In the traditional inferno of Chinese stir-frying, the wok is the ancient and obligatory tool. It is the one pan that makes a classic Chinese kitchen run. Turn to modern times and we find not only the wok, but also the so-called stir-fry pan. The difference between the two tools leaves the home cook with little to think about when choosing: For almost every contemporary kitchen, the stir-fry pan works best.
A wok’s round bottom was not designed for a flat stove
Plain and simple, “wok” is the Cantonese word for the round-bottom pan with two ear-like handles that is synonymous with Chinese cooking. A traditional wok was designed to sit in flames—up to its ears. It fit hand-in-glove with the classic Chinese stove: either a wide cylindrical brazier or a low, table like affair with a big center hole in which the wok nested to within an inch of its rim. The glory of this match was that the entire inner surface of the wok blazed immediately with a ferocious, even-heat.
The material for the classic wok was unfinished black carbon steel. (You’ll occasionally still find these dinosaurs in Chinese shops.) In modern times, spun steel became the metal of choice. Both require the cook to initially seal the surface against rust with a patina of oil and to remain vigilant lest the patina wear away.
On a Western stovetop, the classic round wok is a problem. The wok must perch on a ring above the gas flame or electric coil, where its upper half is simply too far away from the heat. The bottom gets hot, but the sides remain relatively cool. Hence, stirfrying is slow, and juices are lost as the food steams instead of sears. The patina is next to impossible to keep, except at the bottom where the wok stays reliably hot. Simply put, it’s a problem of mismatched surfaces. For the cook, stir-frying in a round wok on a flat stove is like trying to walk across town on toe shoes: You’ll get there, but slowly and painfully.
Flat-bottom woks offer some improvement. In the 1980s, when cooking Chinese at home was the thing to do, cookware manufacturers picked up on American frustration with the round wok and developed the flat-bottom wok. The flat-bottom wok was a big step up for American cooks. It got us away from those pesky rings that took the wok where it was never designed to go—away from the source of heat. It heated more quickly than its round-bottom progenitor because it sat flat on the heat source. But the flat bottom was initially quite small, and the top third of the wok still never really got hot.
Then someone got smart and developed the stir-fry pan, the perfect match for a flat modern stovetop, be it in San Francisco or Beijing.
The stir-fry pan solves a lot of problems
The main difference in the stir-fry pan is its generous flat bottom—a good couple of inches bigger than the older flat-bottom woks—and a depth of 3 or 4-inches, which beats out a traditional Western sauté pan. It usually has one friendly long handle (wooden or new-age plastic that doesn’t get hot as you cook) and often a chunky ear on the other side to make it easier to pick up the pan when it’s full. Its interior is nonstick or anodized steel, both with an aluminum core for quick heating. I’ve seen stir-fry pans for sale all over the globe, snatched up as eagerly in Xian as in Chicago. I love these pans. They grab and hold the heat for beautiful stir-frying, and the generous size and slope of the sides sends food flipping merrily about.
My favorite stir-fry pans are those you’ll find in a Chinese kitchenware store. They include such lesser known brands as Cook-Aid, which is anodized, and Joycook, which is nonstick. Even a light-weight like me can lift these pans with ease. And they’re cheap: I got the Cook-Aid for $20, and on its Web site (www.cookaid.com) it retails for $12.95 plus shipping. The Joycook is $10 or less (800-525-6732; www.joycook.com.)
There are some good stir-fry pans that are more widely distributed. The Meyer Anolon stir-fry pan is a good bet, (800/326-3933; anolon.com). Also in major department stores, I like the fact that it’s 12 inches across and that it comes with a domed glass lid just like the type I use on my cheapo stir-fry pans but have to buy separately. This helps justify the $49 price tag for the Anolon. And oil behaves well in its nonstick interior. I also adore the stir-fry pan made by Wearever. The size (12-inches wide; 3-1/4-inches deep), the weight (2-1/4-pounds), the SilverStone ScratchGuard finish, and the friendly curved handle all make it a “10” in my opinion. The Weaver pan (800-527-7727; wearever.com) is sold in major retail stores, including Wal-mart and Target.
Consider weight and size when shopping for a stir-fry pan. I did try some other pans while writing this article and found that the Joyce Chen stir-fry pan was too heavy, and the Circulon pan was too small. Weight is also the enemy when it comes to the (more expensive) stir-fry pans made by the higher-end manufacturers like All-Clad and Calphalon. While these pans heat well and will last, their heft gets in the way of everyday stir-frying, which often calls for you to turn, tilt, and lift the pot.
You might also come across so-called chef’s pans, which are shaped a-lot like stir-fry pans. Take a careful look before you buy if stir-frying is what you have in mind. Be especially sure that the pan is roomy enough to toss around a nice amount of food. Many chef’s pans measure only 10 inches across, which is pretty small unless you’re cooking for one. An 11 or, even better, a 12-inch pan makes more sense. Be sure that it’s at last 3 inches deep. Also, check that the pan will be light enough to pick up easily even when full of food. Keep in mind the issues of weight and size when looking around your local kitchenware shops, and you may find some good-choices that escaped me.
Finally, let me heartily recommend a nonstick interior when shopping for a stir-fry pan. I have to say I wasn’t originally a fan of-this innovation; in early nonstick woks, the oil would puddle rather than coat the pan. But the new nonstick surfaces are oil-friendly and never seem to wear out even though I cook with them on high heat. Plus, great news for anyone in our health-conscious times: I now stir-fry with only a third of the oil required by my old spun-steel woks.
Throw out your woks? Maybe not yet.
I still keep a spun-steel wok for smoking foods. Smoking kills the interior of most pans, and spun steel can take the beating for a long time without warping. Also, when I’m cooking for a mob (and a stir-fry pan gets crowded), I haul out a gorgeous 17-inch behemoth made by Kuhn Rikon, surely the most expensive wok on the planet (I received it as a wedding gift). It’s the Rolls-Royce of woks.
But for everyday use, I’ll take my running shoes: my stir-fry pan. For simple use, speed and evenness of heat, and the ability to stir-fry a sizable amount of food with minimal oil, a stir-fry pan can’t be beat. Find one that feels good in your hand, put it on the stove, and off you go.