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I saw the question on the site about preparing a wok, but I'm curious what kind I should get. I have heard of stainless steel, carbon steel, aluminum, etc. Also, there's a non-stick variety. I'm new to stir fry and will be cooking on an electric ceramic stovetop.

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define 'normal stovetop' ... gas or electric ? –  Joe Jul 16 '10 at 20:32
    
Fixed it. Thanks. –  mouche Jul 16 '10 at 20:58
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7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

You should get a carbon steel wok with two short handles (not one long handle).

You want the steel to build up a patina of oxidized oils, which rules out stainless steel and aluminum and non-stick. You could conceivably get a cast-iron wok, but those are really heavy.

You want the two small handles so you can pick up the wok, but you don't want long handles that will dump hot oil or food everywhere if you bump them. Unlike a saute pan, you don't toss the pan, you toss the food. (Tossing the pan pulls it away from the flame, which is bad when stir-frying!)

Your best bet is to go to an Asian grocery. You'll be assured of getting a product at a good price. Shouldn't cost more than $25, I don't think.

Oh, one other question is what sort of stove you have. If you have an electric stove, (a) I'm sorry, and (b) you have to get a flat-bottomed wok. If you have a gas stove, you can either get a flat-bottomed wok or a round-bottomed wok, but the latter only if you get a wok ring that holds the pan just above the flame. You want as much heat going into that pan as you possibly can manage!

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As one of the electric stove people, I'd recommend the flat-bottomed wok over the ring -- you get better contact, and better heat transfer. I'd prefer using a saute pan to a round wok and just not over-crowd the pan (which may require cooking in batches) –  Joe Jul 16 '10 at 20:52
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The Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen testers argue forcefully that a wok on an electric stovetop is suboptimal -- they're designed to sit on top of a fire or gas burner with flames licking around the base, and a wok's small area of contact with the heat source when used on a conventional hob results in something more like stir-steaming than stir-frying. They recommend a 12" frying pan/skillet instead. Other people's experiences may vary, but I haven't bothered with a wok since university and I would definitely question the need for one to make great stir-fry.

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Supposing that you have a gas stove, a simple and cheap thin steel wok will stand you in great stead. They are tough, light and easy to shake about, and will take a wonderful seasoning with use.

(Seasoning refers to the layer of cooked in oil which gives the wok its "non-stickness". it is very important to avoid washing up liquid, just cleaning it with hot water and a brush or similar).

I personally like a long handle; but a wok ring is essential as Harlan says.

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And to translate for the Americans : "washing up liquid" == "dish soap" –  Joe Jul 16 '10 at 20:48
    
Seriously? "Dish soap"? Wow, learn a new thing every day... –  Joel in Gö Jul 16 '10 at 20:54
    
+1 for thin steel. –  s_hewitt Jul 16 '10 at 21:13
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The best and cheapest solution I've ever see is the one I have. It requires a deck, patio, or something though.

I went to Chinatown in Toronto and at a restaurant supply store bought a carbon steel wok. It was about $25. You can get them anywhere. The secret to wok cooking is temperature. In the US, burners are generally limited to 15k btu. You need much more for the authentic taste.

What you need is a wok burner. I bought one for one $100 at the same store. It's basically a 7 inch wide triple fire ring burner made of cast iron. It's enclosed in a 15x15 inch frame which the wok will properly rest on. It's very strong and pretty large so I also use my 20 quart pressure canner on it.

This burner hooks up to propane, but you can get ones that use natural gas. It's 66k btu. Absolutely the best and cheapest purchase I've made in years. It uses much less gas than grilling, is much faster, and I use it for a larger variety of food.

Note: these types of burners are not rated for indoor use. They are incredible though.

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I've experimented with a few. As mentioned here non-stick woks get quickly ruined with the high heat you need and given that you pay extra it probably isn't worth it.

Probably my main advice would be to get a wok of the right size, for cooking at home I suggest tending towards smaller rather larger. Obviously a smaller wok is easier to heat up.

Personally, I would go for a cheap and cheerful steel wok which requires a bit of seasoning. Don't use heavy astringent chemicals or abrasives when cleaning it.

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For an electric stove, I wouldn't even bother. Buy a good quality dutch oven and use that instead.

For a gas stove, carbon steel or just plain-old-steel is vastly preferable to aluminum, stainless, and especially to nonstick. According to Mrs. Chiang's cookbook, aluminum and stainless won't hold the heat right. According to me non-stick is a bad idea; the high heat will destroy the coating, and you will end up with non-stick stuff in your food.

Go to your local chinese grocery, and get it there. Prices will be cheaper and quality higher.

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Why not use a wok for an electric stove? –  mouche Jul 16 '10 at 20:59
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Since you are new to stir fry I would suggest you to buy the non stick one. So you don't have to worry about seasoning the wok and all that. Then if you find yourself in the future in the need of a different wok you can buy it then. For now I'll go with the easiest one

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Thanks for the advice. That's reasonable. –  mouche Jul 16 '10 at 21:22
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This is not good advice. The whole point of stir-frying is that the bottom of the pan be extremely hot and the food gets progressively stirred onto and off of the bottom of the pan, developing browning and flavor but not burning because of the constant stirring. You cannot do that with a nonstick pan. You'll ruin the teflon and fill your food with carcinogens. If someone doesn't want to deal with high-heat cooking, they should stick to whatever flat pans they happen to already have. My suggestion is the real wok, plus a copy of From the Earth, a great Chinese vegetarian cookbook. –  Harlan Jul 16 '10 at 23:44
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