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Wok Cooking: A Guide To Buying And Cooking With A Wok

Updated on September 28, 2016

A Wok

Meal served in a wok, Hong Kong
Meal served in a wok, Hong Kong | Source

My Love Affair

I bought my first wok about 12 years ago. It was one of the first pans I bought after I got married, the only one in fact, as I had heard that you could cook almost anything in a wok. I bought it from a TV shopping channel. I was completely enamoured by the way the cook -Ken Hom- used his wok to concoct in a few minutes the most amazing dishes. The wok came with a recipe book and it was a success from day one. I must admit that my wok is one of the few things that I have carried with me when I moved from Scotland to England, Spain and France. I do believe that now my wok has stored so many flavours from all these countries and its particular ingredients that my cooking has improved over the years.

What is a Wok?

For those of you not familiar with a wok, a wok is the most important piece of cookware to the Chinese. Originally from China, it is extensively used all over Asia. It is a very versatile utensil as it can be used for deep frying, braising, stewing, steaming and stir frying.

Classic woks have a rounded bottom, this design aimed to fit better in traditional Chinese cookers and also aimed to concentrate the heat in the centre, while at the same time spreading it evenly through the cooking area, thus allowing rapid cooking at very high temperatures.

Cast Iron wok
Cast Iron wok
Wok with hoops
Wok with hoops
Thai wok with hoop and handle
Thai wok with hoop and handle

Buying a Wok

Buying your first wok can be at the very least confusing. There are many materials and even shapes available in the market.

Where to buy a Wok?

The best thing would be to buy your wok in the nearest Chinatown. Woks there tend to be inexpensive. As a bonus you get the advice of the seller who more than likely would be happy to advise you not only on materials, weight and seasoning your wok but would also help you with a ‘pantry list' to get started.

If there is no good Chinatown nearby, you can buy your wok in specialized shops or IKEA who has a good range of woks for a very interesting price. If not, you can order your wok online. Amazon has a good selection and so does ebay. Remember to buy one with a lid.

One thing I do dislike though, is an electric wok. It is like taking away the magic of wok cooking. The ones I have tried do not heat up sufficiently, leaving the vegetables limp rather than crispy.

What material do I choose?

The best oriental cooks recommend a carbon-steel wok that looks and feels good in your hand, one light enough that you can pick up and shake with relative ease.

You might be tempted to buy a cast iron wok, because they are beautiful to the eye and reassuringly expensive, but you will need the muscles of a gorilla to cook with it! On the other hand, aluminium woks are very light but they do not stand up as well to the high temperatures needed to cook with a wok and tend to scorch the food as it is too thin.

Beware of woks coated with Teflon, they are expensive, easily scratched and do not stand the very high temperatures required for wok cooking.

What size and shape to choose?

Woks come in all sizes. For a family of four, a 36cm. (14 inches) diameter wok should be enough. If you do a lot of deep frying you might also want to invest in a smaller wok specifically for that use. Woks are very safe for deep frying because of their shape which allows easy scooping of the food and the shape of the wok means that the oil is far removed from the flames. Just be sure to fill the wok no more than two-thirds with oil.

There are larger woks, but they are difficult to handle and need a lot of heat to achieve a good result. Usually larger woks are only used in restaurants.

As for the shape, woks vary from round-shaped bottom to a shallow skillet. A wok should be deep enough to toss your vegetables so a shallow wok might not be of much use for stir frying. However, a round-shaped bottomed wok might be difficult to stabilize on your cooker, so bear in mind the size of your cooker and cooking rings when you are buying a wok. You might need a wok stand which is a metal ring designed to keep your wok safely on the burner while cooking.

A handle or a loop?

Most woks come with handles, but it is more of a personal preference whether you choose one with a long handle or loops. Bear in mind your own strength. Are you strong enough to hold your wok by a long handle to toss your stir fry? Or maybe if you are small, you might be more comfortable with loops at the sides so you can grab both loops when tossing? If you have the opportunity it is always better to try your wok in the shop before you buy it.

Seasoning A Wok

Seasoning A Wok
Seasoning A Wok | Source

What is Seasoning? Do I Have to Season My Wok? How Do I Do It?

Seasoning is the process used to protect your wok from rusting and it creates a protecting layer inside your wok that will stop food from sticking to it. So yes, you do have to season your wok. There are many ways to season a wok. Basically the process is:

  1. Clean your wok to expose the bare metal. You can do this with detergent and a scrub, or you might use coarse salt and a kitchen rag to rub the interior of your wok.
  2. Once it is clean, heat up your wok. Retire from the heat and apply a layer of oil (peanut or corn oil) and heat your wok until it smokes. Retire from the heat, wait until it cools down and wipe off with kitchen paper.
  3. Repeat the process two or three times until the inside of the wok turns black and glossy. Your wok is now seasoned and ready to use. However, the first few times, avoid cooking foods, which have a tendency to stick until your wok has had some wear and the ‘non-stick' had time to develop properly.
  4. After that, every time you use your wok you will be ‘seasoning it' just by cooking in it. Your wok should turn blacker and glossier and the non-stick properties will improve with each use. Deep-fat frying, can help build up the layers of seasoning.

How to Season Your Wok

Cooking in a Wok

Cooking chicken in my wok
Cooking chicken in my wok | Source

The Everyday Wok Cookbook: Simple and Satisfying Recipes for the Most Versatile Pan in Your Kitchen

Cooking With a Wok

A wok is the most versatile pan you can have in your kitchen. With a wok you can stir fry, deep fry, stew, and you can even steam fish or vegetables while you are cooking something else under the direct heat. The shape of the wok allows you to lay a couple of sticks across the top for this purpose.

Cooking in a wok is a healthy way of cooking. Usually, only a small amount of oil (1 to 3 spoons) is enough. You should heat the wok before adding the oil under full burner heat. Pre-heating before adding oil will prevent food from sticking. It will also ensure that the oil does not burn and smoke up your kitchen before the upper surface of the wok is heated.

Most recipes require fresh chopped ginger and garlic to flavour the oil. You should add them once the oil is hot and you might scoop them out before they turn brown or burn

So, remember:

  1. Heat the wok
  2. Add the oil
  3. When oil is hot add the flavourings (garlic/ginger:chillies)
  4. Start cooking your meal.

You should have all the ingredients readily chopped and handy on your worktop as wok cooking is very fast. Remember that most oriental dishes are prepared in bite-sized pieces, ready for eating without having to cut it at the table.

The first ingredient to be cooked is usually the meat, tossed in the hot oil to seal in the juices and keep the flavour. After, the meat might be scooped out or thrown to the edges while the other ingredients are cooked in the same way. Listen to the sound of food cooking in your wok, it should sizzle loud and lively and the developing aromas should fill your kitchen. Usually, all the stir fry ingredients go back to the wok to be mixed with the seasonings and sauces. All ingredients are stirred and covered to cook for a few more minutes and that's it... dinner ready!

Step by step cooking of Chinese Pepper Steak

How to Clean a Wok

There are special cleaners on the market for your wok, but I do prefer natural methods. The best way to clean your wok once is seasoned, is only with hot water, right after you finish using it. Wipe it dry immediately or even better, put it under a low heat to dry. Occasionally you can rub some oil on it if you are not going to use it for a while to prevent rusting. You can also repeat the seasoning (only step 2) any time you think is necessary.

When "not to wok"

Generally a wok does not work well for stir frying on electric cookers, as they do not provide very strong, quick and even heat. You will end up with a stew rather than a stir fry!

Some cooks recommend never to use your stir frying wok for steaming directly as this will remove the seasoning.


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    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 3 years ago from France

      Esther: seasoning a wok is the best way to create a homemade nonstick surface made naturally. It might be time consuming but the results are worth the effort. Good cooking!

    • Esther  Strong profile image

      Esther Strong 3 years ago from UK

      I had no idea about "seasoning". Greaty info and tips here.

    • profile image

      Allan Lpw 6 years ago

      What is the best wok for USD20.00 to USD50.00 from internet that can last 10 years

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 7 years ago from France

      K9keystrokes: thank YOU for taking the time to read this. I am indeed very attached to my wok!

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 7 years ago from Northern, California

      With all of your travel 'flavors' embedded in your wok, I imagine you have many wonderful and beautiful recipe choices. What an interesting hub you have here. I must run off to find a wok and try this amazing piece of culinary wonder. Thank you for the read and the confidence to try to use a wok!

    • profile image

      keith 8 years ago

      i love wok

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      really useful and thorough article. Our wok is in constant use - they are fantastic.

    • prasadjain profile image

      Dr.S.P.PADMA PRASAD 9 years ago from Tumkur

      What a meticulous ,detailed work on a small but useful thing! photoes appears to be specially taken. I shall pass it on to some of my lady friends who wish to be decent cooks.

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 9 years ago from France

      You are welcome Mica. I do enjoy making chicken fajitas in my wok, it is less messy than using any other type of pan. And since I discovered that it is great for deep frying I bougth myself a smaller wok exclusively for that purpose!

    • Mica K profile image

      Mica K 9 years ago from Netherlands

      What a great hub on woks! I have a wok but still am hungry for all things on woks. I didn't know you could use it to cook other kinds of cuisine and not only Asian stuff. I'll try something new tonight, thanks to you!

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 9 years ago from France

      You are welcome VioletSun

    • VioletSun profile image

      VioletSun 9 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

      OOoh, I have been thinking of getting a wok, but put it in the back of my mind. Thanks for this hub, its an encouragement to get one!

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 9 years ago from France

      Travel by design: Did you get your wok?

      Noman87: thanks for passing by.

      Zsuzsy: I bet your stirfries are delicious, just like your Goulash :-)

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 9 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      I have a stirfry at least once a week...I just couldn't do without my wok...

      great HUB regards Zsuzsy

    • noman87 profile image

      noman87 9 years ago

      i want make a friend

    • Travel by Design profile image

      Travel by Design 9 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      thanks for the post, have been trying to figure out if we should get a wok (not that it's a life altering decision), but this is really helpful! thanks...