Why Every Home Cook Needs a Wok—and How to Identify a Quality Pan

You'll use this piece of cookware for stir-fries and so much more.

Vegetarian wok stir fry
Photo: rez-art / GETTY IMAGES

A great wok gives you deliciously seared stir-fries at home—but that's just the beginning. Pros know that the pan is also suited to many cooking techniques, from steaming dumplings and pan-frying bacon and steaks to making scrambled eggs or even popcorn. Best of all, a good wok isn't expensive and you'll use it often, so long as you buy one with the right attributes that make it both user-friendly and durable. Ultimately, the material, size, and shape determine how well it performs.

Interested in adding this pan to your cookware arsenal? We spoke to Grace Young, a Chinese-American food historian and author of many cookbooks including The Breath Of A Wok and Stir-Frying To The Sky's Edge, who explained what to look for in a quality piece.

What to Look for in a Quality Wok

You don't need to invest a lot of money to buy a quality wok. In fact, the pan Young recommends to most American home cooks costs just $35. You can find it at K. K. Discount, either in their store in New York City's Chinatown or via their website.

As for what makes this iteration the best for home cooks? It has all the right specs. It's made of heavy-gauge unseasoned carbon steel, measures 14 inches across by 4 inches high, and has a flat bottom. Here, we explain exactly why those qualities matter.

The Best Wok Material

High-quality woks are made of either carbon steel or cast iron. Carbon steel is best—it's resilient and lightweight, and it heats up and cools down faster than cast iron does.

Carbon Steel

Hammered carbon steel is more expensive, but it's even stronger and more durable. Some say hammering also makes ingredients cling to the sides of the wok better, which can be helpful when stir-frying, says Young. Today, hammered woks are typically made by machine in a factory, but some makers, such as Erik Newquist of Newquist Forge, continue to make special hand-hammered carbon steel woks the old-fashioned way.

Cast Iron

Traditionally, woks have been made with cast iron, which develops a wonderful patina over time—but cast-iron woks only work for people who have experience using one on a high-heat semi-professional gas range, such as a Wolf or Viking range, Young says. Cast-iron woks cool down more slowly than carbon steel iterations; that means you have to plate food immediately once it's finished cooking to ensure it doesn't overcook.

If you want to go the cast-iron route, Young suggests Chinese-made cast iron—the American-made kind is too heavy to be practical for stir-frying. A Chinese-made cast iron wok is lighter in weight, but that also makes it more delicate and prone to cracking if not handled carefully. However, "it really does get an incredible sear," Young says. For a traditional round-bottom Chinese cast-iron wok, turn to this one from The Wok Shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, Young adds.

Avoid Nonstick and Stainless Steel Woks

As for what to steer clear of? Don't buy a wok with a nonstick coating. Stir-frying calls for very high heat, which can degrade these coatings, including some ceramic ones. A stainless steel wok is also not the best choice; it only useful for steaming, boiling, or poaching (it is not practical for stir-frying).

Skip Preseasoned Woks

Don't bother buying a preseasoned wok—it isn't necessary. "It's really easy to season it yourself, and food cooked in a naturally seasoned carbon steel wok tastes far superior," says Young. "You get a better sear."

What Size Wok to Buy

This is very straightforward: The ideal wok for home use measures 14 inches in diameter. Anything bigger won't get hot enough and is too heavy, and anything smaller crowds food so that it doesn't cook properly. "It'll turn a stir-fry into a soggy braise," says Young. As for height, most woks are a standard 4 inches.

Flat-Bottomed vs. Round-Bottomed Woks

Flat-Bottomed Woks

Most home cooks should choose a flat-bottomed wok—specifically, a flat-bottomed wok made of carbon steel with one long handle and one short helper handle (both made of wood). This is the wok type Young uses at home; she always skips using her stovetop's wok ring (which doesn't put out enough heat, regardless of the pan type you have, she says).

These pans (which are also essential for induction) work best on the cooktops the majority of people have in their kitchen, including electric and gas. If you have an electric or induction stovetop, note that your wok's perfectly flat bottom may warp ever so slightly the first time you heat it. "If it develops a slight wobble, you may need to hold the handle at a certain angle to get full, even contact with the heat," Young says.

To avoid this, choose a flat-bottomed cast-iron wok. Some have enameled bottoms to help disperse heat more evenly, like this one from The Wok Shop. But remember: Any cast iron wok is heavy and clumsy to use and are best reserved for experienced cooks.

Round-Bottomed Woks

If you have a semi-professional gas range, you might want to consider a round-bottomed wok—but you need to be experienced at cooking on high heat. Your burners can put out enough (15,000 to 18,000 BTUs), but you probably don't use them at maximum output very often. That's why Young only recommends a round bottom wok to more experienced cooks. (And if you're one of them, remember to wrap the wood handles with aluminum foil to avoid burning them.)

Wok Accessories


Buy the lid when you buy your wok, says Young. It should fit snugly on top, so you want it to be smaller in diameter (roughly 1 inch smaller). You might need to try several lids with your wok to find the one that has the tightest fit. Young recommends a domed lid over a flat one, since the former won't drip as much condensation onto your food, which is an important consideration if you're using your pan for steaming—a flat lid can make steamed dumplings soggy.


"I haven't found any good Chinese spatulas for years," Young says. "The ones I have are over 10 years old!" She finds that either an old-fashioned metal pancake spatula or a fish spatula works best; the thin metal edge allows you to slide along the sides and bottom of the wok and flip food efficiently.

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