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Must I trade my cast iron wok for carbon steel?

Hello all,

I have a cast iron wok. It is not a light Chinese model, but a huge, heavy flat-bottomed model. I chose it in the hopes that its heat-storing capacity would help compensate for the weak output of my gas burners. It certainly helps. If I preheat and am careful not to overload, I can get a passable stir-fry going. My lack of greatness may have as much to do with poor technique as with the wok.

However, I just got Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, and I'm wildly inspired to up my game. She adapted the recipes for standard home ranges, and strongly recommends using a flat-bottomed carbon steel wok. She has three objections to cast iron woks:

1. They take a long time to heat up. – This does not seem important to me.

2. They cool slowly, increasing the risk of overcooking the food. – More problematic, but I think I could compensate by removing food quickly.

3. They are unwieldy. She likes long-handled wok that can be easily manipulated with one hand. – This could be serious. My wok has short handles and is so heavy that it can really only remain stationary during the cooking process.

What say the experts? I hate to start a new hobby by spending money on more stuff, and I live in a condo with no space to store two woks. But I would get a steel wok if it will really help me to start turning out great Chinese food. Does my cast iron wok put me at a serious disadvantage?

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  1. I think you will get various opinions, but in my view, I won't use a heavy cast iron wok, but it is really up to you. For me, it is absolutely important and in fact necessary that I flip the foods in the wok. The reason is that you can never mix your food as fast as you can by flipping. As such, the higher the heat you go, the faster the cooking, and the more important it is to able to toss and manipulate foods. There is a few other reasons too. If you use a spatula to make fried rice, you have a tendency to push the rice together and compress the grains together. When you flip and toss the rice, you keep the rice grain separated and the end reason is much better.

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

    Everyone's situation is different. You may not able to take advantage of a carbon steel wok. I don't know and it is not up to me to judge. All I can say is that I won't.

    1. I'm with Chem on this, but wont be rational or thorough.... Carbon steel woks are the bomb diggity, anything else is just a poser or a wannabe.

      1. Maybe you can nest the two woks together so they don't take up so much room. Well, at least until you give up the cast iron one. <wink and grin> Flipping the food in a wok is one of the joys of wok cooking. And when the oil vaporizes and combusts in a glorious flash to give that delicious wok hei - oh man!

        1. Others here are certainly light-years ahead of me when it comes to wok cooking, but I am moving away from a carbon steel wok to a heavy cast iron wok. Simply put, my hottest burner can't drive a carbon steel wok with any more than a cup or so of food in it. I need something that can build up some heat. Yes I prefer the Pow handle, but matching the wok to the stove seems far more important to me.

          1. Hi, Cathleen:

            I think you're fine with what you have. There are trade-offs, as you have ID'd.

            Many people actually prefer two-handled rondeaux or "shaker" pans to one-handled sautes for jumping their food. Can you not manage that with your wok?

            I don't see the responsiveness issue being a huge one. If it were, we'd be seeing lots of aluminum and copper woks.

            The only issue I see relates to conductivity. Your thick iron wok will tend to get a little hotter higher up the bowl than would a thin steel one. So if you rest the food up there, it would continue to cook more and faster. I don't see this as a big deal, though.

            OTOH, carbon steel woks are inexpensive (You already have the $$ one), so perhaps you should get a steel one, see which you prefer, and give us the benefit of what you learn.

            Aloha,
            Kaleo

            1. IMO steel woks are only for super-high heat, which you and I don't have Note that flipping is never done in big restaurant woks. Slow heating is no big deal, and heat retention is the only way to keep the wok hot, so you stir fry instead of steaming.

              8 Replies
              1. re: mwhitmore

                "Note that flipping is never done in big restaurant woks"

                What?? Maybe I misunderstood your post but obviously the 'never' in your sentence is not correct. I've never worked in a Chinese kitchen but I'd be amazed if any did NOT toss near constantly.

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Phu7nd...

                Again, i might've completely misinterpreted your post.

                1. re: TheCarrieWatson

                  Thanks for the nice video.

                  My guess is that mwhitmore meant the large woks in the restaurants. Most Chinese restaurants have a two wok system. There is the small one on the size of 14-18" in diameter which is also the similar size as the home cook wok. There is the large one on the size of 24" to 36" (or even larger) which really cannot be replicated in a normal household. The large one is almost never used for tossing foods, but it does require a different cooking style, which a home cook cannot replicate, so I am not entirely sure what is the point here.

                  In addition, the phrase "stir fry" is a bit too simplistic. There are eight techniques used in a wok. A wok is a much more complicated tool than most people think.

                  Wikipedia mentions two of the eight techniques, which is chao and bao, and when most people refer to stir fry, it is the chao technique, but people need to be mindful that it is only one of the eight techniques.

                  "Stir frying is a pair of Chinese cooking techniques for preparing food in a wok: chǎo (炒) and bào (爆). The term stir-fry was introduced into the English language by Buwei Yang Chao, in her book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, to describe the chǎo technique"

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stir_frying

                  Not directed to mwhitmore, but there are some naive/ignorant comments in this thread.

                  1. re: TheCarrieWatson

                    I mean sauté-style flipping by jerking the wok handle---the big woks on 100k burners are way too big. Of course the cook constantly moves the food with a spatula. Some Asian restaurants also have a small wok with a long wood handle, and they do flip with this. But this is not a big wok. Sorry to be unclear. And it is certainly a good idea to get both and try them. Woks are cheap enough and can be stacked (well-dried!) for storage.

                    1. re: mwhitmore

                      <Of course the cook constantly moves the food with a spatula.>

                      Usually, not a spatula, but a hoak.

                      <Some Asian restaurants also have a small wok with a long wood handle>

                      Usually, it is the other way around. Most Chinese restaurants *must* have this so called smaller wok, and it is this smaller wok which serves as the work horse. This smaller wok is not small in the home cook sense. They are in the size of 14" to 18" diameter. See the video from CarrieWatson. The larger woks you talk about (3 feet) are the optional one. Very small Chinese restaurants will only have the small size wok, and not the large one.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        'A hoak'. Thanks Chem, all these years I didn't know the name. Small vs large. Well, I haven't stuck my head in the kitchen of every Chinese restaurant I have eaten in, so you may be right. I still don't think you can get enough heat from a home stove into a carbon-steel wok to stir-fry without steaming, but YMMV.

                        1. re: mwhitmore

                          Some just call it a Chinese ladle.

                          You are correct that most home stoves do not have enough heat output as restaurants' do, but you can still get it to work by cooking less. Put less food in. Most professional Chinese chefs who I know use carbon steel wok at home, so it is do-able. They don't use thick Lodge cast iron woks.

                          I think it is a very common mistake that people put too much food into their woks. A wok is a very different tool than a fry pan or saute pan, and require different techniques and a different philosophy. Most people see a big wok and they just think they can put as much food as they can for filling up the wok -- like they do with a fry pan, but that is wrong. The actual cooking surface of a wok is small. Much of the surface is for food maneuvering. When you watch some professional Chinese chefs, you will see that even they (with powerful stoves) rarely put a lot food in their woks (see the above video links from me).

                          If you need to cook larger volume, you always cook in batches. Again, you will see this even in professional Chinese kitchens. When a Chinese cook get three orders of chow mein, he will cook the orders three times. He does not dump three times the ingredients and cook. Whereas I honestly know a lot of home cooks in US believe "I am cooking for a family of four, so let's just put four times the foods into my wok"

                          Here is a fun video for you to watch. This guy started as a street cook with one wok, and as demand increased he started to increase the number of woks. It surely works well for practice and for marketing, but there is one thing to be noticed. He didn't buy a bigger and bigger stove and wok. He cook his orders in batches in parallel. There is some real truth to this -- aside from being a funny video.

                          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mq31...

                      2. re: mwhitmore

                        I love the way the cooks balance those big(ger) woks on the ring and rock it back and forth to toss the ingredients, like in the video. I could watch that all day. One of these days I will get a wok burner and try getting the *real* results. Outside, of course. :-)

                  2. I have a cast iron wok that I got as a gift (along with Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge - the gift giver obviously didn't read it to see Grace's warnings about cast iron! ;) ) I also have weak output from my stove, which is rather old.

                    * The wok doesn't take THAT long to heat up - maybe three minutes.
                    * I have not experienced any problems with overcooking.
                    * I actually find the increased conductivity that kaleokahu mentioned to be helpful, especially in the meat phase.
                    * I obviously mix with the spatula only, as shaking that thing would be rather impossible. I would prefer the long pow handle, but as jljohn said, the wok needs to match the stove.

                    The only times the weight becomes an issue:
                    -- when I want to get the meat out and start on the vegetables, I'd rather be able to dump it all onto a plate instead of having to scoop it out with the spatula. It's harder to get all of the yummy juices that way.
                    -- when I'm transporting it to cook at someone else's house, sometimes I wish it wasn't such a ridiculous mass for me to lug around. Pretty much needs it's own seat in the truck!

                    All of this said, I have never had the pleasure of using a carbon steel piece. As soon as I become a millionaire and build my dream kitchen, I will be upgrading for sure. But I think as long as you have a weak stove, sticking the the cast iron is best.

                    1. Those Grace Young books are just wonderful, and certainly do inspire one to "up one's game" to use your words. Why not just get a 14" pao wok from the Wok Shop and try it out? You don't really have to *replace* your CI wok. I love, love, love my CS wok and have learned to compensate for my lame household gas output and have made better Chinese dishes than I'd ever have dreamed. Go out and get one, season it, and start making some recipes. Like chem said, tossing is really a critical part of stir-frying. I have a CI wok that was gifted to me and it's never been used. One day I'll try it but I can't see any reason to right now. Good luck!

                      1. Thanks everyone for the excellent feedback. I am delighted to hear from both the carbon steel partisans and from those who have been using cast iron successfully. In the end, I think Kaleo is right -- this is all about trade-offs. Heat retention vs. mobility, tossability, and fun.

                        You carbon steel people got me thinking about fun. Whatever its merits, my cast iron wok is not fun. ("Such a ridiculous mass for me to lug around"...Kontxesi, I think we have the same model!)

                        So I just ordered a flat-bottomed 14" carbon steel pao wok from the Wok Shop. I will give it a whirl and then compare its performance to the cast iron. Give me a couple of months to report back.

                        2 Replies
                          1. re: CathleenH

                            I look forward to hearing your results. If it works for you, I might treat myself to a new wok when I move. :)

                            (Mine's a Lodge, btw.)

                          2. I bought a second hand LeCreuset cast iron wok a while back (mainly due to the large hype on the net) and tried it but did not like it at all. The food never came out the same as when using a "normal" wok. So, I sold it recently (and funny enough ended up with a profit). At the moment I am using an All Clad chef's pan for stir fries. The AC is better than cast iron but still not as good as a carbon steel wok.

                            1. First of all - "Must" should never, or rarely, come into any cooking conversation. There's no "must".

                              I've had an imported round-bottom carbon-steel wok that my mom gifted me with back in 1974. Would never be interested in any other. Yes, I do have to use a ring on my coil electric range, but that baby gets WHITE HOT, & I believe I can cook anything in it that anyone else claims they can only do with a flat-bottom on a gas range.

                              As for a cast-iron wok? Not interested. I really feel the relative lightness of a carbon-steel wok & it's other attributes far outweigh anything a carbon-steel wok has to offer. Lord, I have enough trouble hefting my cast-iron skillets never mind a wok - lol!!!

                              (And yes, I do know that iron/cast iron woks are used in many areas of Asia. If you want that sort of authenticity - go for it. If you want to enjoy cooking without breaking a wrist, stick with carbon steel - lol!)

                              1. This has been an interesting thread for me as I am in the same boat pretty much. Gas cooktop (but not wok burner). Taking the extra time to heat it up is not a problem at all for me. I crank it and continue my prep. It gets hot alright so no problem there. Nonetheless I am not happy with the bland flavours I'm getting with my bare cast iron Le Creuset wok.

                                Silly to blame the wok entirely, of course, it's mostly my technique with it. I have learned to cut down on the portion sizes going in and cook various groups of ingredients separately to be briefly re-united at the end.

                                Now I'm thinking I'm still over cooking and need to think more about the superior heat retention of the cast iron and how to cope with that.

                                I also need to be more subtle with the soy sauce. Too clumsy and ending with flavourless pile, I won't say mush or inedible, but it's not floating my boat.

                                I hope I can lift my game, it's a perfect healthy cooking style for a bachelor. Fun too, when you do it right.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: jhamiltonwa

                                  <Nonetheless I am not happy with the bland flavours I'm getting with my bare cast iron Le Creuset wok.>

                                  Maybe not straightly on the main topic, but I won't believe Le Cresuset offers bare cast iron woks. It sells enameled cast iron woks. Even black interior ones are enameled.

                                  http://www.amazon.com/Le-Creuset-Enam...

                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    Hi Chem, I got it in the mid nineties in Australia. It's not enamel that is dark and roughish that's now on some modern LC pans. It's bare, with "Le Creuset" cast into the one of the D handles.

                                    A friend worked for the distributors of LC here in Oz and I went to town on staff discounts. That's why I bought it, even then I was aware carbon steel was the traditional way to go but I figured this was a bargain (as bargain as LC ever gets) and cast iron "had to be better". It's sat in my cupboard under used because I never really got great food out of it, only okay food. I want to fix tht.

                                2. I love to stir-fry. It is becoming my central means of cooking. Even if my husband picks up something at the corner store, it is easy to jsut stir fry for myself. I have 3 WOK's, a cast iron, a stainless steel, and a non-stick. The cast iron is very slow, and I have a "super stove", just be careful to make sure it is at temp before using and yes, when you re-combine foods usually at end, you need to get it out of the WOK to prevent over cooking and go to a platter. For me, it is the slowness I do not like. I despise the stainless steel WOK, it takes too much oil to stop sticking- it is off my list. My non-stick is a German made, and I do like it very much. I am going to buy a carbon steel traditional WOK, in constant daily use, the rust should not be a problem and it will get seasoned. If you are not going to use a lot, the carbon steel may get rust spots, you can't let it siak it water- this is carbone steel- not stainless- it can rust. The constant use is what keeps the carbon steel rust free. the cast iron is just too slow for me- drives me nuts. wish I had not bought it, or the stainless one. For my dollar, go with an expensive clad non-stick and or a carbon steel. As I am using it daily, I expect to transition to the carbon steel and not look back.

                                  1. OH- forgot the initial question- NO keep the cast WOK if you like it, my objection is NOT the quality of the food, it is the speed. As long as you do not mind heating it up to full speed, it is just as good as any !

                                    1. I'm very curious as to what your experience has taught you in the past 12 months. Have you decided that a carbon steel wok is better for you or perhaps you use both depending on the particular recipe you are preparing? I purchased a cast iron wok because I thought that it might get a little hotter than a carbon steel. I have a glass-ceramic range and the Wokshop recommended a cast iron wok. (not sure why) I'm sure that I'll experiment with a carbon steel wok in the future and would very much like to know what you feel is the difference between the two both pro and con. Thanks.

                                      1. I suppose this is a bit late so for what it's worth.
                                        I had the same problem with the Lodge cast iron wok
                                        I bought. Couldn't get enough heat from the largest
                                        of my burners on my gas stove.
                                        The wok sat about gathering dust up 'til the time
                                        I decided to buy an induction cooking unit.
                                        The two were made for each other.
                                        The induction cooker heats up the wok very fast
                                        and very hot.
                                        The cast iron nature of the wok holds the heat.
                                        What once was nothing more than a boat anchor has
                                        become a useful tool in my kitchen.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: jcisn

                                          Which brand of induction unit did you buy? I've thought about buying one but the ones that I've looked at didn't look very well made to me. Did you find one that you like?

                                        2. It's a Burton Max. Nothing special....but it works.
                                          My only issues are that the ring of induction is smaller
                                          than what I was hoping for (doesn't work all that well
                                          with a 12 inch cast iron skillet)
                                          And I have to be careful with the plastic plate covering the various buttons when I clean the top surface.
                                          Aside from that I've no complaints.

                                          1. My wife and I are now into our 7th Wok.

                                            We've been to various cities in China, and enjoy what we learned there. Woks with long handles are not normal in China, and are called " American-style Woks. " for that reason. Cloth towel on the wok to protect the hands and yes, cooks there do shake the woks, more than toss.

                                            The general mantra there is very hot heat source which is usually high gas flow, and a well seasoned wok which heats up fast and cools down fast. 5 minutes or less for a meal cooked in a wok. That does not always fit our needs back home.

                                            We use gas outdoors and induction indoors, using stainless steel woks that allow any cooking hob type, including induction. They are heavy, they hold heat which we want, and aren't inexpensive. No seasoning is ever needed and they clean well.

                                            The first question I might ask you is what is your heat source ? Most can be " enhanced " with the exception of an electric cook top.

                                            " They Cool slowly... " Hmm. The simple solution might be to plate the finished dish out of your wok when it is at 80 % done, as it will still cook a little on the plate. We do this with Italian pasta too, otherwise it may overcook in sauce. It does not have to stay in the wok when finished.

                                            I suggest you continue with what you have, and try a few different wok types before investing in one. It is a great form of cooking good healthy meals, using minimal oil, but your wok equipment does not have to be expensive.

                                            I hope this is helpful.

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