Estimated Read Time: 7 min
With this guide you will learn why the wok has been so popular in Asian cooking. Then, you will learn how to prepare and wield your wok so it can become a tool of choice for your battle in the kitchen.
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- The Origin of the Wok
- Tools You Will Need
- Preparing Your Wok
- How to Stir Fry
- Other Wok Cooking Methods
The Origin of the Wok
The word wok originates from the Cantonese word 鑊 pronounced wohk6. The Mandarin version is 镬 huò, but is more commonly called 炒锅 chǎoguō.
Most people don’t know how long the wok has been used for. Would you believe it was created over 1500 years ago? For reference, Japanese ramen was invented just over 100 years ago, tomatoes were first introduced in Europe 500 years ago, and sugar was first used in its modern crystal form 2000 years ago.
The Han Dynasty is credited for creating the wok. It’s also credited with developing many other things characteristic to Chinese culture, like tofu.
Like the above image shows, woks started out as round cooking vessels placed over fires. Over time they developed into even more versatile tools used throughout Asia.
During the Mongol conquest in Eurasia, the Mongols needed quick and portable cooking vessels. This may have led to the modern adaptation of the wok becoming popular.
The Ming Dynasty directly followed the fall of Mongol rule. By that era the wok was already popular for stir frying.
Nowadays the wok is indispensable in kitchens globally, not just in China. The only pan that may be used more in China is the rice cooker.
Tools You Will Need
Many people don’t think about the tools they will need to best utilize their wok. That is a mistake.
For example, some people like to use their hamburger spatula instead of a wok spatula. This will lead to scraped pan bottoms as well as a need for tons of oil.
Those generic tools can't compare to the good results given by tools that fit the wok's shape.
Choose A Wok
So first, you will obviously need a wok.
Woks with one handle are easier for stir frying but two-handled woks are better at staying stable on the burner. If you have an electric stove it will be harder to cook with a regular rounded wok. Instead, see if you can find something with a flatter bottom.
When choosing a wok material your best bet will be cast iron or carbon steel. Those will be the easiest to maintain over time. If you get the cast iron, it will be heavier so you will need a two handed wok.
Other Wok Accessories
Next you need to make sure you have good wok cooking utensils. This means a spatula and/or ladle like in the above image. Both have long handles which are better for maneuvering with the wok’s shape.
Wok spatulas (铲子 chǎnzi), or turners, are rounded and not slotted. They help you quickly shovel and turn food from the bottom and sides of your wok while distributing oil. Similarly a ladle (杓子 biāozi) helps distribute chunks of food and distribute oil and sauce. Some chefs only ever use the ladle.
Next you will need a wok burner ring (燃气灶锅圈 ránqì zào guōquān).
The wok ring is inexpensive and only needed for gas stoves. If you have an electric stove you will need the less efficient flat bottomed wok.
The burner ring helps distribute heat evenly on the bottom of the wok and balance the wok on the stove. You need it because western stoves were not designed for rounded pans like woks.
The wok lid (锅盖 guō gài) shown in the above image is self- explanatory. It helps keep moisture in.
Wok lids are very helpful when you are doing more extensive things like steaming and smoking. More on that below.
The wok brush (锅刷 guō shuā) is usually made of bamboo (竹 zhú). The bristles are hard but won’t damage and scrape your wok. Wok brushes are useful for cleaning a hot wok in between uses. And you only need hot water, no soap.
Preparing Your Wok
As the above video will tell you, it is important to season your wok. This is how you will make the most of your wok investment. Seasoning your wok makes it last decades.
When you start seasoning your wok it will be much like any other cast iron pan.
After buying your wok, you must wash it with soapy water. This is to remove the unseen oil that the factory sprayed to prevent the wok from rusting at the store.
Dry it, then place it on a stove burner to evaporate left over moisture.
Keep the wok hot.
Choose a high smoke point, oil or shortening, (optional) plus kosher salt to season your wok with.
Spread the oil around the wok, covering it.
Keep it on medium heat for 20 minutes. (Alternatively, sit the wok on foil in the oven. Then, bake it for 20 minutes at 450 degrees Fahrenheit).
Dump any excess oil.
Wipe down the wok so only a thin layer of oil remains.
Voila! You have prepared your wok like a pro.
As long as you keep it moisture free when you store it, it will last you through many kitchen battles.
Check out these young chefs starting early with their wok training.
How to Stir Fry
Check for this before you stir fry:
One: Don’t use fat with a low smoke point like butter. It burns much too quickly.
Two: You want to have your aromatic roots like onion, garlic, or chili chopped up before heating your wok.
Three: If you are using the lid, make sure you don’t use too much liquid like water or soy sauce. Otherwise, the liquid will pool and make your stir fry soggy.
When it comes to liquids, including oil, you never need a lot.* The wok makes it easy to spread the liquids. Also, you can always add a little oil along the fry process if needed.
*This point is moot if you are trying to deep fry though. In which case put as much oil as you need.
To start your stir fry:
First, heat your wok.
Second, add a little oil. When it becomes thinner and runs smoothly along the wok you can start to add other things. If necessary, use your wok spatula or ladle to help distribute the oil.
Third, add in your aromatic roots—the onion, garlic, or chilis—and stir. You should start to smell it. Your wok will smoke more.
Fourth, start adding in your items by slowest to cook to fastest to cook. Denser, larger cut items will take longer to cook and so should be added first. This means things like thick meats, hard vegetables and large slices of ginger.
Fifth, add small amounts of oil to keep your food moist. Then either stir it, turn the heat down some, or give the food in the wok a toss* to cool it so it cooks evenly.
*To toss the food: pick up the wok, push it forward, and give it a quick pull back.
Sixth, if you are going to use a flavoring sauce, stir that in last. The flavor will be vibrant and not evaporate this way.
If you want more tips watch the video below for how to stir fry.
Other Wok Cooking Methods
Your wok is not only for stir frying. Check out three other ways you can cook with your wok.
The wok’s wide open top, deep bottom well, and round lid make it perfect for steaming. You just need to place your food on a steam rack over water in your wok then cover with the wok lid and boil.
You can also get a bamboo steamer. With this, you won’t need the wok lid, just place it over water and boil.
Most people don’t think of their wok as a smoker. But with the addition of your steamer rack and aluminum foil, you can even do hot sugar smoking.
Plus, if your wok is cast iron, you can put it in the oven as a roasting pan in a pinch.
Because the wok’s well is deep and the top is open, it makes it easy to quickly grab items you are deep frying.
The wok also is very responsive to heat so you have better control over your frying temperature. It’s round sides also distribute heat well.
Hopefully this wok guide was able to push you one step closer to home cooking mastery.
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