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Jan 23, 2013 07:57 PM

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.

    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.