If you’re short on time, scroll down to the FAQ section of this post for condensed answers to all your questions about choosing the best wok for your kitchen!
If you’re new to Chinese cooking, you’ve probably asked yourself: What is the best wok to buy? Well, we’re here to help you with a guide to buying the right wok so you can cook our recipes and get the best possible results!
The wok is the most important of the Chinese cooking tools–the charismatic front man of the band, if you will! A wok is a wide and somewhat shallow-domed pot that gets wickedly hot when you have a good flame going. Our woks reach temperatures that we’re pretty sure Smoky the Bear wouldn’t approve of. But it’s the high heat and searing that gives Chinese food that indescribable, flavorful edge known as “wok hay” or “wok hei”–the “breath of the wok.”
And aside from Chinese stir frying, your wok is a great tool for any type of deep frying, steaming, or boiling (seems counterintuitive, but woks heat up fast, which means boiling noodles or heck, even pasta, happens quickly!), and we’ll get to other uses in due time.
I would say that wok hay is the main reason, aside from MSG, that people say restaurant food tastes so much better than home cooking. We use a large, carbon steel, restaurant-grade wok for most of our blog cooking and photos, but we own over 10 woks of different types and sizes! Pictured below is our oldest wok (stainless steel) from my mother’s collection. I think my mother’s oldest and most coveted wok is the same style but made of carbon steel, perfectly seasoned, guarded and still used in my sister’s kitchen to this day! You’ll never have to worry about a wok being a bad investment…
Chinese restaurant chefs exclusively use carbon steel woks and swear by them. Different styles and sizes of woks are used depending upon the task at hand. Cooking large portions or steaming large plates of fish requires a large wok (20+ inches) and cooking stir-fried dishes to order calls for smaller woks similar to the size you would use at home. If you asked a Chinese chef, the answer to, what is the best wok to buy would always be a carbon steel wok, whether you’re cooking at a restaurant or at home.
Buying a wok has a lot to do with personal preference and takes some trial and error, but the best wok to buy always takes into account the stove you have, how much care and maintenance you want to do, how often you cook, your budget, and probably other preferences too numerous to list here. Keep in mind that if this is your first wok, it is likely that it won’t be your last wok purchase either. I mean, you don’t have just one frying pan do you? Okay, I rest my case. We’ll break down all of these factors and review different types of woks so you can decide which wok is the best for you!
Here are some quick tips for selecting a wok for you:
- The type of stove and heating element type (electric or gas), will factor into the decision of your wok selection so definitely consider that first. We almost always prefer a gas flame, but if you have electric, factor that into your wok selection.
- If you like an authentic wok hay flavor, don’t be tempted to get a non-stick model. At the temperatures required for Chinese cooking, these are of questionable safety since most are rated around 500 degrees and many times you may exceed or come close to that limitation (e.g., when heating the wok to “just smoking”).
When in doubt, whip out your wok! It’s probably one of the most the most versatile tools in your kitchen and probably the only way to reach that nirvana of “wok hay” you want in your Chinese dishes. And don’t start a fire, but don’t be afraid to heat that thing up, either! You’ll see many of our recipes direct you to heat your carbon steel wok until it is “just smoking.”
The wok is the heart of any Chinese kitchen, so it’s important that you find a good one that fits your personal preferences!
Choosing the material for your wok
These days there are a wide variety of choices of wok materials and there are advantages and disadvantages for each of them. We compiled some short summaries, facts and our personal opinions about the most common types so you can make an informed wok buying decision.
Non-stick or Teflon-coated wok
Teflon coated or non-stick woks are very common and found in just about every big box store there is, so there are plenty of brands and sizes to choose from. The attraction is the non-stick cooking surface, easy cleanup, and no seasoning process is required.
However, the problem with teflon woks is that they are not made for high heat and even for the best non-stick wok brands, 500 degrees F is pushing the limit. Stir-frying at high temperatures with teflon-coated woks is NOT recommended. Many of our recipes give the instruction to “heat your wok until just smoking.” You should not follow these directions for a teflon coated wok.
Heating to just smoking creates wok hay but it also creates a hot non-stick cooking surface. You technically already have this with a non-stick wok, and heating at high temperatures will damage the teflon coating over time. We also don’t recommend deep frying in a non-stick wok because oil residue seems to cling on the non-stick surface through repeated usage, and we all know that scrubbing is a big no-no for nonstick surfaces.
You may be curious about the newer ceramic non-stick woks. We have tried them and like them more than the standard teflon coating, but like teflon, they also get scratched and will lose their non-stick properties over time due to wear and tear. We retired our ceramic frying pan after 2 years of light use.
All that said, if you’re making dishes like Pan Fried Fish, Chicken Fried Rice or Shrimp Lo Mein, or simple stir fry dishes like a Beef Vegetable stir fry where super high temperatures are not essential, this option may be all you need and there are plenty of choices on Amazon. Like I said, choosing the best wok to buy is a personal decision.
Stainless steel wok
Stainless steel woks have their advantages. They’re non-reactive, which means they’re good for making vinegary or acidic foods like our Sweet and Pungent Pork, Orange Chicken (one of Judy’s favorites), or even Chinese Braised Hong Shao Fish. They’re also lightweight (although some of the tri-ply woks are quite heavy) and don’t rust.
The downsides? You do have to be careful about scorching foods since they transmit heat very quickly, but after washing your wok, you don’t have to heat it up to dry it and apply a thin coat of oil like you do for a cast iron or carbon steel wok. Seasoning is generally not required for stainless steel woks. Just wash it with a light scrubber after each use and wipe it dry.
The Cuisinart Stainless steel wok is one brand we have tried. A glass top is included which is convenient for steaming, stewing, braising or if you simply need to contain heat during stir-frying, which we do recommend for certain dishes.
Below is a picture of our Cuisinart wok today. Notice that after use, it started to form a patina similar to carbon steel woks. the oil residue is tough to scrub off and if you try, you will likely scratch it if using a heavy duty scouring pad. So if you have visions of keeping your stainless steel wok nice and shiny, it’s not gonna happen.
You will see later in this post a picture of a much older stainless steel wok we have been using for years that has a similar look. Perhaps some of the more pricey tri-ply stainless steel woks don’t stain, but I don’t have any experience with them. Please share in the comments if you own one!
If you decide to go this route, there are plenty of choices of stainless steel woks on Amazon!
Cast iron wok
Some of the oldest cookware is made from cast iron and Chinese woks are no exception. Traditionally designed with two small metal handles, cast iron woks were used across China for years in every household. My mother told us stories about using cast iron woks and gathering kindling to make a cooking fire. While this might be a good choice today, back then I suspect it was pretty much the only option!
Cast iron is heavy and requires seasoning and extra care after every use, but it’s easier to maintain than a lot of people think, and we love cast iron cookware! We have large and small American-made Lodge brand cast iron skillets, Dutch Ovens, grill pans and large reversible cast iron grill/griddles.
When it comes to caring for a cast iron wok, it must be seasoned first. Clean with soapy water and thoroughly rinse before your first use, and then coat the entire wok in vegetable oil before reheating it over a flame or in the oven. If you’re concerned about the weight of this option, lighter cast iron woks are available to make cooking and care more manageable these days. We used light cast iron woks in China, also know as zhu tie (铸铁) or sometimes called “pig iron.” You can see these light cast iron woks in some of our recipe posts like Singapore Mei Fun and Beef Lo Mein which were whipped up in our apartment in Beijing.
These light cast iron woks are less expensive, usually less than 10 USD without a cover. But again, all cast iron cookware will rust if not cared for properly. If you’re up to the task, there are lots of cast iron woks on Amazon to choose from.
Carbon steel wok
Carbon Steel woks are by far the most popular woks and are almost exclusively used in Chinese restaurants. Whether it is a “pow wok” with a single handle or a large wok with two metal handles, carbon steel is by far the most preferred. Fairly inexpensive and lighter than cast iron, carbon steel woks season nicely over time to create a non-stick surface.
It takes some time to create a shiny patina, and continued care is needed to maintain that non-stick characteristic, but we think you’ll find it’s well worth the extra TLC. Below is a picture of a brand new American-made carbon steel wok with wooden handles.
If you decide to buy a carbon steel wok, check out post on How to Season a Wok. We will be showing you how to prepare it for cooking, build a nice non-stick patina, and maintain it!
What does a good wok patina look like, you ask? Our wok pictured below is a large 20-inch wok that is about 6 years old, and we regularly hand scrub and wash it after every use, frequently (but not always) using a very small amount of dish soap. We use dish soap to cut the grease when it’s extra heavy, especially after cooking a meat dish. But after cooking a leafy green Chinese vegetable like Stir Fried Pea Tips, a light scrub and quick rinse with water is all you need!
After a carbon steel wok is washed, it must be reheated and be given a light coating of vegetable oil to avoid rusting.
If it isn’t already obvious, we prefer woks made of carbon steel. They are generally made of a 14 gauge steel (about 1.6 mm thick) so they are sturdy yet not too heavy. Carbon steel woks heat up quickly and evenly, are very durable and also relatively inexpensive. Heat-treated carbon steel woks with lids can run anywhere from 40 to 80 USD. These are all reasons why Chinese restaurants use carbon steel woks of different shapes and sizes. If you like that “restaurant flavor” and want to reproduce it at home, the best thing you can do is to start with the same equipment.
Questions you should ask when choosing the best wok to buy for your kitchen:
What is the right size?
The majority of Chinese woks are 13 inches and fit perfectly on a range top. Most modern Chinese kitchens are equipped with range tops, an all-too-important kitchen hood, and a door to the kitchen so the cooking smells don’t escape into the main living area. You can see our stovetop setup we used in Beijing with our trusty lightweight cast iron wok and metal steamer.
Here in the US, wok sizes vary from 10 inches to 20 inches. Make a choice depending upon the size of your range and how much you want to cook at one time, but generally speaking, we recommend a 13-14 inch wok.
What shape do I want?
Woks traditionally have round bottoms (rather than flat, though these are relatively common). Chinese restaurants have special wok stoves with a round opening which cradles a round-bottomed wok perfectly. Round-bottomed woks create a nice hot spot at the bottom of the wok while allowing even heat around the sides of the entire wok–perfect for smaller portions and using the superheated wok sides to create wok hay. We love our dedicated wok burner and can get restaurant quality results.
That said, of course, most homes do not have a dedicated wok burner! To solve this problem, you’ll need a wok ring or a flat-bottomed wok. Both are great solutions. If you’re using the wok ring, just be sure to keep it stable and balanced while cooking.
For those of you who have a smooth electric range or even an older school electric range with round heating coils, a flat bottom wok is the only choice. Gas flames can touch and heat your wok directly but in most cases, it is best to have your flat bottom wok sit on an electric range to give direct heat. Electric ranges are very hot and it can be tricky to control, so if your wok looks like it’s overheating, the surest thing to do is remove it from the burner.
What kind of handles should my wok have?
Traditionally, woks had two small metal handles at opposite ends since they were large, heavy and typically sat stationary on the burner. Today woks with a single handle are often found in restaurant stir-fry stations, and larger woks with two metal handles are used for steaming or to cook larger quantities. Single handles are a key design of the “pow wok” for tossing food in the wok while creating wok hay. You can see what I mean by checking out our Beef Chow Fun Rice Noodles post and the short video within.
A wok with a metal handle like the one pictured below comes in handy if you ever want to put the whole wok into an oven to finish a dish or keep it warm.
Do I need a wok lid?
Believe it or not, many woks do not come with lids, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need one! When I first saw my father cooking in the restaurant he used an older technique used for Cantonese cooking which used two burners and woks side-by-side with the lids. It was like poetry in motion when I first saw him cook dishes nonstop during a busy night with both wok burners on super high max heat.
My job was to place the dish with all the raw ingredients on it next to the stove in a designated spot and move the finished dish to the counter when he finished. It was a fast-moving pace, and I would have to keep up or get that “you’re holding things up!” glare. I was responsible for ensuring we cooked all of the dishes for a given table AND that the faster cooking dishes were given the right order of priority.
He started with heating the righthand wok and tossing in the ingredients with oil, garlic, and wine and covering it with a wok lid (elapsed time was about 30 seconds). Next, he would do the same with the left wok and as soon as he covered the left wok, the wok lid would come off the right wok, the seasonings would go in, then the cornstarch slurry and a little more oil to give the food that restaurant sheen.
While I moved the finished dish to the waiter station and placed the next dish, he would wash the wok. This is why you put the faster cooking dish on the right side, because the left wok would have a little more cooking time. He would then immediately tend to the left wok and finish that dish while the right wok got screaming hot. He would repeat this constant cooking in waves since the restaurant had 26 tables and sat a max of 130 people. Not to mention the fact that one of us would have to manage the fryer for Fried Egg Rolls or Shrimp Toast and the broiler for classic Chinese Spareribs. What a madhouse it was, but when we worked in rhythm, it was beautiful!
TLDR: The point is that a wok lid is an essential part of wok cooking, especially when it comes to superheating the sides of the wok to create wok hay. You’ll need it for for steaming, stewing, and braising, too! So spring for the lid. A glass top is a nice feature for seeing what’s going on, but metal lids tend to be the default. You can also use other pot and pan lids in a pinch.
What kind of kitchen hood do I need?
For any gourmet kitchen, a powerful kitchen hood that is vented to the outside is always preferred, and it’s almost crucial if you’re doing a lot of wok cooking. When we did our kitchen makeover, we invested in a Viking stove with a special wok burner and a Viking hood vented through the roof (Note: this is not a sponsored post!) Both are a joy to cook with, and the vent keeps the house free of smoke and weird smells. If you’re big on Chinese cooking, we highly recommend it!
The vent hood blower motor is variable speed and is very powerful, so there are no traces of grease in the kitchen other than where they’re supposed to be––in the grease traps. The grease traps have to be cleaned periodically depending on how much cooking you’re doing.
When installing a kitchen vent hood for your kitchen, try to keep the duct lengths short and minimize the turns to get the maximum “draw” from your vent hood. Non-ducted vents are better than no vents since they have filters to catch the grease, but ultimately, the kitchen odors and smells will linger unless you have external ducting.
I also want to comment on microwaves with vent motors installed over the stove, since they are so common. In general, the fans that come with microwave ovens are usually 300 cfms and are not very powerful. Unless you have the unit vented out with a very short straight run outside, this is not very effective, so keep that in mind when making your selection.
What is the best stove for wok cooking?
For us, a dedicated wok burner for our kitchen was a requirement, but for most, a stove with a dedicated wok burner is probably a luxury you might not be looking for. If you are thinking about a dedicated wok burner, just look at this 20 inch wok and the beautiful nonstick patina you can achieve over time.
We love to entertain, so cooking with a large wok is essential for dinner parties, and having the extra space to maneuver the food is pretty fantastic. That said, you can achieve the same nonstick patina with a smaller carbon steel wok.
An electric range or glass-top range is less ideal, but works fine as long as you have a flat-bottomed wok.
FAQs & Quick Answers!
Here are some FAQs we have gathered from readers over the years that I have answered in comments or emails.
Question: What is the best wok to buy for your recipes?
Answer: The overall conclusion is that you don’t have to buy an expensive wok to cook amazing meals! So stick with the basics and get a carbon steel wok with handles and a cover.
Question: What is the best stove (gas or electric) to use for wok cooking?
Answer: Traditional Chinese cooking uses an open flame so a gas stove woks best. But work with what you have! There are many areas without natural gas, like where I grew up in the upstate New York, so our family grew up cooking with electric stoves and we have seen many fine meals cooked on a flat bottomed wok over an electric range top. My parents both preferred cooking over an open flame, so eventually my father added a propane line and stoves so we grew up with two stoves in the kitchen! Double the food, am I right?
Question: I have an electric stove, so what wok should I purchase?
Answer: For electric ranges, you want to purchase a flat-bottomed wok to get the best results. Induction stoves will also work nicely with carbon steel. When using glass top ranges, be extra careful so you don’t scratch the smooth surface. Remember not to slide the wok around like you would on a stove with cast iron grates.
Question: Why don’t you recommend using a non-stick wok?
Answer: Non-stick woks are generally rated up to 500 degrees F, and when you heat the oil to near smoking for searing and wok hay purposes, it’s easy to approach those temperatures. Generally, pushing the manufacturer’s specifications is never a good thing, so we think it’s best to go for carbon steel. High temperatures will help you achieve the nonstick factor.
Question: What exactly is “wok hay”?
Answer: It’s hard to describe, but it’s that wonderful umami-like flavor that you get from searing and stir-frying at high temperatures. You can taste it in stir-fried leafy greens from a good Chinese restaurant, and you can taste it in a good Beef Lo Mein or Vegetable Lo Mein. A carbon steel wok and high heat is the best route to wok hay, but you can come close with other wok types.
Question: Does more expensive mean better quality?
Answer: In my opinion, a basic carbon steel wok is all you need to start, and it’s fairly cheap. I would skip the expensive hand-hammered, heavy cast iron, or any other self-proclaimed fancy features, and get something simple and basic.
Question: Do I need a wok ring?
Answer: If you want a more traditional round-bottom shape, you should buy a wok ring. Some of the new stoves that come with cast iron grates are fairly sturdy for even round bottomed woks, however, so you can experiment. If you have a flat bottomed wok, a wok ring is not essential. Some say that woks rings generate more heat with extra air between the flame and your wok, but in my opinion, it’s negligible.
Question: Are carbon steel woks thick and heavy?
Answer: A carbon steel wok with 1.5 or 1.6mm thickness is good – sturdy but not so thick that it’s too heavy to handle.
Question: I can’t seem to get my carbon steel wok to be non-stick. What am I doing wrong?
Answer: The key to non-stick cooking is a hot wok, even for a newly seasoned wok. Heating your carbon steel wok to high temperatures until the wok is just starting to smoke and ONLY then adding the oil around the perimeter of the wok to coat it is crucial.
A hot wok and cold oil is a winning combination, so the next time you are searing meats, give it a try and you’ll see that your ingredients will dance around the wok without sticking. When you get a nice seasoning and patina on the wok, it will be even easier.
Stir-frying rice or noodles is similar in that the wok needs to be at high heat before adding your rice. The same rule also applies crisping up noodles for recipe like Vegetable Pan Fried Noodles or Hong Kong Shrimp Chow Mein Noodles.
Question: My carbon steel wok forms rust even after a day or two after washing. What am I doing wrong?
Answer: After washing your wok, dry it on the stove with flame/heat until all the water has evaporated, and put 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil in the wok. Use a napkin to wipe down the entire surface of the wok. Just a light coating of oil should do it. This prevents rusting and helps with seasoning.