As mentioned in Part 1 of the series, woks come in different sizes ranging from 10 to 32 inches in diameter, but a wok that's 11 to 14 inches in diameter should suffice for use in a household kitchen.
Woks come in 2 different bottoms, the traditional round-bottomed woks, and the “westernized” flat-bottomed woks. Both have their advantages, but there're reasons that the traditional wok lasted thousands of years in Chinese kitchens. The flat-bottomed woks do not heat as evenly. The flattened area creates a little angle around the bottom that makes it harder to manipulate your cooking utensil. Food may get caught in this area, becoming overcooked or even burnt due to the lack of movement. This also could present a problem when you clean it afterwards. That little angle also increases the likelihood that you will accidentally scratch the wok while stir frying. The flat-bottomed woks were designed for better balance on flat American stovetops, especially the electric stove. But there is a simple solution for that. You can purchase a “wok ring” that you put on the stovetop, and sit the wok over it for balance. We will go through that in more detail in Part 5, “Wok accessories”.
A wok is generally made of iron, copper, carbon steel, or aluminum. Carbon steel and aluminum are the better ones because of their superior heat conductivity, but the general consensus is that carbon steel is, by far, the best material for a wok. C arbon steel is the most porous, and when exposed to high heat, the pores open up to absorb the cooking oil, contributing to developing the “patina", and then the elusive “wok hay" (covered in Part 3). If you go around Chinese restaurants and ask their chefs the kind of woks they use, an overwhelming majority will swear by carbon steel woks. The best part is that carbon steel woks are relatively inexpensive to buy. There is an old adage that says “you get what you pay for”. This is definitely not the case for woks.
There are now stainless-steel versions of the wok, although it is generally not recommended. Stainless-steel is not a good heat conductor, which defeats the purpose of Chinese cuisine that relies heavily on quick cooking on high heat. They sure look nice, but would you rather have a nice looking wok, or a tastebud-tickling, mouth-watering gourmet dish? The answer should be obvious. Woks with non-stick coatings are not desirable, either. They all inevitably scratch and food gets stuck to the metal, ruining the taste, smell, presentation of the dishes, not to mention the extra effort needed in cleaning the wok. In addition, the high heat required for Chinese cooking may eventually damage the non-stick coating. A well-seasoned wok will last forever, where as a non-stick wok will inevitably need a replacement over time.
There is an enamel-lined version where there are no reactions between the metal and the food, which makes it a nice alternative. But, if a steel carbon wok is seasoned well (covered in Part 3), it will become virtually non-stick, and will work better than any other versions out there. If you must buy one with a non-stick surface, we recommend purchasing a hard-anodized, or heavy-gauged aluminum wok, but the downside of that is that they are very expensive. Why spend a big wad of money on an expensive wok when you can get one that will do a better job, at a fraction of a price, right?
The bottom line is, if you're serious about cooking Chinese food, and create dishes that taste authentically Chinese, pick a round-bottomed, carbon steel wok, and include a wok ring as an accessory (if necessary) to balance it on the stove.
In Part 3 of Wok this way! we'll cover the all important subject of “Seasoning” a new wok
Helen Fan grew up in a family that has owned various Asian restaurants all over North America, from Vancouver (Canada), Houston (Texas), Decatur (Illinois), to Chicago (Illinois). She, and the rest of the Fan family are now sharing their decades of knowledge on the art of Chinese cuisine at http://www.ChineseHomeCooking.Com