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Jul 15, 2004 02:14 PM

Cast iron or carbon steel wok?

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I'm interested in purchasing a new wok (to replace my non-stick one) from the Wok Shop. I've heard that both cast iron and carbon steel are the ones to get. I've got a gas stove -- any recommendations on which type of wok is better? Will cast iron get and stay hotter? Is carbon steel lighter and therefore easier to work with?

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  1. I'n not very familiar with cast iron. I may be wrong, but I think cold-rolled steel predominates in Chinese cooking. IMHO, the wok shop is overpriced. I would go to some place like the Stockton Bargain Center (across from Walgreens).

    1. Carbon steel is lighter and easier to handle. It is quite durable, one of my woks I have had for 28 years, it is well seasoned and quite comfortable to work with. The other 2 I have had for about half as long and they also get well used. What I like about the other 2, and thet are carbon steel is that they have a stick handle on one side which facilitates shaking and stirring and it is easier to tip out the contents to a bowl or a platter. The old one with the traditonal loop handles on each side makes it a bit more awkward. Also the two with the stick handels have a flat bottom which works very well on my gas cook top and is a bit more stable when deep frying or oil blanching so which wok I am using depends on what I am making. I'm sure the cast iron heats up well and holds the heat but I'm not sure I would want to try to lift it if it had a lot of food in it.Another thought is that unless you are deep frying and want to maintain that oil temperature, most of what you are cooking is quite fast and carbon steel is more than adequate for that. Also my carbon steel woks wash and dry quite quickly.

      1. Depends on what you prize most: heat or "handling." Ideally, you should use a rolled steel with a tremendously powerful heat source. Personally, I can't afford a sport-utility stove, so I go with a cast-iron wok on my teeny gas burner. Yes, it is a beast to handle and it changes the way I cook some dishes, but I feel that a steady, high heat is the most important part of Chinese cooking, so I deal with it. You do find cast iron woks in China -- I found them mostly in use with street vendors who used charcol-based set-ups -- my guess is to deal with the potential uneveness that results from that method.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Nick Z

          Btw, Weber now makes grill equipment with wok holes, IIRC....

          1. re: Nick Z

            "Personally, I can't afford a sport-utility stove, so I go with a cast-iron wok on my teeny gas burner." If you live in a place with a large Asian population, their markets often have rough-and-ready freestanding wok burners, with hookups for propane tanks. Pretty cheap, too. I've not got one of those yet, but I'm trying to design a way to fit it into the backyard cooking area...

            1. re: Will Owen

              Propane tanks DO NOT belong indoors. For the power output most residential stoves put out, cast iron will probably work better.

              1. re: MikeB3542

                That's why it'd go in the back yard! I can't do high-temp stuff in the house anyway, as not only is my range hood's fan kaput but it's embedded in the tile wall so I can't dismantle and repair it (thanks a lot, previous owners!). However, outdoor cooking is one of those benefits of SoCal Living I moved here for, so I may as well take advantage...

          2. For multi-purpose cooking, I would go with carbon steel. It responds very quickly to temperature changes, as opposed to cast iron which takes a long time to react.

            6 Replies
            1. re: Jujubee

              I recently bought two 14-inch woks from Wok Shop, one cast iron, one steel just to compare side by side. I'm keeping the cast iron. My not so scientific findings are:

              There's no noticeable difference in how quickly they heat up or recover when food is added. This is no surprise as the conductivity and specific heat of the two are not very different, especially if you consider how thin a wok is.

              Cast iron is easier to season and maintaining the season is effortless.

              Cast iron seems to heat more evenly without hot spots, but this is mostly subjective (although I did use my infrared thermometer to check this out).

              The rough surface of the cast iron wok makes it easy to move stuff up the sides to cooler areas when adding ingredients. With the steel wok I needed to transfer them to a bowl and return later.

              One downside to cast iron, which I did not test, is it's rather brittle and I'm not sure it could survive a fall from stovetop height.

              One last note: I'm talking about a Chinese cast iron wok, not western style. My wok weighs 2.6 pounds (shipping weight 3.8 pounds). I don't know exactly what the Lodge and Emeril and other cast iron "woks" weigh, but they have shipping weights of 10 to 13 pounds. Those are just big skillets in the shape of a wok. Nothing wrong with that, but if you already have a big skillet, why buy another one?

              1. re: Zeldog


                You said it. Chinese style cast iron woks are much thinner than their Lodge counterpart. I have seen the Lodge cast iron wok. It is very heavy. Just look at this picture and you can see it is very thick. Because of the additional mass, it has greater heat capacity and slower heat response.


                The advantage of the Lodge cast iron wok is that it has a flat bottom exterior bottom, yet a round interior bottom. Le Creuset also has a wok with the exterior flat, interior round design, but it is expensive:


                A cast iron wok is easier to seasoned as you mentioned. A carbon steel wok however is usually slightly lighter and has more toughness to it -- that is, it does not crack as easily. So if you like to toss, shake and bang your wok, then a carbon steel wok is still preferred.

                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  I must admit that after using cast iron skillets for many years I was a bit surprised to see how thin the Chinese cast iron woks are. Mine seems rather delicate, but I toss, shake and bang it just as I would a steel wok and it hasn't shattered so far. I don't think one needs to treat a cast iron wok any differently than any other pan when cooking. In any case, at $15 per wok, you could afford to break one now and then.

                  ps - as for steel woks being lighter than cast iron, it depends on thickness, but my 14" steel wok weighs 3.6 lb compared to 2.6 lb for the 14" cast iron.

                  1. re: Zeldog


                    :) Yeah, it really depends on thickness, but I think one can make carbon steel thinner. I don't think one can make cast iron wok like 1mm thick. Good to know you get to toss, shake your wok :) Does your cast iron wok come with a long handle or is it the more traditional two loop handles wok? I have seen chefs toss food in their woks with a loop handle, but I cannot do it. I have to use the long handle one.

                    Yeah, $15 is very affordable. However, the concern is breaking it and causing hot food and oil spilling everywhere.

                    *Edit* Hey, it is not really $15. You pay for the shipping, didn't you?

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics


                      My cast iron wok has loop handles, so it's not easy to flip food, but I try now and then. But the point I was trying to make was that even though cast iron is more brittle than steel, you don't need to treat it like an egg. 0ther than dropping it to the floor I can't think of any way one might make one shatter during normal use (maybe if you use a ball peen hammer instead of a spatula to toss the food). That said, I can see why most restaurants would use steel.

                      As for thickness, I don't have a micrometer, but comparing my steel wok that is nominally 2 mm thick, I do believe the cast iron wok is slightly thinner.

                      Forgive me for waxing poetic, but the cast iron wok is a work of art with lovely crystaline structure and and brush lines (looks like the molten iron is spread over a mold using some sort of broom like tool, so no two will be exactly the same).

                      No shipping. I live in SF. Just sales tax.

                      1. re: Zeldog


                        "but the cast iron wok is a work of art with lovely crystaline structure and and brush lines (looks like the molten iron is spread over a mold using some sort of broom like tool, so no two will be exactly the same)." <-- now you are scaring me. Heh heh heh.

                        Have fun in SF. I used to live in San Mateo, then Davis, then Berkeley

            2. I am in the same dilema. Thought I would just resurrect this thread instead of making my own.

              2 Replies
              1. re: DeeAgeaux

                Carbon case you need to toss items in the wok like fried rice.

                1. re: DeeAgeaux

                  I've used both. I own different types, from calphalon to cast iron to carbon steel to mutt aluminum. they act very differently. Maybe you should get several!

                  I like my cast iron and Calphalon ones best, although the Calphalon ones are too small for a lot of wok needs. My bad for buying the medium and small ones and not being able to make myself get the big one. But by then i had plenty of Calphalon woks and wanted a change. I also realize I don't do stir-fries in an authentic fashion. Or buy like a normal person.

                  I never could tame the carbon steel ones, they rusted, stuck, burned, smelled rusty, you name it. They defied me every step of the way It's just me, I know, but that's what drove my choice to get the cast iron one.