A good wok is one of the most versatile pans in the kitchen. There are those who argue that on a Western stove, with its flat, relatively low-output burners, a regular nonstick skillet is a superior vessel for stir-frying; they may have even showed you some fancy charts proving that a skillet gets to a higher temperature and maintains its heat better.
This is utter and complete nonsense. All the charts in the world won’t tell you as much as your mouth, and the fact is, stirfries do taste better when made in a wok, because a good stir-fry is not simply about the temperature the metal reaches. It’s about correct tossing and aerosolization of fats and juices as they leap up beyond the edges of the wok and are touched by the flame of the burner.
It’s about the ability to rapidly heat and cool a piece of food as you flip it over and over through the different heat zones created by the pan as (much as flipping a burger frequently will improve its cooking—see here). It’s about wok hei, the slightly smoky, charred, metallic flavor that only comes from a seasoned cast-iron or carbon steel pan heated to ripping-hot temperatures. I digress.
Obviously, woks are the best choice for stirfrying, but they’re also the ideal vessel for deep-frying, steaming, and indoor smoking. My wok is by far the most commonly used pan in my kitchen. As with most things, however, not all woks are created equal. They come in a dizzying array of sizes, shapes, metals, and handle arrangements. Fortunately for us, the best woks also happen to be on the inexpensive end of the scale. Here are some things to consider when purchasing one.
• Stainless steel woks are a waste of money. Not only are they extremely heavy and difficult to maneuver, they also take a long time to heat up and cool down—a fatal flaw for something that requires rapid, on-the-fly heat adjustments like a stir-fry. And food—particularly protein —has a tendency to stick to steel.
• Cast iron is a better choice, though it still takes a relatively long time to heat up and cool down. It offers a better nonstick surface.
The main problem with cast iron is that if it’s thin, it is extremely fragile—I’ve seen cast-iron woks crack in half when set down too hard. And when made thick enough to be durable, they are extremely cumbersome to lift, which is essential for proper flipping during a stir-fry.