). But many have flat bottoms designed to work on standard home burners, whether gas, induction, or coil. You can, in fact, convert a regular burner with a wok ring if you prefer that style (or do as López-Alt did and buy an outdoor setup for round-bottomed wok use).
Handle: When it comes to handle shape, Mandarin-style woks (the majority of woks on this list) have an extended handle on one side, similar to the skillets you’re likely familiar with. This is helpful for maneuvering the wok around a burner and tossing ingredients with ease. Cantonese-style woks have two smaller handles on each side, which is good for fully picking the vessel up off the stove. When it comes to handle material, “it doesn’t matter that much,” says López-Alt. This is where aesthetic preference comes into play — though it should be noted that metal tends to get hotter than wood, a downside if you don’t want to use pot holders or dish towels.
Best overall wok
Carbon steel | Flat bottom | Mandarin-style with wood handles
“Introduced by Joyce Chen, flat-bottomed woks allowed the cookware to be used on any stove and made stir-fry a far more common dish in American households,” says Taylor Erkkinen, co-owner of the Brooklyn Kitchen cooking school. Chen’s woks are still some of the most relied-upon models you see today. Of course, the carbon steel makes it perfectly sensitive to heating up and cooling down. It isn’t too heavy and has comfortable handles that grip well and stay cooler than the body of the wok. “The loops on metal woks get superhot, and you need pot holders to handle,” says Matt Rodbard, founder of Taste and co-author of Koreatown: A Cookbook. Wooden handles avoid that. Sohui Kim, the owner and chef of Insa in Brooklyn, is also a fan of this model. “It can handle a ton of vegetables,” she says of the fairly standard 14-inch size that comfortably feeds two to four people. “I especially like it for greens that start so giant in volume. You can add everything in and then move them around easily as they shrink.”
Best customizable wok
Carbon steel | Flat or round bottom | Mandarin-style with wood or metal handles
López-Alt’s recommendation comes from San Francisco’s Wok Shop, which has many options for sizes (as small as 12 inches and as big as 16) and handles (wood, metal, loop, extended) should you want to customize. “Personally, I like a long handle,” he says. “It makes it easier to toss your ingredients.” Young loves Wok Shop, too, calling owner Tane Chan “the most knowledgeable person selling woks in the world.” This is also the best place to peruse wok accessories. López-Alt believes the one nonnegotiable is a wok spatula. The material doesn’t matter so much; the important part is the specialized shape, which “fits the curve of the wok and is good for scooping,” he says. If you want to use your wok for making a stew or homemade popcorn, you’ll need a lid. For her part, Young recommends a domed shape over a flat one because it will divert condensation away from your food.
Best round-bottomed wok
Carbon steel | Round bottom | Mandarin-style with one wood handle, one metal handle
As stated above, traditional woks have round bottoms, which allows them to reach intense temperatures over burners that shoot the flames straight up rather than in a circular pattern. If you’re serious about your wok game and have the ability to modify your home range, a wok ring like this one costs only $10 and replaces the grate and metal disc on a gas burner pretty easily. Amelie Kang, co-owner and chef of New York City’s MáLà Project, recommends the Pow Wok, which is made from conductive carbon steel. “It’s suitable for quick, high-temperature stir-fried dishes,” she says. But be careful: “It’s especially easy to burn the dishes if you are not fast enough.”
Best Cantonese-style wok
Cast iron | Flat bottom | Cantonese-style with cast-iron handles
This cast-iron Cantonese wok, heavier than its carbon-steel counterparts and with two smaller loop handles on both sides, isn’t so easy to maneuver around the stove. But “nothing retains heat like cast iron,” says Jew. And unlike with stir-fries, this is an important attribute when it comes to fried rice, the success of which depends on the grains staying hot throughout the whole cooking process. “With a home stove, you’re simply not going to get to that same level you do in a restaurant,” he says, so you might as well set yourself up the best you can.
Best woklike frying pan
Carbon steel | Flat bottom | Mandarin-style with metal handle
If you simply don’t have the space for a dedicated wok, Lucas Sin, chef at Junzi Kitchen, stands by Made In’s carbon-steel frying pan. The high-sided shape and carbon-steel material make it similar enough. “To achieve high heat for stir-fries, I prefer flat bottoms for as much surface contact as possible,” he says. “Tall walls mean that the same pan can be used for braising, steaming, and boiling.” As for the size, it’s slightly smaller than the woks on this list, but Sin likes the size, saying that it “comfortably cooks for two.”
• Taylor Erkkinen, co-owner of the Brooklyn Kitchen
• Brandon Jew, chef at Mister Jiu’s
• Amelie Kang, co-owner and chef of MáLà Project
• Sohui Kim, owner of and chef at Insa
• J. Kenji López-Alt, chef and writer
• Matt Rodbard, founder of Taste and co-author of Koreatown: A Cookbook
• Lucas Sin, chef at Junzi Kitchen
• Grace Young, cookbook author and “stir-fry guru”
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