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Test Drive: Woks

There’s no better pan for stir-frying, but how to know which one to buy? Here are our top picks among the many we tested

Fine Cooking Issue 111
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If you love to stir-fry, you need a wok. Unlike a skillet, a wok has sloped sides that give you more surface area for cooking and naturally direct food into the center of the pan, where it’s hottest. This helps food sear quickly and keeps ingredients from spilling out as you toss and stir. More specifically, you need a flat-bottom wok, which is designed to sit directly over a stove’s burner so it gets very hot. Round-bottom woks, though more traditional, often need to be stabilized with a wok ring, which can lift them up and away from the burner and keep them from really heating up.

And then you need to pick a material. Cast iron, carbon steel, and nonstick are the most popular types of woks on the market today. We tested models in all three categories to understand the benefi ts and drawbacks of each. Here are the top performers in each category.

Carbon Steel

Joyce Chen Pro-Chef Wok, 14 inch
$40 at chefscatalog.com

Carbon-steel woks are less durable than heavy-duty cast iron, but they’re lighter and heat up in no time. Seasoning is a must for these woks to avoid rusting and to keep food from sticking.

Why this wok The Joyce Chen Pro-Chef wok heated faster and more evenly than other models in this category. Chicken browned quickly without sticking to the pan, and shrimp came out evenly cooked. The roomy, 6½ -inch flat bottom gave strips of beef plenty of space to sear (in another carbon-steel model, the beef was too crowded and didn’t brown well).

The Pro-Chef weighs about 4 pounds and has a heatproof handle with a comfortable grip on one side and a wide side handle on the other, making it easy to control when cooking. The initial seasoning process recommended by the manufacturer took about an hour, but the pan aced every stir-fry test thereafter.

Cast Iron

Lodge Pro-Logic Wok, 14 inch
$80 at lodgemfg.com

Cast-iron woks are extremely durable and excel at retaining and evenly distributing heat. That said, they’re also heavy and take a while to heat up when compared to carbon-steel and nonstick models. Cast-iron woks need to be seasoned.

Why this wok The Lodge Pro Logic wok won us over with its sturdy construction and superior performance. It weighs 14 pounds and took at least 10 minutes to heat up, but once hot, it distributed and held heat like no other cast-iron wok we tested: We didn’t need to turn the stovetop dial past medium to sear beef, and shrimp was perfectly cooked in less than 2 minutes. What’s more, the food cooked without sticking, making for quick cleanup. The wok has two looped side handles (which do get hot) and just the right amount of curve to make scooping out food easy (unlike other woks we tested, it’s fully rounded on the inside, with a flat base on the outside). This model comes preseasoned.

Nonstick

Helen Chen’s Asian Kitchen Excalibur Lidded Wok, 14 inch
$50 at amazon.com

Nonstick woks prevent food from sticking, require little to no seasoning before using, and are easy to clean. Not every nonstick finish can tolerate the high temperatures required for stir-fries, though, so some models won’t last as long as cast-iron and carbon-steel alternatives.

Why this wok With two coats of nonstick finish applied to a stainless-steel-coated carbon-steel base, the Helen Chen Excalibur is designed to withstand the high heat required for stir-fries. It was fast to heat up and maintained a well-distributed heat throughout testing. Beef seared beautifully, and chicken browned nicely. Other nonstick models we tested just weren’t up to the task: When we stuck to the medium-high heat recommended for one model, broccoli came out limp, and beef simmered instead of sizzled. In another wok, the nonstick finish degraded, developing patches of black, sticky residue when we turned the burner to high.

With a long, ergonomic, and heatproof handle on one side and an opposing helper handle, the Excalibur is easy to maneuver. It has a wide 6 3/4 -inch base and comes with a domed glass lid. The Excalibur was the only nonstick model we tested that required a light seasoning before the first use, but it’s easy to do and takes only 5 minutes.

The Electric Option

Presto Stainless-Steel Electric Wok
$75 at sears.com

Electric woks free up stovetop space and automatically maintain pre-set cooking temperatures. Although some models can’t reach the high temperatures that stir-frying demands, we found that the Presto Stainless-Steel Electric Wok best met the challenge.

The wok sits on a sturdy aluminum-clad base, has two looped side handles that stay cool during cooking, and comes with a tempered glass lid. It heated fairly quickly and maintained a steady, adequate stir-fry temperature. It doesn’t deliver the same intense, aromatic flavor that you’d get with a stir-fry cooked over the higher heat of a stove, but it’s a good choice for those who want a plug-in option.

What to look for

Size A 14-inch wok is great for preparing a stir-fry for four, while a 10-inch wok will suffice for a one-person meal.

Shape Look for a wok with deep, flared sides that are neither too steep (to the point of being near vertical), nor too shallow. The flat bottom should be no more than 7 inches across, or the pan will function more like a skillet than a wok.

Handle For lighter woks, a long stick-style handle with an opposing helper handle provides maximum control. Heavier woks (such as cast iron) often have two looped side handles for safer lifting. Wooden and heatresistant handles are designed to tolerate high temperatures; metal handles may become hot.

Safety Sturdy construction and firmly attached handles will keep a wok from tipping over during cooking.

Lid Sometimes sold as part of a wok set, lids can also be purchased separately. A lid that is 1/2 to 1 inch smaller than the top of the wok will fit snugly inside. A glass lid lets you monitor food while it cooks. An aluminum lid with a plastic, stay-cool knob will save you from having to use potholders when lifting the lid.

How we tested

We tested nine flat-bottom woks (three each in the carbonsteel, cast-iron, and nonstick categories) by stir-frying shrimp, chicken, and beef with broccoli. We assessed each wok’s heating capabilities, including speed of heating and heat retention. We looked at design, method of seasoning (if required), durability of the nonstick coating (for nonstick models), ease of handling, and cleanup.

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