11 best woks: Celebrate Chinese New Year with a speedy stir-fry
It's is the year of the rat, an animal associated with wealth and surplus in Chinese culture
There's no better time to cook up a serious stir fry as Chinese New Year celebrations begin this weekend. The event falls on 25 January this year and will run until 15 February, and is the year of the rat according to Chinese zodiac.
A good wok means dinner is on the table in a matter of minutes. But should you go round or flat-bottomed? Non-stick or untreated carbon steel?
Purists may say only round-bottomed woks are allowed, but they’re only suitable to high-powered gas flames so anyone with an induction, halogen or electric hob misses out on the fun. If you’ve got gas, go for a round-bottomed wok with a single long handle, as the pan will heat quicker, food moves freely and you can toss the ingredients over a hot flame. Flat-bottomed woks suit all other hobs, are more stable, and will still make a tasty dinner.
Most often used for stir-fries, woks are actually incredibly versatile and should also be pulled out the cupboard to deep-fry, steam, poach, toast nuts, or even try home smoking. If you regularly cook for four people, get a large wok about 30cm or more. Bigger is always better, as it avoids overcrowding ingredients and steaming rather than frying them.
Woks are either carbon steel, spun or cast iron, or forged aluminium. The carbon steel variety heat quickly, but spun iron and forged aluminium heat more evenly. If you want something light, hot and nimble go for carbon steel or spun iron, and if you want a robust kitchen workhorse, try forged aluminium.
These versatile pans either have a non-stick coating, or are untreated carbon steel or iron. Non-stick woks are low maintenance and good for hectic households, but they won’t last forever, as the coating can scratch or wear out. They can’t stand high heat like uncoated carbon steel and iron, and you must use plastic utensils. Pick PFOA-free non-stick coatings where possible.
Non-treated carbon steel woks require seasoning before use, but if you’ve got 20 minutes and a decent extractor fan it’s worth it for the satisfaction and improved natural non-stick, or patina, that develops with every meal. That said, non-stick woks also require conditioning with oil on first use, so all woks need a little extra care to keep them in top condition.
A good wok has wok hei; a direct translation is 2wok thermal radiation”, or more metaphorically “breath of the wok”, which is how well it transfers heat from the wok metal to the food. Good wok hei lends a distinctive smoky flavour, charred on the outside and cooked on-point. “Most people overcook things in the wok,” says chef Jeremy Pang. “Stir fries should take no longer than five minutes, which is why we chop ingredients up so finely. Make sure your wok is really hot, and layer ingredients into the wok rather than just throwing everything in at the same time.”
With this in mind, our panel tested each wok with two stir-fries (meat and veg) and egg-fried rice, and judged the wok against criteria for heat, ease of use, and end results on the food.
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Tips for cooking with a wok
- Use chef Jeremy Pang’s "wok clock" method: organise prepared ingredients on the counter in a clockwise circle so they’re ready in the order you’re going to cook them
- Avoid using ingredients straight from the fridge, unless the recipe states otherwise. Very cold ingredients bring the wok temperature down and impact cooking time
- The heat source should be the same size as the base of your non-stick wok, otherwise it may burn the handle or damage the sides of the wok
- Always use oil with a high smoke point, like vegetable, sunflower or rapeseed oil
- Store your wok with a piece of kitchen roll inside to avoid scratches and damage
Netherton Foundry spun iron wok, 33cm: £63.50, Netherton Foundry
Suitable for all hobs, this excellent flat-bottomed wok from British cookware producers Netherton Foundry was a unanimous favourite. It’s spun iron, so has all the durability and heat retention of cast iron without the weight. The wok is pre-seasoned with flax oil, so it’s ready to use immediately. It has an incredible natural non-stick finish, which only gets better with age and means you can turn up the heat or use metal implements without a worry, as long as you clean and dry it properly after each use. The wok is just 1mm thin, so it heated up quickly, gave egg-fried rice a perfect charred finish and cooked larger stir-frys evenly in the capacious 33cm body. The oak handle was comfortable to hold. It’s a flawless high-quality, handcrafted wok that will last for years.
School of Wok carbon steel rounded base wok, 33cm: £18.99, Lakeland
Simple and satisfying to cook with, this traditional, round-bottomed carbon steel wok carried a delicious charred flavour through the food and was easy to cook with. You have to season the wok before use: it comes with easy to follow instructions to prepare the wok and keep it clean, as well as tips for stir frying and deep-frying. It heated up quickly; there’s only a sheet of metal between the food and the flame, so it felt like a very real way to cook, and we could toss, stir and turn up the heat without worrying about an artificial non-stick coating. Broccoli charred nicely on the tips, and the round bottom meant small pieces of garlic and ginger moved freely without burning. A great option for a home cook who’d like to get into wok cooking.
Le Creuset toughened non-stick wok, 32cm: £109, John Lewis & Partners
This large wok has a toughened, PFOA-free non-stick coating that allows you to use metal utensils with care. It’s a useful all-rounder, as it can go under the grill and is oven safe to 260 degrees with lid. It’s dishwasher safe, and felt like one of the most robust non-stick pans we tested, as it could be preheated without any oil. Cantonese style short handles required oven gloves to hold, and we ended up stirring rather than tossing the food. Broccoli and bok choy had excellent colour in minimum oil, and egg did not stick at all. This is a great investment for a cook who’d like a durable, versatile wok.
Hancock flat-bottom wok, 36cm: £8.34 Wing Yip
You can’t go wrong with a cast iron wok from Wing Yip. You may see similar woks in your local specialist supermarket or China Town, as the deep sides, wooden handle and excellent value are all markers of a traditional wok. It needs seasoning, but it will then reward you with the perfect vessel for frying, steaming, making Chinese soups, and even smoking ingredients with wood chips or tea leaves. Also available in round-bottom style.
School of Wok non-stick flat bottom wok, 36cm: £27.99, Lakeland
This is a good value, well made, non-stick wok that would suit a larger family. The flat bottom fits any hob, and the rounded walls kept ingredients moving. Slight indent in bamboo handle made it comfortable to hold, even when at capacity. It is quite heavy, however, so the second handle was helpful when moving the wok to the table. For stubborn sticky bits, chef Jeremy Pang recommends half-filling the wok with water and bringing it to the boil rather than using a scourer.
De Buyer mineral B element wok, 32cm: £53.50, Knives and Tools
These pans are popular with chefs as they’re hard wearing, quality iron that’s safe with metal utensils and only needs washing with warm water to retain the patina. This large, robust wok suits a cook who wants to invest in a pan that will last for years. The protective beeswax coating was easily removed before first use and seasoning. The wok got hot quickly; perfect for searing beef, other meat, or charring veg at the beginning of a stir-fry. The small, flat bottom fits all hobs without compromising on depth or volume for larger servings. Also available in rounded-bottom style.
Circulon induction non-stick wok, 34cm: £44.95, Harts of Stur
The wok is – confusingly – called induction, but it suits all hob types, and it’s durable enough for metal utensils. The rather fancy “Total Hi-Low Food Release System” (otherwise known as non-stick) does indeed live up to the name: sticky rice moved swiftly across the silky coating with minimum oil and egg glided off the pan. The heavy gauge, hard-anodized surface had an even distribution of heat, and the rigid base that was easy to clean. The short, Cantonese-style handles required stirring more than tossing ingredients as it was harder to grip, but it has a small base and deep sides to enable easy movement of ingredients.
Tefal non-stick Everest wok, 28cm: £40, Dunelm
This hardwearing wok is best for busy family kitchens: the reinforced titanium non-stick coating is suitable for use with metal utensils and the signature Thermo Spot ring shows exactly when the wok is ready to go. It’s on the smaller side, but the wok interior curves back in on itself, which made mixing larger quantities of food much easier. The handle is light and easy to hold, and there’s a lifetime guarantee on the non-stick coating.
Salter marble collection forged aluminium non-stick wok, 28cm: £25, Argos
This is an elegant family-sized wok with marble-effect non-stick coating, and forged aluminium body. This wok is hard-wearing and dishwasher safe, it heated quickly and the non-stick surface required minimum oil for cooking. It fits all hob types including induction, however it’s only safe to use on a medium heat and it’s not suitable for deep-frying. The long handle was good for tossing stir-fry and good heat distribution prevented smaller ingredients from catching, however the second handle was a bit awkward and close to the heat.
Wilko long handled non-stick wok, 35cm: £11, Wilko
A cheap and cheerful wok that does the job. The non-stick coating isn’t going to last forever, but if you only stir-fry occasionally and use plastic utensils it will prolong the life. It heats up quickly and suits all hob types. While it is carbon steel, it didn’t have good heat distribution throughout the wok, which meant not all vegetables were evenly cooked in testing. It’s a large wok that will certainly feed a family, but don’t be tempted to overfill it, otherwise ingredients steam rather than fry.
Go Cook forged aluminium non-stick wok, 30cm: £25, Tesco
This wok would be good for a small family or couple looking for quick midweek cooking. The triple non-stick Teflon layer made easy work of egg-fried rice and charred the greens relatively well in testing. Deep sides and a comfortable handle made it easy to cook with. The riveted bottom stopped ingredients sticking to the wok, however the base is small so we had to use a smaller hob ring to avoid damaging the handle. The forged aluminium body is oven safe up to 180 degrees.
If you want an easy-to-season wok that’s suitable for all hobs, with natural, durable non-stick and delicious end results, get a Netherton Foundry spun iron wok. If you're looking to splurge, go for the versatile, family-sized, toughened non-stick wok from Le Creuset for an investment that will last.
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