Rock the Wok: The Essential Chinese Cooking Tool

A wok can be intimidating for many home cooks–it’s big, it’s all-encompassing and it’s yet another tool that needs to be learned and maneuvered. For a home cook who needs time, efficiency and large portions, there may be no other option. Let’s dive into the ins and outs of what makes a wok worth it or not.

wok cooking to make a stir-fry

Shaped like a big disc, a wok rocks back and forth, allowing for more movement besides just stirring. A wok is an excellent heat conductor, which means you’ll be cooking with high heat every time you use it. Pre-heat your wok at medium-high heat, which will allow you to cook your ingredients while quickly searing them, allowing for a fast and even stir-fry. How to know when your pan is heated? Flick some water onto the surface–if it immediately evaporates, you know it’s ready.

Oil choice is also essential when wok cooking. Since you’ll be working at high heat, you’ll want an oil that can withstand that–meaning high smoke points are necessary, as is low polyunsaturated fat content. Olive oil, sesame oil, and butter are out. Peanut oil, which is heavily used in China, is a good choice, as is corn, grapeseed, canola, coconut, soybean and safflower oil.

Side photo showing flames from a stove underneath a wok

The Technique & Uses

You’ll have to learn to tumble and turn to use the wok effectively, essentially, to create a rolling motion that moves the food along with cooking. Think of it as like using a skillet, but instead of manually pushing the food around, you’re doing it by moving the wok without the worry of things flying over the side of the pan.

Dry ingredients are essential–wet can lower the temperature of the wok, steaming the food rather than searing. Marinating is the only exception to that rule. To toss, a wooden (like bamboo) or metal spatula and ladle are all you’ll need for stir-frying and moving around.

A wok is an incredibly versatile kitchen tool to have. Of course, making a stir fry top the list of uses. Fajitas, which are made in a similar fashion, are a good second option. Using the lid, steaming is possible too, so fish and vegetables are easy to cook in this manner. Scrambled eggs, arroz con pollo or paella, tossing a salad, mixing batters and kneading dough are all good uses for your wok.

Care & Maintenance

Like a cast iron pan, seasoning your wok is essential and allows for flavors and fat to seep in over time. A little crust is a good thing here–just be sure it isn’t rusting and you’re good to go. If you must clean, soak it in hot water, gently scrub with a non-metallic sponge, rinse, dry with paper towels, place the wok over medium-high heat and coat with a layer of vegetable oil.

Popular “Northern-Style” Woks on Amazon

Two images of northern-style Chinese woks

Popular “Cantonese-Style” Woks on Amazon

Two images of canton-style Chinese woks

Stir-Fry Recipes

More Chinese recipes you might like

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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9 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Dennis Murphy says

    Love your info about stir fry cooking especially the need for prep before cooking. Absolutely, spot on!
    However not sure about recommendation for wok vs. fry pan. Cook’s Illustrated indicates that a 12″ fry pan is better that a flat or round bottom wok. I have a wok and have used on several occasions, but prefer my flat bottom cast iron or non stick fry pans. Just more surface area for cooking.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you for your feedback, Dennis! I think it comes down to personal preference. For me, I like how I can maneuver the ingredients using the high sides of the wok, making it easier to make the ingredients literally jump in the pan. It’s fun too! I also like that the wok takes on the seasonings, similar to cast iron. I agree that the stainless steel and cast iron will have more surface area with efficient browning and cooking as well. However I usually use a carbon steel wok which can handle the high heat, sometimes the stainless steel pans get discolored since they usually aren’t supposed to be used with the flame turned all the way up. Either way, I’m happy that you are stir-frying!

  2. Ron says

    I have cooked with a wok for a very long time over a gas flame. I now live in an area where there is no gas, so I have to cook over an electric burner, using a flat bottom wok. I noticed you are using a portable (alcohol or propane?) stove with the wok. Does that provide adequate heat for cooking wok style? I am used to cooking over a blazing hot gas burner, restaurant style. BTW, I am an amateur cook, not a restaurant chef.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Ron- The burner is small but mighty! It uses propane and can actually really turn up the heat!

  3. Dave says

    Awesome site and awesome recipes. Good job!I love my 14″ ridged WOK. I use it for everything from stir fry to deep frying. The deep sloped sides really help control the spatter. I just heat it over my propane camp stove burner. Being made of thin steel it heats fast and hot. I had an expensive non-stick Wok but remember that most cooking temperatures will destroy the non-stick coating. NO thanks. I seasoned it like you season cast iron only over the flame because it has high-temperature resistant handles.

    I also have a huge 24″ Mexican tortilla comal that’s great for all sorts of frying too. Can’t have too many kitchen toys.

  4. Cheryl says

    Hi, Jessica. You make this look so easy! I have a Joyce Chen carbon steel wok that I’ve had for years – but never used! The problem? I’m actually afraid of cooking on really high heat. (I’m not fearless in the kitchen.) I absolutely love Chinese-style meals and would love to be able to do this because I’m confident I could make the meals healthier at home than restaurant fair – who knows how many times they’ve reused that oil – and no MSG! Would setting the electric burner on the 6 to 7 heat range (just a little better than medium) be hot enough for a wok-prepared meal? I would love to try your fried rice recipe.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Cheryl- I KNOW you can do it! I think if you start with the medium setting but just make sure that the wok gets nice and hot before you add the oil and stir fry ingredients, you can have success. You may just see a little less browning on the meats and may take a few minutes longer. As you build up the confidence, start to turn up the heat!

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