Sunday, December 5, 2021

    The 3 best woks for stir frying at home

    The 3 best woks for stir frying at home

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    Updated

    2021-11-08T22:06:52Z

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    nine woks on a table, ready to test as part of Insider’s guide to the best woks in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    • Woks come in a variety of price points, materials, capacities, and proportions that directly affect performance.
    • We tested 9 woks using the same two recipes to determine which ones best replicate wok hei.
    • The Zwilling Forte Wok is our top pick — even though it’s made from a Western company, it performs really well and requires very little upkeep.

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    It’s easy to take things you grew up with for granted. Nuances you don’t notice until they’re missing, details you don’t realize make a huge difference. For me, having grown up in a Chinese takeout, that’s wok hei

    Since my parents closed up shop years ago, I’ve been searching for a way to replicate the flame-kissed cooking of their restaurant. The kind where ribbons of fire infuse food with a hint of smoky depth, resulting in slightly charred edges around still moist meat and vegetables that stayed bold and bright. These are the signatures of wok hei, an elusive element from the molecular reaction between fat, water, heat, and fire as they burst together around your food. The moment this happens, moisture evaporates quickly, drying out the surface of your ingredients; a hint of singe is sealed into everything in the wok.

    “It’s this that makes wok cooking an art form,” says MÓGŪ Modern Chinese Kitchen founder Mike Wang, developer of his restaurant’s self-cooking robo-woks with his GenX Robotics division. “It’s essentially a very inefficient exothermic reaction,” he explains. “You throw a ton of heat and flames onto a surface that doesn’t necessarily distribute it evenly since it’s a curved and not flat surface.” 

    Simply put: woks don’t heat evenly, but that’s the point. The unique graduating heat zones along the bowl make them incredible at cooking mixed ingredients that require different heat levels and cooking times. This curvature facilitates two types of cooking: tumble and toss. Tumble cooking is when you use a wok spatula, or chuan, to move the food around even as you shake the wok. Toss cooking involves lifting the wok off the heat source for faster temperature changes and flipping the ingredients in the air to mix components.

    Different types of cooking and recipes require different types of woks, so we’ve outlined picks for each style. You can read more about how we tested in our methodology section, and learn about techniques in our FAQs.

    Here are the best woks of 2021

    Best wok overall

    Nonstick Zwilling wok in front of its packaging, the best wok overall in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    The best for flip-toss cooking and quick to heat up, this nonstick wok is a streamlined, modern take on an ancient tool.

    Pros: High wok walls, reinforced plated base, induction compatible, even heating, great charring, retains heat well

    Cons: Did not come with the turner as marketed, harder edge to the flat bottom

    This wok is a symphony of proportions. The thicker curve of the handle felt made for my grip and — paired with high walls that inverted just enough to almost magnetically toss the food back into the pan — made flip-tossing a breeze. 

    On the opposite side, the chunky, extended helper handle actually did stay pretty cool, even with extended use, and made pouring food out from its no-drip rolled edges neat and easy. A wide floor makes the walls of the wok feel even higher from the sharper slope angle, allowing the burner flames to visibly hug the pan. 

    If it had one flaw, it’s that its larger flat floor caused sauces and liquids to reduce a bit too quickly. But this remarkable evaporation rate also makes it quick to char and a literal hotbed of action, leading to crispy fried rice, tender-crisp vegetables, and juicy proteins. My chicken browned nicely with agitation, and beef seared gloriously. Through all of that, it actively held onto the burner heat instead of radiating it outwards or upwards, making it much more comfortable to work over than any other wok we tested.

    Most impressively, it was reluctant to burn, thanks to a five-layer ultra nonstick surface that claims to last 60% longer than traditional nonstick and is tested to be 20 times more durable. Although that makes capturing wok hei nigh impossible since you need some scorch action to get there, the weighted trade-offs make it — dare I say it — as close to worth it as you can get. For instance, you barely need any oil to get it going and things will still at least toast up. Plus, this surface cleans like an absolute dream. 

    In general, this Italian-made wok is a winner. Zwilling J.A. Henckels may be a leader in cutlery, but they’ve nailed this piece of cookware.

    Best wok for tumble cooking

    Staub cast iron wok on a cooking burner, the best wok for tumble cooking in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    This wok hefty sears in that elemental way only iron can, and pleasantly surprised in a myriad of ways.

    Pros: Ready-to-use and seasoned, vented lid and frying rack included, naturally nonstick, imparts subtle earthiness onto food, very durable

    Cons: Walls are not very high, smaller capacity, heavy, loop handle and weight make it hard to grease

    I’ll admit that I was at first skeptical of this one. Brand-new cast iron can be difficult to work with, requiring lots of seasoning before you love it. Additionally, cast iron is heavy, which makes it a terrible candidate for toss-cooking, and the handles retain a lot of heat. This means shaking the pan while in use and adjusting its positioning on the stove isn’t really an option. Then there was the fact that the brand stopped advertising it as a wok (Staub now calls it the “Perfect Pan,”). And upon receiving it, I was unimpressed by the low height of the walls. 

    However, my preconceived notions were thrown out the window as its performance edged it out against other loop-handled woks. The enameled surface solved the problem of seasoning — it was ready to use right out of the box. The textured quartz-flecked interior seared like nobody’s business, sealing velveted meats with instantaneous Maillard reactions as the center of each bite slowly cooked through during stir-frying. And this interior was much, much easier to clean than basic untreated cast iron cookware. 

    Most importantly, the Perfect Pan was able to infuse a sense of elemental wok hei into the food without any flipping, fire bursts, or other feats of showmanship. Just this hint of the breath of the wok was enough to blow me away. 

    A reinforced and well-defined flat exterior bottom helps drive heat through the metal evenly, while the interior floor, smoothly sloping and gracefully curved, showed no indication of the outside’s hard edges. Meat chars, then sticks, but not to the point where it breaks apart dry and woody, as occurs in some woks. Brown sauce emerges highly concentrated in flavor from quick reduction, yielding a more deeply flavorful stir-fry than others.

    When making fried rice, the egg released surprisingly well, and as can be predicted of cast iron, this pan locked in a gorgeous sear on the beef. Onions popped and smoked as proper to fried rice instead of caramelizing, adding to the smokiness of the dish. Tomatoes blistered immediately, and the baby bok choy stayed crisp on the side walls. 

    Plus, the slower heating of this material gave me more zones to work with. The height, although not ideal, was adequate for fried rice, grabbing onto it instead of popping the grains out, and gave it a lovely bibimbap-type crust after time pressed against the walls. 

    In all, if flavor is more important to you than convenience and freedom of movement both of and within the wok, this is the one to beat.

    Best electric wok

    Breville Hot Wok in front of its packaging, the best electric wok in 2021 Product showcase image  breville hot wok

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    Less costly than many of the high-end woks tested, this portable, high-capacity unit offers all-in-one convenience.

    Pros: Really stable, aesthetically pleasing, frees up stovetop, easy to clean, plentiful safety features, fully round bottom, portable

    Cons: Does not get as hot as a stovetop wok, can’t deep fry in it, too tall to be comfortable on a countertop

    With their flared edges, woks have big stovetop footprints. Getting one that will feed the gang can take a neighboring burner or two out of commission. An electric wok solves that problem by getting you off the stove entirely. With a brushed metal exterior and proportionate lines, this one does it with style. 

    On paper, there’s a lot to love: it’s 300 watts more powerful than the average electric wok; has a sear setting that claims to reach 425 degrees Fahrenheit; is a pleasure to handle, from chunky ergonomic stay-cool handles to contoured levers; has an extra deep, fully rounded basin; and comes with a domed glass lid. Most importantly, its heating element is a uniquely butterfly-shaped coil that wraps halfway up the wok to better emulate real-life flames.

    Performance-wise, though, it doesn’t spark as much joy. It heats up reasonably fast, but is inexplicably unreasonably slow to cook. The sear function doesn’t do its job well, leaving the chicken pale and tough as extruded liquid struggles to evaporate. The slick inner walls make it all too easy to crowd ingredients as they slip down into the well, making it difficult to utilize the heat zones of the wok wall. So if there’s such a thing as too nonstick, this might be it. 

    How does it redeem itself? Well, the convenience factor is tremendous. And really, it’s a gorgeous piece of machinery. It gets the job done, albeit in a generic, Westernized kind of way. The flavor isn’t as deep as with a stovetop wok, but it’ll be comparable to cooking on an electric range, and is a great portable option for when you don’t have access to a stove, like while camping or boating. It’s also fun for dinner table show-cooking to entertain the kids, and its safety-focused engineering and dishwasher-safe cleanup shows that families are definitely a target audience for this small appliance.

    What else we tested

    nine woks on a table, ready to test as part of Insider’s guide to the best woks in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    What else we recommend and why:

    Calphalon Elite Nonstick Wok 13“: Overall, this is a serviceable, multi-use wok that satisfies across the board. Its larger, triple-riveted softly square handle boasts a higher arc for better balance and grip. I felt a sense of maneuverability and control as I rotated oil around the basin. The smaller flat bottom slopes gently into the curvature of the walls — a smooth transition that eliminates scraping around the hard edges some flat-bottomed woks have. However, the rounded floor meant I had to be more mindful of crowding to prevent steam from concentrating. This affected the chicken, which dried out in comparison to other tested woks.

    Hestan Nanobond Stainless-Steel Wok with Lid: This handsome, extra-large wok is a great size for serving a crowd. But because it’s so flat and wide, burner flames are directed across it instead of up and around. Since the floor gets so hot, I ended up mostly using the wok walls, leaving an oversized well of dead space. My chicken caught and tore, and broccoli, while surface-scorching nicely, required more time to cook through. Stainless steel is not forgiving and even less so with an ingredient that’s so notoriously sticky. However, if you’re comfortable with cooking on stainless steel and looking to cook for a crowd, this could be a good option.

    What we don’t recommend and why:

    Anolon Advanced Home Hard-Anodized 14″ Wok: The Anolon is thinner and more tensile, but ultimately couldn’t compete against stick-handles for flexibility in cooking style. While I appreciated that this wok came with a hybrid domed lid — half metal, half glass for the best of both worlds — the edges were very sharp and can scratch kitchen surfaces. This is perhaps one of the hottest woks, though, and would have been the top pick for tumble-cooking had the Staub not been able to imbue the recipes with such earthiness.

    Joyce Chen Pro Chef Excalibur Nonstick: Coming from such a notable and well-recognized name in Chinese cuisine, I expected much better usability from this wok. I was disappointed to find that the angular, bulky handle is uncomfortable in small hands and made the pan very heavy in spite of the lightweight metal used. The sandpapery nonstick finish is also not so nonstick. 

    Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick 12″ Flat-Bottom Wok: This model was grandfathered into this test — an oldie I’ve had for some time from a less premium line than Calphalon’s Elite version, which took home the title of best overall. Having been in my rotation for several years already, it was a let-down that such premium piece of equipment did not age particularly well, losing its nonstick coating in patches. It was okay for the years I had it, but compared to the upgrade and its competitors, it’s a weak contender.

    All-Clad 5-Ply Copper Core Open Stir-Fry Pan: When I told my retired Chinese chef dad that I was given stainless woks to try, an atypical material, his immediate reaction was, “Why?!” After testing, I felt much the same way. The sharp-edged channel handle dug into my hand, the basin is too shallow, the pan itself too heavy, and the heat distribution too even, eliminating the cook zones integral to proper woking. On the upside, this does create an environment conducive to charring, yielding a hibachi-like flavor but with a shallower, cleaner taste.

    Our wok testing methodology

    fried rice sits inside a wok as part of testing for the best wok in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    We tested nine woks of various materials, looking at construction quality and scratch resistance; heat retention and distribution; ease of cleaning and handling; and overall performance. For all tests, we used the same high-powered burner of a gas stove. 

    With each wok, I made two dishes chosen for the multiple Asian cooking techniques they required, and utilized high smoke-point, neutral avocado oil to provide a cleaner background for any sign of wok hei … should it be achieved.

    I tried to use the same heat setting for each wok, but differing heat retention levels forced adaptation to avoid ruining the dish. I also used more oil for stainless steel woks to avoid sticking, and added broth to the fried rice in some instances since some materials were more apt to burn than char and required more moisture.

    The science of wok cooking

    chicken and broccoli in a pan cooking as part of testing for the best wok in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    Cooking in a wok is an art and a science. The speed of execution and drama of it speaks to artistry, but the results, as Wang puts it, “has everything to do with the mathematics of particle movement.” 

    “The science of woking is broken down to temperature control,” he explains, “which is done by elevating the wok with the hand, controlling the gas lever with one’s leg during cooking, and flipping the ingredients inside the wok. At GenX Robotics and MÓGŪ, we studied the science of woking by using computer vision to track the movements of individual particles and how they move with the different viscosities of sauce. We investigated how those ingredients interacted with the surface of the cooking pan, the sauce, and other food particles.”

    What he and his team found was that the slightest variation could lead to notably different outcomes, which our own testing confirms on a broader scale. The takeaway: be patient as you learn the ins and outs of your wok. A learning curve is to be expected at first, but you’ll soon be able to produce consistent results.

    Pro tip: temper your expectations

    No matter what wok you get, though, just know that results on an electric stove will be considerably less favorable than on a gas stove. And that same gas stove will fall well shy of what a commercial restaurant wok burner can produce. If you’re looking to recreate a dish you had at a restaurant, be prepared for at least slightly different results, especially if you’re working on an electric stove.

    No home stove will be as immediately responsive, either. The instantaneousness of being able to crank up the heat and adjust it fast is a huge part of wok cooking. While certain materials help with heat distribution, it’s important to consider the thickness, flexibility, flat surface area, and curvature of the wok, too. All of these contribute to its quality and performance.

    No matter which wok you pick, you’ll have to take time to get to know it. After that, it’ll be a matter of time until you master it … and with that, fall in love with it.

    Wok FAQs

    chicken and broccoli prepared in a wok as part of testing for the best wok in 2021

    Su-Jit Lin/Insider

    What kind of material should I consider?

    Carbon steel is a traditional favorite for making woks, while cast iron and stainless steel are great for casual cooks. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each material: 

    Carbon steel is traditionally a favorite material for woks because it reacts quickly to heat adjustments and has a natural nonstick surface once seasoned. But be warned: it takes a lot of heavy, repeated usage to get to this level, which is why it’s not recommended for the casual home cook, and why we did not include any carbon steel woks in this test. We are looking forward to testing some pre-seasoned carbon steel woks for the next update

    Cast iron is a bit more accessible as people are more accustomed to maintaining it, but it’s important to bear in mind that it’s a very heavy material and will limit your maneuverability. 

    Stainless steel has been growing in Western popularity since it’s durable and not prone to rust. 

    Aluminum woks are lighter and hotter but prone to warp and ding. 

    Hard anodized and nonstick pans provide greater ease of use in a familiar medium, but their performance will vary based on manufacturer-determined specs, like thickness and finish.


    What’s the difference between a long- and loop-handled wok?

    A loop-handled, or Canton wok, is meant for tumble cooking, which means using a scoop and spatula to quickly agitate ingredients (like fried rice) and spark faster liquid evaporation and spot charring. Loop handled woks are also great for pan-frying, which requires constant contact with the heat source; steaming; and big batch cooking, as they traditionally tend to be wider than long-handled woks. 

    Long-handled or stick-handled woks are meant for toss cooking, such as with saucy dishes and stir-fries that incorporate larger-cut ingredients. In this technique, you lift the wok off the burner and toss the ingredients into the air using a shake of your wrist. Traditional long-handled woks offer a deeper basin in the middle for thickening sauces and higher walls, and are lightweight for maneuverability in order to flip and toss off the burner.


    Should I choose a flat- or round-bottomed wok?

    Flat-bottomed woks are better suited for home use because round-bottomed woks require a wok ring. 

    Round-bottomed woks require the use of a wok ring, which is a metal band that holds the cookware in place on a gas stove burner and directs the heat to and around the wok. This workaround is really only suited for gas stoves, as they can slide off electric and glass-top burners.

    Flat-bottomed woks are the most common consumer-available designs, but their dimensions vary tremendously, which is part of why product tests like this are necessary. Not only are results dependent on material, which affects weight and maneuverability, but also by wok floor dimensions, wall height, and curvature. The latter two are perhaps the most important things to consider when you’re trying to recreate effective, authentic wok cooking at home. All the woks used for this test were flat-bottomed.


    Is it better to get a more or less curved wok?

    “A high curvature results in a broader base for maximum area of heat transfer,” Wang says. That means one with a greater curve and higher walls means heat is less concentrated on the flat bottom and better distributed up the walls. However, an overly steep wok can trap steam and make your food get limp and soggy. 

    But a flatter, lower wok has disadvantages of its own. You simply can’t mix well with a broad wok floor, and you definitely can’t toss. And while tumbling (as opposed to stirring) is the right way to work food in a wok, you don’t want to throw ingredients out of it. Curved walls help cue flipping your ingredients back into the pan, and taller sides keep errant pieces from escaping.

    The bottom line is that proportion is critical to creating the varying heat zones needed, since stir-fry components usually cook and brown at different rates. Even layering your ingredients can’t save you from over- or undercooking if the temperature is too uniform.


    What’s the best way to season a wok?

    Unless you’re getting a carbon steel wok (which we did not test), you would season a wok the way you would any pan of the same material. However, most nonstick woks are ready to go right out of the box.

    These detailed instructions on how to season cast iron woks will help you get that material prepped for duty.  

    If you do decide to go rogue off our recommendations and opt for traditional carbon steel, Wang emphasizes the importance of prepping it properly. “There’s a systematic process where the wok adapts a nonstick nature that comes with repeated oil washing,” developing a blackened patina from oil that’s seared on in a hard coat, like with cast iron. However, this takes a lot of use and tremendous heat exposure to develop.


    What tools do I need to cook with a wok?

    A chuan is may look like a spatula at first glance, but there’s a curvature that distinguishes it. Wok turners are angled differently, and where the head connects to the handle, you’ll notice a slight rounding that’s designed to seamlessly follow the soft angles of a wok. 

    They also usually have raised side edges that center your scoop as you tumble-cook or serve. This supports the tossing and mixing motion required for stir-frying while a regular flat spatula is more for shifting ingredients. The best ones have a very thin front edge that gets under your food better that has a soft arc that lets it reach into a round bottom well.


    What’s the difference between a wok and a frying pan?

    In terms of construction, woks and frying pans are like distant cookware cousins. A frying pan has short, slightly angled walls and a wide, flat bottom. While you can make a stir fry in a frying pan, you will not get the same results as you do in a wok because ythere isn’t as much temperature variation.

    Cooking in a wok relies on regular movement of the ingredients, so it is not the best tool for tender foods that can tear or come apart if shifted. Additionally, woks are not ideal for searing a single large piece of meat. Getting an even crust on a steak or large vegetables requires keeping the food in one place on high heat, and a frying pan offers more flat space to do that.

    Su-Jit is a writer first and everything else second. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Spruce Eats, HuffPost, PEOPLE, Al Jazeera, Longreads, Thrillist, The Kitchn, Eat This, Not That!, AllRecipes, Yummly, Ravishly, AAA Magazine, and others. Her person, however, can be found looking for the very best food; shopping for or making food; traveling to sample food; working off said food through exercise or adventure; or writing about all of the above and how they shape the human experience.  Learn more about how our team of experts tests and reviews products at Insider here.

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