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Jan 5, 2011 09:12 AM

Wok recommendation? Cast iron and seasoning?

I have a question about cast iron and seasoning. In the past we have used one main wok-like pan to do everything--eggs, stir fry, risotto, browning meat, etc. It was one of those Joyce Chen non-stick type things (not a teflon though, some other non-stick surface) and it was great for a few months but then started getting crusty on the bottom. We've switched the egg cooking to a stainless/copper pan and that's good but now I need to replace the wok.

I am leaning toward the cast iron woks but am somewhat afraid of keeping the seasoning and maintenance. I have a big ol' cast iron skillet that we use for bacon or steak but I managed to ruin it more or less*. I do a lot of stir fry stuff and saucy things (tikka masala, etc.) with more acidic ingredients and I am wondering if a cast iron wok is just not the right thing for this? I want to just buy ONE nice pan and I want it to be large and I'm used to the wok shape. Any recommendations? Can a cast iron/seasoned wok be used to cook acidic things (like tomato sauce)? Any other non-stick sort of things that would work but also handle high heat browning without charring off the non-stick?

*Yes I know everyone says you can't ruin a cast iron pan but I put it on a high electric burner to dry after washing and then got distracted by the baby. I remembered when black smoke began filtering out of the kitchen. It was glowing red on the bottom and now it's rounded and wobbly--kind of just rolls around on the burner. I re-seasoned it and we still use it for all meaty things but.. well. I'm lame.

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  1. There are a lot of issues here... non-stick, cast iron, woks, seasoning and wobbly bottoms, the pans not the baby's. First the wok... woks are a high heat, fast pased pan that requires tools to stir. If you want to maintain that style then go with cast iron. Iron will heat evenly, hold temp and seasoning. You can ruin any pan, if left on the burner too long. Better the cast iron than the copper. Also any cooking will pull stuff from the pan, I would prefer to have iron in my food than aluminum or other non-stick material. Any pan with a wobble in the bottom should be replaced. It will not perform cconsistantly and may have integretity issues, especially if it is a non-stick. I also use french steel pans as they react very similar to woks, but are a more friendly size. With steel or cast iron you need to poperly treat your pans before using them. I oil the entire surface with oil and bake for 2 hours at 200* and never clean with soap as it pulls the seasoning out. Even in my professional kitchens I used steel pans over non-stick as cast iron and steel pans act similarlly yo non-stick.

    1. Hi. There are a lot of questions and I will try to answer them in short answers. Please feel free to follow up with my replies.

      First, your Joyce Chen wok may not be completely ruined. Assuming you want to save it, try boiling a solution of baking soda in the wok for a few minutes and then scrap off the carbon crust with plastic tool.

      Second, cast iron and carbon steel woks are the traditional materials for woks. The seasoning surface provides a relatively nonstick surface and can handle high heat.

      Third, if all you will be doing is to cook saucy things like tikka masala, then you don't need cast iron or carbon steel woks. Those woks are great for providing a nonstick surface at high heat temperature as in Chinese stir fry, but these advantages are not utilized in the saucy and medium heat cooking. As much I am an advocator for carbon steel woks, I have to agree with you that you don't need them for the tasks you mentioned. A stainless steel wok may actually work better in the saucy/medium heat cooking.

      Fourth, a cast iron and carbon steel wok can be used to cook acidic foods, but probably not every single meals. Acidic solutions will slowly dissolve the seasoning surfacen, so you can see the problem if these are the only thing the wok will see.

      Fifth, to dry a cast iron or carbon steel pan on a burner, try putting it in low and low-medium heat.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        "Fifth, to dry a cast iron or carbon steel pan on a burner, try putting it in low and low-medium heat.".

        And make sure you set a loud timer every time you do, so that you don't forget about it!

        1. re: iyc_nyc

          Hi iyc_nyc,

          I don't mean to get off-topic too much, but I just remember that you and I have bought the deBuyer Force Blue pans at about the same time. Mine is working out great. How is yours treating you?

      2. First off, I'm assuming your old wok was the Joyce Chen nonstick wok with the Xylan coating. Xylan is a brand of nonstick coating, as is Teflon, and for all intents and purposes they are the same - same pros and cons. Neither one is a good coating for a wok, because they are not meant to be used over high heat.

        Now as for the wok you are considering... there are different kinds of cast iron woks out there. Lodge and similar western companies make some cast iron woks that are thick and heavy, similar to the cast iron cookware we typically see in the US. Cast iron woks made in China, on the other hand, and purchased at Asian markets or places like the Wok Shop, are much, much thinner. I think the posters who have already replied to you are assuming you are looking at the latter kind of wok. They are very traditional and they are great. Because the cast iron is much thinner than in an American skillet, you can have a big wok and it still won't be too heavy to lift. It is also much more responsive to heat than a thick, heavy pan would be.

        I have a hunch, however, that you are looking at the heavy, thick kind of cast iron wok, like Lodge makes. I am guessing this because you mentioned ruining your skillet on an electric burner. The Lodge and other Western cast iron woks are made flat on the bottom to sit on an American stove. The Chinese cast iron woks all come with round bottoms, and don't work well on an electric stove. Anyway, if it is the heavy cast iron (like Lodge) that you are considering, I would advise against it. It won't have the responsiveness you need in a wok, and it will be a bear to handle. It might work fine for your simmered dishes, like curries, but not for stir frying.

        What would I recommend? Well, if you are on an electric burner, you need something with a flat bottom. You could get a flat-bottomed carbon steel wok, but like the cast iron, it requires seasoning. If you are really cooking a lot of saucy dishes, something like stainless steel or anodized aluminum might be better for you. I would stay away from nonstick coatings, whether they are Teflon or any other brand. They just aren't that versatile.

        You might also consider looking at something called a "chef's pan" or "everyday pan". They tend to have flat bottoms and sloping sides, and are deeper than a skillet or saute pan. The one by All-Clad is very wok-like in it's shape, and might be just the ticket for you.

        1. Thanks for the information everyone. I think in the end, I am just going to have to diversify my pans. It was the thin-sided cast iron wok that I was thinking of and though it will be good for the stir frying I do, you are all right in that it won't be good for the saucy acidic things--also not ideal for risottos and the like. I'll look into a sort of large high-sided flat-bottomed something. The old Joyce Chen pan (I've had three like this--different brands) w/the non-stick coating was just so great while it lasted and I could use it for EVERYTHING I cooked. But the bottoms always get destroyed after a fairly short period of time.

          I think now I'll just have to decide between the cast iron and the carbon steel (leaning toward the cast iron because it's cool and because I always end up with electric stoves) for the wok and I will shop shape/size/brand for the other pan (maybe an enameled iron le creuset style thing?). When I buy something nice, I expect to use it for the rest of my existence and so I put probably far too much contemplation into the decision. Thanks for all your tips!

          (Also--I'll try the baking soda trick w/the Joyce Chen.. Never heard of that and it's worth a try!)

          2 Replies
          1. re: cheyennew

            One more thing: All these woks (cast iron and steel) seem to have wooden handles.. How do you season them? I normally have done the hot hot oven (500deg+) with bacon fat method. Seems like this would damage/burn the wood?

            Also, if they are "pre-seasoned," and you (ahem) accidentally burn off the seasoning, can you bake one back on using the usual method?
            (thanks again)

            1. re: cheyennew

              Won't carbon steel woks be better on electric stoves since carbon steel woks can be made flat bottom?

              Yes, the baking soda trick for tenderizing meat, right?

              Not all woks have wooden handles. There are many steel handle woks.

              Usually wok seasonings are done on stovetop, and not in oven, but if you want to do a wood handle wok seasoning in an oven, you can wrap some wet paper towels around the handle and then wrap aluminum foil around the wet paper towls.

              I have not used a preseasoned wok personally, but I have bought one for my friend and he didn't like it. In theory you can put a new seasoning surface on any carbon stee/cast irok wok, but if you have a preseasoned wok, the seasoning layer may be thick, so you have to remove the existing seasoning completely before you put on a new one. If not, you have you have patches here and there.

          2. Take the following first-hand experience in any way you wish.

            I've had the same authentic round-bottom carbon-steel wok, purchased from a little NY Asian market, since 1974. It's still going strong. Came with a little ring, & I've been using it exclusively on electric ranges since - with excellent & perfectly authentic results. Stir-frying, blanching, deep-frying, steaming - you name it. I consider it my "wonder pot", & can't even remotely imagine my kitchen without it.

            If I were you, I'd forget all about cast iron, Joyce Chen, & all the new frou-frou wok stuff (good grief already), & try to find yourself an authentic basic carbon-steel wok. Season it, & enjoy it for decades just as I've been enjoying mine ( which is, what, 37 years old now?).