A Guide to Woks
Everything you ever wanted to know about this all-around kitchen hero
Woks are commonly associated with firing up deliciously flavourful Chinese food — you can almost hear the sound of the flash frying, and the dink of the pan hitting the industrial hob as you say the word itself. But the wok is a hero to all kinds of cuisines.
It’s a versatile piece of equipment that can take a simple rice dish and infuse it with a unique taste bud-tickling taste and texture that could only come from this particular pan.
In this helpful guide, we’ll be exploring the ins and outs of the wok. Getting to know how best to use and take care of it, in order to help you pick one up with confidence and make delicious dishes time and time again. So, let’s begin with some history.
Wok is it?
Derived from the Cantonese word for ‘cooking pot’, the wonderful wok is a wide metal pan known for its distinct bowl-like shape and ability to turn up the heat.
Whilst you can bet on finding it in kitchens across the world, it was in fact born out of China over 2000 years ago, around the time of the Han dynasty, and has long been considered the secret ingredient to classic Chinese dishes, due to a special something known as ‘wok hei’.
Wok hei, which effectively means ‘breath of the wok’, refers to the unique flavour that the pan gives the food when cooking quickly on an extremely high heat — more on mastering the technique later. Put simply, it’s something only this piece of equipment can do, but not the only thing it’s capable of.
Yes, the wok is a pot seasoned with richness, flavour and history, but it’s also incredibly practical — able to stir-fry, steam, deep fry, braise and boil up the most delicious dishes, enhancing the flavour of all manner of meals. Before we get into all that, let’s talk about which wok works best.
Different types of woks: which works best?
When it comes to picking the perfect pan, it’s easy to get pulled in different directions, but when it comes to which wok works best, there is only one that chefs and home cooks alike swear by: carbon steel.
Loved for being lightweight and durable and all-around more affordable, carbon steel woks tend to trump their aluminium and stainless steel cousins. Of course, as a non-coated metal, it does come with some responsibility, and will require a process known as ‘seasoning’ (to coat the pan, and help it become non-stick), but the reward is all the sweeter for it.
You can also choose between round and flat bottomed woks, but it’s argued that the pan retained its rounded bottom design for many centuries with good reason. Although the flat bottom wok is specially designed for better balance on flat stove tops such as the electric stove, it can be a challenge to stir-fry food evenly as the flat bottom sits directly on a coil and heats up much hotter than the rounded sides above it.
If you’re cooking on an induction hob you may find your options are a little more limited, but as more and more homes are being fitted with this tech the pans are evolving too, so keep an eye out for carbon steel induction woks and treat them just the same.
How to use your wok
The real magic of a wok is its ability to be incredibly unique and very versatile at the same time – bringing full-on fired-up flavour, to all kinds of meals, however you use it.
In this section we’re going to be covering some of the top ways you can cook with your wok. Giving you the secrets to getting the maximum level of deliciousness out of it.
Tips on stir-frying
When you hear ‘wok’, the most common dish association is beautiful big stir-fry’s being whipped up in a flash. But how many of us have had an ‘expectation vs reality’ moment when giving it a go at home, only to end up with a clumpy mess of stodgy, soggy food?
If you’ve ever been there, try this:
- Heat the wok gradually, allowing it to reach a high temperature slowly.
- Once the wok is searingly hot, add the oil and your ingredients straight after.
- Don’t be afraid of a little flame in the pan — that’s where the flavour comes in.
- If you’re using vegetables check their moisture — too wet and they’ll go soggy, too dry and they’ll burn, but just enough water content should keep them crunchy.
- Don’t overcrowd the wok, less is more.
Hints on boiling and steaming
For steaming, a wok is the perfect base for your bamboo steamer to create perfectly fluffy rice (see our hints on steaming with your wok see our Bamboo Steamer guide).
For boiling, remember a wok can act just the same as a saucepan, only faster, so instead of waiting for your favourite grains to boil in a pot, whizz them up in the wok!
Trick to deep frying
Deep frying produces some of the most wickedly delicious treats, but for home cooks it can feel intimidating to turn up the heat with oil. Fortunately, the wok is perfectly designed for it, and makes the process all the more flavourful.
If you’re wondering how to master it, try this:
- Use vegetable oil — it has a high burner temperature which you’ll need to stand up to just how hot the wok can get.
- Never fill the wok more than halfway with oil to avoid splashing.
- Ensure the food you’re frying is dry (or as can be), it’ll save any vicious oil spatters.
- Take your time adding pieces of food in small batches — an overcrowded pan means clumping.
- Have tongs, wooden chopsticks or a metal skimmer handy to remove bits from the oil.
Try a smoking technique
If you really want to feel like a TV chef, then why not try smoking food in your wok? It’s simple to do, and sure to impress.
Simply scatter your flavourings — tea leaves, sugar and rice work well — in the base of your foil-lined wok and heat until the mixture begins to smoke. Once those aromatic fumes have grown, cover the wok with a lid to trap the smoke.
Take the food you wish to smoke (already cooked) and place it in your new smoking device to infuse it with the rich aromas.
How to re-season a wok
Your original coating should last a lifetime, but if you do notice little rust spots appearing — especially after messier, thicker, saucy dishes — then it’s time to re-seasoning your wok. To do this, simply clean and repeat the above process.
How to clean a wok
Another hot tip for this heat-loving pan is to avoid using soap when cleaning it. When you’re finished cooking, simply soak your wok in hot water and remove any leftover food with a soft sponge to protect the patina. Once it’s clean, put the wok on the hob and gently dry it over a low heat. This will make all the difference to protecting that all-important wok hei.