Stir fry conjures up an impressive cooking experience: a chef flipping food into a sizzling pan, vegetables and meat tumbling in the air and releasing a savory, irresistible aroma. But stir-fry shouldn’t be a special occasion or restaurant-only food. When done right, most stir-fries make an ideal meal for a busy family weeknight.
The only tool you need to make delicious stir-fry at home? A wok. Most are inexpensive and easy to use. Here’s how to shop for the best wok.
Why You Need a Wok to Stir Fry
We’ve all made stir-fry in a frying pan or sauteé pan before: It’s passable, but neither pan is ideal. Frying pans are too flat to move food around; sauteé pans too likely to make food steam rather than sizzle.
Stir-frying is a fast, high-heat cooking method. You want every piece of food to cook quickly, with a dry heat so it browns rather than softens, and to allow many different vegetables and meats to cook simultaneously. Woks are designed specifically for stir-fry magic for a few reasons:
- They have high sides that make it easy to toss and flip every bite of food.
- Their flared sides also allow steam to escape rather than remain in the pan and soften the food.
- Lastly, woks are made from a thin material compared to most everyday pans, which allows heat to conduct quickly and efficiently.
All great woks should have those three elements—the high sides, flared design, and thin conductive material.
Here’s How to Choose the Best Wok
Woks should be made with a very conductive metal, and preferably one that’s also lightweight. Carbon steel is a popular choice. Aluminum is another lighter weight option. Cast-iron woks will be heavier, but if you love cast iron’s browning and don’t mind its upkeep, it’s a good choice. (Want to geek out? We break down the difference between the most popular cookware materials.)
- Carbon steel wok: Joyce Chen Classic Series Carbon Steel Wok ($30)
- Cast-iron wok: Lodge Pro-Logic Cast-Iron Wok ($50)
Nonstick vs. Seasoned
You definitely don’t want food to stick to the pan in a high heat situation. A material like carbon steel can be seasoned with oil, just like your best cast-iron pan, which creates a naturally nonstick surface that will improve with every use.
Many woks come with a nonstick coating. This is easy to clean and keeps food gliding over the surface. On the other hand, a nonstick coating usually can’t handle a cooking temperature over medium heat, which means your stir-fry won’t be as crisp as it could be over a hotter temp. Finally, nonstick coatings tend to wear down over time. This non-stick Calphalon wok ($60) has rave reviews.
Flat vs. Curved Base
Many woks have curved bases, with allow food to be tossed around easily and allow heat to travel the curved sides of the pan most efficiently. Curved bottom woks work best when placed in a wok ring: a round collar that holds the wok over a burner (typically a gas burner).
- Curved-bottom wok: Craft Wok Carbon Steel Pow Wok ($50)
- Wok rack: New Star International Steel Wok Rack ($8)
Cooking directly on a gas or electric burner? You want to look for a wok with a flat base, which will allow it to sit directly over the burner and conduct heat. In general, it’s easier to stir-fry on a gas stove than an electric one, because gas burners tend to be hotter. If your electric stove gets nice and hot, then you’ll likely be able to stir-fry just fine. Otherwise, you may want to pick up an electric wok (more on that below).
- Flat-based wok: Mammafong Traditional Hand-Hammered Wok ($45)
Typically, woks either have two small metal handles (like ears) or one small handle and a longer, wooden one. If you like to be able to easily lift the pan without a potholder, the wooden handle is a nice feature. In general, though, you’ll use handles mainly to place the wok on the stove, where it should sit flat for the entire cooking time while you flip and stir with a spatula.
Cooking for a big family, or regularly host dinner parties? Go ahead and get a big wok (some are as large as six or eight quarts).
If you mostly cook for two or three, seek out a smaller model. Cooking a small amount of food in a too-large pan makes it easy to burn the food, and to scorch the cooking oil, which gives food a bitter taste.
What About an Electric Wok?
Stand-alone electric woks have a built-in heat element, which lets cooks plugin anywhere and get cooking. They offer a high, consistent heat that’s ideal for stir-frying. If you have a small or not-very-powerful stovetop, an electric wok is a great option. Some cooks may value the flexibility of the plug-in wok, as well, which lets you cook anywhere: your kitchen, camper or church basement. On the downside, they’re much more expensive than woks, and are bulkier to store.
- Electric wok: Aroma Housewares Electric Wok ($42)