Authentic Stir-fries and More with a Carbon Steel Wok

When I was growing up, my mom frequently made stir-fry dishes—quick, nutritious, one-pot meals. A big wok was a fixture in our kitchen. It was a simple, carbon steel wok they’d bought in New York City’s Chinatown.

The wok is a great, versatile cooking tool, useful in any kitchen, even if you don’t make tons of Asian-inspired dishes. In this article, I’ll discuss a bit about wok design and uses for woks, and take a look at some of the best buys for carbon steel woks. Feel free to skip on to the products from the links below to see the latest prices and reviews on Amazon.

Picture
Sur La Table Professional Carbon Steel Wok 21-9969
Best Choice
Joyce Chen 22-0060, Pro Chef Flat Bottom Wok Uncoated Carbon Steel, 14-inch
16 inch Carbon Steel Hand Hammered Wok (wok ring not included)
Rating
B+
A-
B+
Diameter and Weight
14” 6 lbs
14”, 5.1 lbs
16”, 4 lbs
Handle Design and Material
1 long, 1 loop, maple wood
1 long, 1 loop, phenolic plastic
2 loops, metal
Flat or Round Bottom
Flat
Flat
Round
Inside Texture
Ridges
Ridges
Ridges and small hammer dimples
Inside Texture
2.0 mm
2.0 mm
unknown
Picture
Sur La Table Professional Carbon Steel Wok 21-9969
Rating
B+
Diameter and Weight
14” 6 lbs
Handle Design and Material
1 long, 1 loop, maple wood
Flat or Round Bottom
Flat
Inside Texture
Ridges
Inside Texture
2.0 mm
Best Choice
Picture
Joyce Chen 22-0060, Pro Chef Flat Bottom Wok Uncoated Carbon Steel, 14-inch
Rating
A-
Diameter and Weight
14”, 5.1 lbs
Handle Design and Material
1 long, 1 loop, phenolic plastic
Flat or Round Bottom
Flat
Inside Texture
Ridges
Inside Texture
2.0 mm
Picture
16 inch Carbon Steel Hand Hammered Wok (wok ring not included)
Rating
B+
Diameter and Weight
16”, 4 lbs
Handle Design and Material
2 loops, metal
Flat or Round Bottom
Round
Inside Texture
Ridges and small hammer dimples
Inside Texture
unknown

Wok Uses, Care and Design

Woks are the essential tool in Asian cooking, for making anything from Chinese-style stir-fry dishes to Thai curries. I think my mom loved her wok because stir-frying is fast. Just watch this meal come together in minutes:

But woks work beyond Asian cuisine. You can basically use your wok as you would any sauté pan or skillet, as long as you don’t need a large, flat bottom (like for pancakes). You can also get a lid, racks and steamer baskets to set into a wok, which further extends its usefulness.

Other uses for a wok:

  • frying or scrambling eggs
  • making soups
  • cooking fajita ingredients
  • making popcorn (with lid)
  • steaming fish or vegetables (with steamer basket)

Wok Maintentance

Do note that prep and care of carbon steel is different than that of other materials like stainless steel or cast iron. You must properly season your wok before use.

This video gives a very simple overview of the seasoning process:

You may encounter some issues, like a factory coating that is particularly hard to remove. Some people boil water in their wok for about 10 minutes and then scrub clean to handle this issue. Other people find that baking their wok with oil is the best way to season it, but be sure to remove any handles such as plastic or wood that won’t withstand the heat. Here are some additional notes on seasoning carbon steel woks.

After you season your carbon steel wok, follow these tips to care for your wok:

  • Don’t use soap or abrasives to clean it once it’s properly seasoned. Simply rinse with water and “scrub” gently with a brush to maintain the seasoning.
  • Dry thoroughly after cleaning. You may even pop it on the burner again and heat it to burn off any moisture.
  • Rub with vegetable oil after cleaning, before storing.
  • Rust spots, if they occur, can be scrubbed off with steel wool, then reseasoned.

Wok Design

Woks have been used for centuries, and the basic design is pretty similar across all options, but there are some variations:

Materials

While you can find woks in other materials, such as stainless steel, non-stick, and cast iron, carbon steel really is the preferred material. Why? Carbon steel heats quickly to high temperatures and cools quickly, which is essential in stir-frying. It will also develop a natural non-stick seasoning over time.

Non-stick coatings should be avoided, as non-stick surfaces break down at the high temperatures required for stir-frying. Cast iron and stainless steel can take too long to heat up evenly, and cast iron that is too thin can prove fragile, yet still too heavy for the flipping sometimes required of woks.

The gauge of the steel also varies—you don’t want it so thick that it’s very heavy, but so thin that it easily warps. 1.5-2.0mm is a good thickness for a wok that is sturdy but still lightweight.

Handle Design

The traditional Cantonese style of wok has two simple loop handles on either side. The Mandarin style wok has a loop handle on one side, and a long straight handle on the other side, which helps if you want to flip the contents while cooking. Some woks also have one long handle.

The handles are often made of metal, wood, or plastic. Wood and plastic are nice as they will not retain heat, but you must take care to avoid burning them over your stove!

Flat or Rounded Bottom

The rounded bottom is the most traditional, but less suited for modern Western-style cooking surfaces. If you have a strong gas burner, you can use a rounded bottom wok along with a ring to prop it up and hold it over the heat source. If you have electric or induction burners that are flat or coiled,  you’ll need a flat bottomed wok so it can sit on the heating element without moving around.

Inside Texture

Many woks are stamped, smooth carbon steel, but you can also find some that have a bit of texture—either dimples from hammering, or ribs on spun steel. Texture helps hold food up on the side while you cook another ingredient in the center.

Size

Woks come in a range of sizes. For a typical household, you’ll probably need something in the 12-16” range (this is the measurement of the diameter at the top). Here’s a quick guide:

  • 12” for up to 5 people
  • 14” for 6-12 people
  • 16” for 12+

14” is a good average size for cooking a family meal with some leftovers, or to accommodate the occasional dinner party.

Best Woks to Buy

One of the nice aspects of woks is that the best ones are typically pretty inexpensive. Here are some of the best rated options available to buy.

1. Sur La Table Professional Carbon Steel Wok

Sur La Table Professional Carbon Steel Wok Review

Sur La Table Professional Carbon Steel Wok – Available from Amazon.com

This wok from kitchenware retailer Sur la Table is the traditional Mandarin style wok, with a long  handle and a loop handle, both made of maple. It appears to be a spun steel, with grooves on the inside to aid in cooking, and it measures 14” in diameter. It is made in Taiwan.

This wok is highly recommended on Sur la Table’s website and by Amazon users. Owners note that it is well-constructed and sturdy. It should work on all types of cooking surfaces as it has a flat bottom. I really like the look of the light wood handles—very simple and clean.

There don’t seem to be many drawbacks to this wok. Most negative reviews note that they wok can rust, but this is a common problem with carbon steel that can usually be avoided with meticulous care.

PROSCONS
–    Heavy gauge carbon steel

–    Sturdy construction

–    Clean-looking handle design

–    Flat bottom works well on electric surfaces

A bit heavy

2. Joyce Chen Pro-Chef Flat Bottom Wok

Joyce Chen Pro-Chef Flat Bottom Wok Review

Joyce Chen Pro-Chef Flat Bottom Wok – Available from Amazon.com

Joyce Chen is a pioneer of Asian cooking in North America, with shows, cookbooks, and cookware that introduced Americans to Asian cooking in the 1950’s. She’d developed her cookware line after finding that the selection in America was severely lacking in those years.

There are a number of wok options in the Joyce Chen line, with this being one of the higher rated carbon steel woks. It is made from a heavy gauge carbon steel, with a thickness of 2 mm—thicker than many woks available. The long handle and loop handle are made from phenolic plastic, which can withstand high heats, even the oven.

Many people have an easy time with this wok; Joyce Chen’s woks are regularly recommended on blogs and cooking forums. However, many owners have issues with most of the products in this line. Some complain that the factory oil coating is very difficult to clean off before seasoning the wok. Others find that the handle construction is flimsy—a complaint echoed with some of Chen’s other woks.

PROSCONS
–    Heavy gauge carbon steel

–    Modern-looking handle design

–    Hard to remove factory coating

–    Flimsy handle construction

3. Wok Shop 16” Carbon Steel Wok Round-bottom Wok

Wok Shop 16” Carbon Steel Wok Round-bottom Wok Review

Wok Shop 16” Carbon Steel Wok Round-bottom Wok – Available from Amazon.com

The Wok Shop is a well-known San Francisco Chinatown shop that specializes in woks (obviously) and all manner of Asian cookware.

This particular wok is a traditional-looking Cantonese style of round-bottomed wok with two loop handles made of metal. Do note that although the listing says it is hand-hammered, it is factory spun and then hammered. Reviewers report the dimples are very small and hard to notice.

Other than controversy over the hammering question, people seem to be very happy with this wok. It is durable and well-constructed with solid, riveted handles and thick steel that doesn’t warp under pressure and has good heat retention.

It does not come with a burner ring, so you’d need something like this to prop it up. I wouldn’t want a round-bottom wok unless I have a direct flame element, but some people are fine with using it even on a flat heating element. Nevertheless, that’s something to consider—your electric stove may not be capable of getting this wok hot enough.

PROSCONS
–    Heavy gauge carbon steel

–    Solid construction

–    Attractive, traditional design

–    May not work well on flat heating elements like induction, glass top, electric coils, etc.

–    Does not include wok ring

Picking a Wok that Works

Despite the simple design of carbon steel woks, some are better than others. Unfortunately, Joyce Chen’s offerings, though plentiful, seem to suffer from poor construction.

If you’re lucky enough to be cooking on a nice gas burner with high output, get the Wok Shop’s traditional round-bottomed wok for truly authentic wok cooking.

If you’re using an electric or induction stovetop with a flat cooking surface, Sur la Table’s maple-handled wok seems like a great choice—attractive and high-performing. Remember, carbon steel is excellent for cooking but finicky to care for, so season and maintain your wok carefully!

Enjoy!

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