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!
We strongly suggest reading this entire post to choose the best wok for your kitchen setup. However, if you’re short on time, jump to the FAQ section of this post for condensed answers.
The Most Important Tool in a Chinese Kitchen
The wok is the most important of the Chinese cooking tools–the charismatic front man of the band, if you will. So it only makes sense that we show to how to select a wok and buy the right one for you.
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. (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.”)
It’s this high heat searing that gives Chinese food that indescribable, flavorful edge known as wok hei or wok hay—the “breath of the wok.”
I would say that wok hei is the main reason, aside from the odd dash of MSG, that people say restaurant food tastes so much better than home cooking. That said, we can work to achieve those flavors at home too with the right tools!
What many people also don’t realize is how versatile a wok can be. Aside from stir-frying, your wok is a great tool for any type of deep-frying, steaming, or boiling. Woks heat up fast, which means boiling noodles or heck, even pasta, is very quick. There’s also a lot of surface area, which makes pre-searing meats a snap.
When in doubt, whip out your wok! It’s probably one of the most the most versatile tools in your kitchen, and the only way to reach that wok hei nirvana you want in your Chinese dishes. You’ll never have to worry about a wok being a bad investment.
What We Use
We use a large, carbon steel, restaurant-style wok for most of our blog cooking and photos, but we own over several woks of different types and sizes!
Pictured below is our oldest wok from my mother’s collection. I think my mother’s oldest and most coveted wok is the same style—perfectly seasoned (read our guide on How to Season a Wok), guarded, and still used in my sister’s kitchen to this day!
The Best Type of Wok: Carbon Steel
Chinese restaurant chefs exclusively use carbon steel woks and swear by them. Different styles and sizes may be 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 ones similar to the size you would use at home.
Whether it’s for cooking in a restaurant or at home, though, if you asked a Chinese chef: “what is the best wok to buy?” his answer would always be: carbon steel.
In the world of carbon steel woks, though, there is further variation! Buying a wok has a lot to do with personal preference and takes some trial and error, but it should take into account the stove you have, how much care and maintenance you want to do, and how many people you’re cooking for.
We’ll break down all of these factors and review different types of woks so you can decide which wok is best for you!
What You Should Consider When Choosing Your Wok
Here are some quick tips for selecting a wok for your kitchen:
- The type of stove and heating element type (electric or gas), will factor into your wok selection, so definitely consider that first. We almost always prefer a gas flame, but if you have electric, you can still cook with a wok, albeit a flat-bottomed one.
- If you like 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°F/260°C or less, and many times you may exceed or come close to that limitation (e.g., when heating the wok to “just smoking”).
Choosing the Material for Your Wok
While I’ve already said that carbon steel is the best wok material, there are a wide variety of metals and materials, with advantages and disadvantages to each. We compiled short summaries, facts, and our personal opinions about the most common types below.
Non-stick or Teflon-coated Woks
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 the fact that no wok seasoning is required.
However, the problem with teflon woks is that they are not made for high heat cooking. Even with the best non-stick wok brands, 500°F/260°C 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 hei but it will also overheat a non-stick cooking surface and damage the teflon coating over time.
We also also don’t recommend deep frying in a non-stick wok, because oil residue may 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 pretty light use.
All that said, if you’re making dishes like Pan Fried Fish 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 a wok is a personal decision.
Stainless Steel Woks
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 Fish.
I also like using stainless steel woks for steaming, since they usually come with a nice glass cover and won’t rust from prolonged steaming. (Carbon steel woks have to be washed and oiled right after steaming.)
All you need is a shallow steamer rack at the bottom of the wok to place your heat-proof plate or you can use a bamboo steamer, depending upon what you’re cooking. See more ideas for steaming in our post on How to Set Up Steamers.
Stainless steel woks are lighter than cast iron woks (although some of the tri-ply woks can be quite heavy) and don’t rust. After washing your wok, you don’t have to heat it up to dry it and apply a thin coat of oil like you would for a cast iron or carbon steel wok. Just wash it after each use and wipe it dry.
If the wok has a metal handle, it can also be used in the oven to keep food warm.
The Cuisinart Stainless steel wok is one brand we have tried. A glass top is included.
The downsides? You do have to be careful about scorching foods, since these woks transmit heat very quickly. These hot spots can also create blackening in your pan, which you’ll have to work to scrub off. Stainless steel woks also won’t have that seasoned non-stick surface, so food is prone to sticking to them.
Below is a picture of our Cuisinart stainless steel wok today. Notice that after use, there is some oil residue, as well as charred spots. This residue can be tough to scrub off. You can also scratch the pan 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. This is probably one of the least used cooking vessels in our kitchen (we have many).
In short, stainless steel is not ideal for stir-frying, but if you have one, don’t throw it away! You can use it for steaming, stewing, and braising, especially when cooking acidic foods.
Later in this post, we have a picture of a much older stainless steel wok with 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 Woks
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 an okay 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. Another disadvantage is that these woks are generally on the thicker side and take longer to heat up. While they maintain heat relatively well, they can be cooled quickly with the addition of large volumes of liquid or vegetables. At that point, it will be a while before the wok heats back up—not great for stir-fries, which cook in a matter of minutes.
However, it’s easier to maintain than a lot of people think, and we generally love cast iron cookware! We have large and small American-made cast iron skillets, Dutch Ovens, grill pans, and a large reversible cast iron grill pan/griddle.
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.”
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 Woks
Carbon steel woks are by far the most popular option, and for good reason. Chinese restaurants prefer them, and we prefer using them at home as well.
Whether it is a “pow wok” with a single handle or a large wok with two metal handles, carbon steel is our top choice. 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.
(This is the wok we seasoned in our post on How to Season a Wok & Daily Wok Care, and it’s now the wok that Sarah uses in her apartment kitchen. You a catch a sneak peak of it in some of the recipes she’s photographed at home, like her chicken with Chinese broccoli and mushrooms!).
If you decide to buy a carbon steel wok, check out our guide on How to Season a Wok. We show 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.
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.
Generally, carbon steel woks with lids can run anywhere from 30 to 80 USD.
Further questions you should ask when choosing the best wok for your kitchen:
What is the right size?
The majority of Chinese woks are 13-14 inches, and fit perfectly on a range top. Most modern Chinese kitchens are equipped with range tops, the 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 14-inch wok if you’re cooking for 2-5 people.
We wouldn’t recommend going smaller than that, unless you’re cooking for 1-2 people on a consistent basis.
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 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.
The cooking surface is round and smooth, uninterrupted by any change from a flat surface to sloping sides, allowing you to swirl food around quickly to generate wok hei.
We love our dedicated wok burner and can get restaurant quality results. That said, most homes do not have a dedicated wok burner! To solve this problem, you’ll need a wok ring if using a round-bottomed wok—just be sure to keep it stable and balanced while cooking.
If you’d rather not use a wok ring, you can opt for a flat-bottomed wok. Both are great solutions.
For those of you who have a smooth electric range or electric range with round heating coils, a flat bottom wok is the only choice.
Gas flames can touch and heat your wok directly. With an electric stove, it is best to have your flat bottom wok sit on the electric range to give it 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 over a flame.
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 of food.
Single handles are a key design of the “pow wok” for tossing food in the wok while creating wok hei. You can see what I mean by checking out our Beef Chow Fun Rice Noodles post and the short video within.
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 that 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 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, and 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 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, a wok lid is an essential part of wok cooking, especially when it comes to superheating the sides to create wok hei. 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 inside the wok, but metal lids tend to be the default, and usually more domed (giving you a bit more height for steaming). You can also use other wide pot and pan lids that might fit in a pinch.
What kind of kitchen hood do I need?
For any gourmet kitchen, a powerful kitchen hood 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.
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 vent hood for your kitchen, try to keep the duct lengths short and minimize the turns to get the maximum draw. 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 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, it’s 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:
Stick with the basics and get a carbon steel wok (at least 14 inches in diameter) with handles and a cover.
Our post covers all the factors you should consider when selecting a wok. Read and refer to it as many times as you need during your wok research and purchase process. Generally though, the biggest consideration is the type of stove you have. Gas? Go for a round-bottomed wok with a wok ring. Electric? Go for a flat-bottomed wok.
Traditional Chinese cooking uses an open flame, so a gas stove works 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 stove. We later had two stoves in the kitchen! Double the food, am I right?
For electric ranges, you want to purchase a flat-bottomed carbon steel wok to get the best results. Induction stoves will also work nicely with carbon steel. When using glass top ranges, be extra careful not to scratch the smooth surface, i.e. do not slide the wok around like you would on a stove with cast iron grates.
Non-stick woks are generally rated up to 500°F/260°C, and when you heat the oil to near smoking for searing and wok hei 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 avoid non-stick woks. High temperatures will help you achieve the nonstick factor (read more about why in Judy’s post on How to Prevent Food from Sticking to a Wok or Pan) while also generating wok hei.
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 in a good lo mein. A carbon steel wok and high heat is the best route to wok hei.
Not necessarily. In my opinion, a basic carbon steel wok is all you need to start, and it’s fairly cheap. I would skip the expensive heavy cast iron, or any other self-proclaimed fancy features, and get something simple and basic.
If you have a gas stove and want a more traditional round-bottom shape, you should buy a wok ring. Some of the new stoves with cast iron grates are fairly sturdy, however, so you can experiment. If you have a flat bottomed wok, you don’t need a wok ring. Some say that wok rings can help focus the heat, but in my opinion, their effect on that is negligible.
A 14- to 16-gauge carbon steel wok (1.5mm to 2mm thick) is good. It’s sturdy, but not so thick that it’s too heavy to handle. If you want a lighter wok, go for the 16-gauge.
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. (Read more about why in Judy’s post on preventing food from sticking to cooking surfaces.) 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. 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. When you get a nice seasoning and patina on the wok, it will be even easier. (If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our guide on How to Season a Wok.)
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 or paper towel to wipe down the entire surface of the wok and coat it with oil. Just a light coating should do it. This prevents rusting and helps with seasoning. Check out our article on how to wash a wok for more details!
Please share more questions in the comments section of this post if you have them, and I’ll do my best to answer. Happy wokking everyone!