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Need advice on Stir Frying and buying a Wok

Hello,
I enjoy cooking and have mostly gotten into grilling, smoking and sautéing stuff and now I would like to learn more about Stir Frying.

I am in the process of getting sauce recipes (feel free to throw one in on the thread if you want to help a newb) but my next step is to buy a wok and burner. I have a teflon wok but from what I have read that really isn't going to do the job like it should.

From what I can tell some of the main things are far as the equipment go is the wok is better if you use high carbon steel and season it well and you need to use very high heat for authentic stir fry.

I am probably going to get a hammered wok from the Wok shop but my main questions are about the size of the wok and the type of burner I should get.

For the size, if I get a 14" but mostly only cook for two people will that still work fine or is it important to use a smaller wok?

Will stainless steel work OK or should I just use steel for the best experience?

As far as the burner goes I found one in a local store, brand was Kajun Cooking (with a K) for $39, it was a wok kit and it comes with a 18" stainless steel wok although I will get a carbon steel wok if necessary, it was rated at 55,000 BTU's and looks just like the King Kooker wok burner.

Will 55k BTU's be good enough or does it need to get hotter? I have read some things that restaurant burners can go up to 200k BTU's or more. It doesn't have to be 100%, but I want to make sure it's hot enough to authentically stir fry and get the correct level of taste from the pan and the heat.

Are there any other brands of burners I should look at other than the king kookers, I don't want to spend a fortune but don't want to waste $40 either.

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  1. IMO, a 14" wok is minimum but you have to consider the amount of cooking space available. Select the largest wok you are comfortable with in your cooking environment.
    Hammered carbon steel is the better choice. I would never recommend stainless steel.
    If you want to stir fry on your kitchen gas range you'll have to be satisfied with it's standard output in BTUs. 55K isn't bad; you'll just have to be satisfied with working at a lower speed than the chef with the 200K BTU burner. I prefer a cast iron propane fired stand-along burner that can be used on my patio or deck. I wouldn't use it in my kitchen but I enjoy cooking outside. When the weather doesn't allow cooking outside I have to make due with the kitchen range. Cast iron propane single burners cost about $40 around here. That's a bargain.
    Cooking with a wok can be dangerous. Woks cook at very high temperatures which increases the risk of a flame up and possible kitchen fires; and serious burns can occur instantly. Make sure you fully understand what's happening, how to manage the wok and it's associated components, cooking utensils, ingredients and heat and what to do in case of emergency.

    1 Reply
    1. re: todao

      What I will probably end up doing it buying the $40 burner locally and then buying a larger carbon steel round bottom Wok and a 14" flat bottom Wok to use on my electric stove, I know that stinks but for when I am not able to cook outside or when I want to make fried rice I can use the one inside.

      Is it possible to safely use one of the burners indoors with open windows? Although I would imagine the biggest safety issue is the heat more than carbon monoxide.

    2. Unless you have a semi-professional stove or want to buy some kind of high output burner, your stove probably doesn't put out enough heat for a genuine wok. The shape of a wok is not conducive to maximizing heat out of our stove tops either. I recommend a flat bottomed non stick stir fry pan with high edges (probably a 14 inch one). Cook's Illustrated has been recommending this for years.

      That having been said. Wok owners often strenuously disagree. Cook's Illustrated gets several angry emails every year about it. I suspect I will cause several animated responses to my comment.

      1. Agree with todao about 14" minimum, even when cooking for one person. Smaller woks will crowd your food, meaning that it will steam instead of stir-fry.

        You are on the right track with carbon steel. Light gauge ones are less expensive but have hot/cool spots. If you want a hand-hammered wok you have to get a round-bottomed one, they don't come flat.

        If you do get a hand-hammered, round-bottomed wok make sure that the ring you buy fits your burner really well and that the wok bottom is very close to the burner, otherwise you won't get the heat you need. A lot of the cheap wok rings make the wok sit way too high up.

        Re non-stick-- Hank H, I take the bait! :) Reiusa please consider this a suitably impassioned plea to stay as far away from artificial non-stick surfaces as possible. To me so much of the beauty of a wok--aside from the ease, speed and versatility-- comes (as with a cast-iron skillet) from the incredible non-stick surface that develops naturally over time, with seasoning. I have a cheap machine-spun carbon steel wok that I can't bear to give up, just because the seasoning is so incredible.

        It is a deep glossy brown-black - nothing sticks to it - and not only does it make stir-frying easier, but, even more important, it FLAVORS YOUR FOOD. You will never the same kind of crust, caramelization and flavor with a non-stick wok as you do with a carbon steel one.

        I highly recommend Grace Young's book, breath of a wok, as a fantastic introduction to wok cooking. In there she gives a few great recipes for seasoning your wok, too-- an essential step before you first cook in it.

        Good luck!

        7 Replies
        1. re: originalfig

          "Agree with todao about 14" minimum, even when cooking for one person. Smaller woks will crowd your food, meaning that it will steam instead of stir-fry."

          I think it is fine to suggest 14", but I don't think smaller woks will crowd your food. Unlike a saute pan, you don't really spread your foods to a larger area by getting a bigger wok. The wok is concave and foods will gather at the bottom. Think about it. The food will all roll down to the bottom, no matter you have a 12" wok vs a 16" wok, and they will more or less occupy the same surface area.

          In truth, the food overcrowd the wok when the foods overpower the stove. The weaker the stove, the easier it is to overwhelm it because the thermal output is not high enough to evaporate the water from the food and instead "sweating" the foods and creating more water, making the problem worse and evenutally simmering foods. The stronger the stove, the more foods it can handle.

          In fact, a larger wok on a home kitchen stove actually makes the wok slightly cooler. Think about it. Thermal power from the stove is the same. By increasing the surface area of a wok you are increasing heat loss area. Constant thermal power absorption, but increases heat loss = lower final temperature.

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            > The food will all roll down to the bottom, no matter you have a 12" wok vs a 16" wok,
            > and they will more or less occupy the same surface area.

            Speaking from experience, the food does not roll down into a pile at the bottom of my 14" work.

            1. re: fadista

              Maybe you have a really shallow wok then

              I don't mean the food roll all the way down at the very bottom, but foods do not spread out evenly like a flat skillet. The foods should gather at the bottom if not, there is something wrong.

              For a flat skillet, you increase your cooking surface +56%, by going from a 8" skillet to a 10" skillet. That is not the case for a wok. The true/real cooking surface is where the wok contacts the flame or the heat source. Expanding from a 12" wok to a 14" wok does not actually increase your true cooking surface. That was my main point. The true cooking surface is actually small. Most of the surface is for food maneuver. It is for tossing food and catch food. It is for separating foods if necessary, but not for heating.

              I think one of the biggest misconceptions of wok cooking is that many people think of the entire wok surface as a heating surface, and pile everything into a wok. That is 99% the wrong way to do it because the user is overwhelming the wok. (there are exceptions).

              I will show you two videos which use the wok correctly. Also notice that foods do gather at the center of the two woks -- if they didn't they would have been all thrown out of the woks.

              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehgnv3...
              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDlm1_...

              If you look closely at these two videos, it won't matter if they had a bigger wok, the true heating surface would have remained the same. That is not to really say a bigger wok does nothing. A bigger wok will increase the area you can toss and catch food, but it does not increase the heating surface, and therefore the idea that getting a bigger wok will give you more heating surface is incorrect. If a person want to increase the heating surface, he needs to get a bigger stove. I am sure you have heard of a very famous Chinese phrase, "match the wok to the stove"

              I was going to show you a bad form of stir fry, but I think that would not be very nice, so I am not going to. Basically, if you see people fill up the wok, they are seriously doing it wrong.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Chem, I read somewhere that in some wok cooking, you move up some food to the sides of the wok, which presumable sticks there (??), while cooking other food at the bottom heating surface. But can't remember source or if it was reputable one -- thoughts?

                1. re: iyc_nyc

                  Yes, yes, that is true. Up above I mentioned "It is for separating foods if necessary, but not for heating"

                  Some people move cooked foods up on the side and continue to cook the rest at the bottom. Now, you can only put a small amount of foods up on the side before they start sliding back down. For example, putting slice beef on the side of a wok is easy. Putting roll-cut carrot on the side of a wok is impossible.

                  http://theshiksa.com/blog/wp-content/...

                  It is also a household kitchen technique. It really is a convenice technique more than a cooking technique. Basically, it serves the same purpose as moving the food on to a plate. The real advantage is that you save cleaning a plate. Some people claim it also keeps foods warm, but I think that is a very minor point because these foods will eventualy go back into the wok, let them from the side of the wok or from a plate.

                  Needless to say, by using this technique, you can no longer toss the wok.

              2. re: fadista

                A picture worths a thousand words. I have attached my picture.

                You can see that increasing a wok size does not increase the true heating surface area (assuming we are talking the same stove). So if you put too much food to overwhelm a smaller wok, then a bigger wok is unlikely to help.

                Now, a bigger wok will increase maneuver space, but it won't increase contact area to the heat element, and therefore won't increase thermal intake ... etc, etc.

                 
            2. re: originalfig

              WS has a new wok that they say is hand-hammered, flat-bottomed carbon steel: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/produc....

            3. REIUSA,

              Can I ask why you want to stir-fry? Or, more specifically, why you want to stir-fry using a wok?

              I ask because (1) it doesn't sound like your kitchen is naturally equipped to for wok cooking if you have to buy a wok burner and (2) stir-frying can be done on just about any type of pan (albeit not perfectly).

              If you want to stir-fry in a wok because you think it's absolutely necessary for a particular dish -- or type of dish -- you want to cook, then I think you may be a bit too myopic in your approach. Try stir-frying with the pans you have already and see if the results are ok with you. You'll be surprised at how similar the results can be.

              Now, if you want to stir-fry using a wok simply for the novelty of it, well, then by all means go for it ... and let the 'Hounds here guide you along the way (as they bicker amongst themselves over carbon steel, cast iron, aluminium, size, type, shape, etc.)

              Good luck and enjoy.

              1. REIUSA,

                Hello. I won't say Teflon wok is horrible. In fact, it is great for learning. The problem with a cast iron wok and a carbon steel wok is that you need to learn how to season them, so you will be trying to learn to stir fry while learning to season a cookware, and when things do not taste the way you want, you wonder which is the cause. That being said, I agree with you. A Teflon wok has heat limitation and so sooner of later, you will need to switch to carbon steel or cast iron. If you are using a Telfon cookware, then you are forced to cook under 450-500F, and that is a problem for many true stir fry technqiues. If you already know how to season a cast iron skillet or cast iron Dutch Oven, then please ignore my earlier remarks.

                The WokShop is excellent. You can always send Tane Chan an email about woks and anything Chinese cookware question. She is very helpful and very responsive. I have had one conversation with her about my Chinese butch block on and off for ~10 emails for a whole year. I think we both learn alot. I send her photos and stuffs. :)

                I used to live in SF area and visited the real WokShop, so I have a thing for it and have been buying woks from there for more of a emotional reason. However, you can buy a good carbon steel woks in many other places as well.

                Wok size.... hmm, that is a tough one. Some people believe bigger is better because you can always cook less foods in a larger wok, but you cannot cook more foods in a small wok. I am opposite. I like to pick as small as a wok I can get away. A smaller wok allows me to have a good handle of it, so I can flip and toss my foods without getting my hand tired. It is really up to you. In my opinion, 14" is more than enough for two persons. If still in doubt, ask Tane Chan :D

                Stainless steel will not work as well because meats tend to stick to a stainless steel surface. If you have cooked in other stainless steel cookware, then you know what I mean.

                I cannot help you in the burners part. I actually use a moderate burner. I just make sure my food portion is small, so the foods do not cool down the wok significant. What you really don't want is to overwhelm the wok with foods, then you will be simmer food instead of frying food.

                *Edit* I think you said you like to make fried rice. I think that is an excellent dish which only a wok can do a good job. Here is a youtube video of fried rice. I hope the video illustrate why I like to keep my wok managable:

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehgnv3...

                The following is more of what many home cooks consider as fried rice. It is done at medium temperature with minimal toss and turn. I am sure it tastes fine, but I really prefer the earlier version. Notice the shortcoming of her fried rice is that the end product fried rice all stick together. It is not fluffy. You can skip to 3:10 min since she was mostly talking about ingredient early on:

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=helY29...

                Now, you may say, that is only because the first guy has a professional stove. Yes, that help, but it is also about technique. This following guy I think did a great job with a home stove. Notice that his final product is fluffy:

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0YBZ1...

                22 Replies
                  1. re: ZenSojourner

                    Zen,

                    I have not personally used it. However, I have bought exactly that wok from the Wokshop for my friend as a wedding gift (along with many other things of course). He did not like it. He ended up removing the whole preseasoned surface and reseasoned the wok himself. He liked the wok afterward, but I felt a little bad making him do all these extra works of removing the preseasoned surface.

                    I cannot say for sure if my friend was unlucky and got a crappy preseasoned wok or these preseasoned woks are bad in general. I would contact Tane Chan ask her about it. Don't ask "Is the preseasoned wok any good?" because that put her on the spot of saying it is good.

                    Instead give her some room, and ask her "How does these preseasoned woks compare to seasoning on my own?" or "Which do you think will give me the best final result? The preseasoned one or the start-from-scratch one?" I think a more neutral question may give you more insightful answer.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      Tane is a long time family friend and I had a discussion with her about woks and in the end I never got a commited answer, but lot's of information. She's a good business woman and great person.

                      1. re: monku

                        Monku,

                        :) She is not a family friend of mine that is for sure, but I like to think we know each other ok. I think Tane Chan is an excellent person, and I like to bug excellent people. :)

                        It was so funny when I first visited her shop. The way she talked to me was so friendly and very informal. Anyhow, can I ask you to clarify something? When you said "I never got a commited answer", are you talking about the preseasoned woks or are you talking about woks in general?

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          One of the things we talked about was seasoning my carbon steel wok and she just said to keep using it and it will happen. She didn't go into specific instructions about washing it and what kind of oil to use or trying to pre-season it....just use it.

                          Think I'd read a post a while back from someone who bought a hand-hammered carbon steel wok from the Wok Shop and they were disappointed and having trouble with seasoning.

                          She and my mom are buddies and my dad used to work at the shop part time when he was alive and her husband was alive.

                          1. re: monku

                            Monku,

                            Sorry, I didn't mean to ask you abour your father. Well, I think there are so many different routes of seasoning, that there is no one single way to do. I have certainly used more than a few on my own. I have used the paper towel method as suggested by Ching He Huang. I have used the dry bluing method. I have used the salt method. I have used oven method. Surprising most of them work.

                            You probably know this already, but I will reiterate for others. The rule of thumb is not to use soap to wash the seasoned wok when it is still very new, but soap can be used later. In addition, you probably noticed that today dishwashing detergent is not as harsh as before, so today detergent is less of a problem for seasoned wok or seasoned cast iron skillet.

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              What is the "dry bluing" method. I've done all those other things too and they all seem to work. The only things that I haven't found successful are the quick methods.

                              1. re: monku

                                Monku,

                                I made up that name "dry bluing". Am I smart or what? You probably have done it and just didn't know what I was talking about. The idea is to heat the wok dry without oil at all and heat it until it turns bluish-black.

                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBZu7d...
                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SesaU...

                                Only then, you start to put oil on the surface. I think everyone has different success with different method. I probably have the best success with this method and worse with the oven method, but that is just me.

                                What are the quick methods? Can you tell me?

                                If you have tried these methods and they seem to work for you, why did you ask Tane Chan? Or did you ask her the question before you learned about these methods?

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  OK..."dry bluing" is similar to what I've always done. Wash the wok or cast iron pan with water, dry it on high heat, turn off the heat and wipe it down with a paper towel and oil.

                                  The quick methods I've seen posted--- they oil the wok inside and out and put it in the oven end up with something black they think is seasoning, but it's a black and sticky....it's "varnish" not seasoning. Seasoning to me is carbon and that sticky varnish stuff didn't get hot enough to become carbon. I think if you're going to use the oven method the temperature has to be 500-550 degrees. Again, not an expert or believer in the quick methods.

                                  I had the conversation with Tane maybe 18 years ago when I met her and asked when I found out she sold woks. I knew about seasoning cast iron, but didn't have experience with carbon steel woks.

                                  I mentioned in another post my mom is an excellent Chinese cook and she never used a wok, she just uses a big cast iron skillet. Come to think of it my mother-in-law doesn't have a wok either.

                                  1. re: monku

                                    Monku,

                                    So do you heat the dry wok until it turns bluish-black and then add oil? Some people add oil before and some people add oil after.

                                    As mentioned, I have also used the oven method and I also found it to be the least effective. Now, to me, the oven method is actually the slower method because the oven method takes at least 2 hours if not 4 hours. Any stovetop method I have tried are within 20 minute or so.

                                    I don't think you have to have a wok to do Chinese stir fry, but it is helpful. Like I told ipsedixit before, it is very difficult to do fried rice with a skillet. I don't know how anyone can toss the rice on a skillet.

                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      I only heat it until it's dry then turn off the heat until then add oil and wipe. My theory is when you heat it, maybe you're "opening" the pores in the cast iron and seasoning and the new oil will get inside.

                                      I wouldn't add oil before because I think it could burn...then you might have a "burnt" taste to your food next time you cooked with it.

                                      Again, I don't think the oven method can work unless you have it up in the 500 degree area.

                                      1. re: monku

                                        Right, and I think that is the major difference between the "heat it until dry and wok is hot and then add oil" vs the "heat it until dry and continue to heat the wok until it changes color to bluish-black and then add oil".

                                        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SesaU...

                                        As you know, iron can oxidzie, but not all oxidization is red rust. The following is my hypothesis. The blue-black color changing part is forced oxidization of "magnetite" (Fe3O4) as opposed to red rust (Fe2O3). By forcing the wok to take on the oxidization state magnetite, it does two things. 1) It becomes a protective layer and reduces the chance it can rust, and 2) the surface binds better with the oil seasoning in later steps.

                                        Sheryl wrote:

                                        "Unlike red rust, black rust is protective and prevents corrosion. Also, things bond better to magnetite than bare iron (for example, polymerized fat)."

                                        http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/201...

                                        In fact, when I wrote dry bluing, I meant that. The word "bluing" is a process. Here is a passage from wikipedia:

                                        "Bluing is a passivation process in which steel is partially protected against rust, and is named after the blue-black appearance of the resulting protective finish."

                                        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluing_(...

                                        This is the same thing about carbon steel knife. People want the black oxide, not the red oxide on the knives, but that is another story for another time.

                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                          Interesting about red rust and I never knew about black rust. I imagine companies like Lodge pre-season to prevent red rust after production. One more interesting production tid-bit is that each pan is cast in a sand mold that is only used once for each pan.

                                          "bluing" on things like chrome motorcycle exhaust pipes is an undesirable effect. I used to use this paste-polish to remove that bluing, that's why your "bluing", technique threw me.

                                          1. re: monku

                                            Really? I am under the impression that bluing is a very desirable for guns. In fact that is how bluing started, that was the traditional way. Are you sure it is undesirable for gun? :) Quote from wikipedia:

                                            "Bluing is most commonly used by gun manufacturers, gunsmiths and gun owners to improve the cosmetic appearance of, and provide a measure of corrosion resistance to, their firearms. Bluing also helps to maintain the metal finish by resisting tangential scratching, and also helps to reduce glare to the eyes of the shooter when looking down the barrel of the gun."

                                            If you just type "bluing" on google, you will get lots of articles about bluing guns, look:

                                            http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&am...

                                            or youtube

                                            http://www.youtube.com/results?search...

                                            Now, bluing is not the same thing for stainless steel, but we are talking about carbon steel cookware, right? People also intentionally force black oxide on their carbon steel knives as well.

                                            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZviaQ...

                                            Your motorcycle exhaust pipes are made of carbon steel?!?

                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              You're right about bluing on guns. I edited my post as soon as I posted it. I was thinking about nickel plated guns. I believe chrome has nickel in it (exhaust pipes).

                                              1. re: monku

                                                "I edited my post as soon as I posted it".

                                                Now, you make my previous post looks crazy. ha ha ha.

                                      2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        On an episode of Unwrapped tonight they did a segment on making Lodge cast iron pans. They pre-season their pans spraying them with a soy based oil then baking it at a very high temperature.

                                        1. re: monku

                                          Right. I am one of those few people who believe in high temperature oil seasoning.

                                          Many people say seasoning should be done under 400F, but I think that is an older knowledge based on lard. Many lards (~370F) have lower smoke point when compared to refined soy oil (~450F) or refined peanut oil (~450F) or refined corn oil (~450F). Therefore, it makes sense not to season your cast iron/carbon steel cookware at 500F when the oil you use (lard) is going to smoke at 370F. Unless you like your fire alaram goes off.

                        2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          *sigh* well I've always heard that preseasoning doesn't work all that well.

                          My son is fairly set on the Joyce Chen nonstick wok. We'll have to see what we end up with. I don't think that's necessarily much of a wok, but I really hate messing with stuff that has to be seasoned. Comes from years of being forced to cook with cast iron as a child. Hated that stuff! (Sorry, cast iron lovers, some of us are just not cut out for dealing with high maintenance cookware)

                          1. re: ZenSojourner

                            "well I've always heard that preseasoning doesn't work all that well."

                            Zen,

                            That is my impression as well. If you search "preseasoned woks" on Amazon, you will see pretty poor reviews and mostly about they don't work.

                            I don't know if I think cast iron or carbon steel woks are high maintenance. I think it is just personal performance. I have an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and I have bare cast iron Dutch Ovens. I have read so many things that the enameled cast iron Dutch Ovens are low maintenance, yet my experience is the other way around. For me, I never have to worry about overheating a bare cast iron Dutch oven and I don't have to worry about scratching it or cracking the surface. I can crack up the heat. I can use use metal tools, I can use metal brush.... I can be very rough with them because I know I can always re-season the surface. That is not the same for an enameled cast iron Dutch Oven. You ruined the surface, well, say bye bye.

                            Same for me about a carbon steel wok vs a nonstick wok.

                      2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        The first video is amazing but that sounds like a lot of work for a little dish! How do restaurants keep up cooking this way?

                        1. re: iyc_nyc

                          It is not too bad. I more or less make my fried rice like that. If I don't constantly toss and flip the rice, then the fried rice won't come out right. They won't be fluffy. They will clump together. Just look at the final end products from video 2 and video 3 from two hom cooks, and you can see a big difference in term of the fluffiness of the fried rice.

                          I don't think all Chinese chefs go as crazy as the first guy (technically I think he is a Japanese, but he is Chinese chef), but they have to toss and flip for sure (maybe not at the same speed). I do believe many Chinese foods are underpriced and many people do not realize how much work go into the dishes. They can be labor intensive.

                          The first video is great I always knew how to toss foods in a wok, but when I first watched it, I was impressed because at the end he tossed the fried rice back into the Chinese ladle. :) I tried to do that after I watched the video and I had some success. It is not as difficult as it looks and it is pretty cool. If you miss that part, you need to watch it again. It is at the end. Does it enhance the fried rice favor? No, but it is cool. It is like gun slinger spinning guns. :P

                          For most people, I think the third video is easier to relate to. Home cook, home stove, slower motion, closer camera shot.