A large wok made from sturdy materials can make the difference between crisp, flavorful stir-fries and noodle dishes, and limp or undercooked food. Good woks take up a lot of space in the kitchen, but let you keep food moving. You can choose from a range of regional styles, including northern Chinese, southern Chinese, Westernized woks, and more depending on your kitchen setup and how you cook. Woks can be made from carbon steel, aluminum, and cast iron, as well as many other materials. The best options transfer heat well, won't stick to food, and improve with age.
Restaurant-style Chinese, Thai, and other Asian dishes rely on the round shape and smooth surface of a well-seasoned wok. While this cooking device varies by region, it always has one or two handles and usually sports a bowl-shaped bottom that doesn't sit easily on a flat surface. While you can cook dishes like stir-fries in a flat-bottomed frying pan instead of a large wok, you'll get a better texture by using the authentic utensil. Woks allow for very fast frying over high heat, which sears meats and vegetables without overcooking them.
In general, a large wok performs better than a small one, since a crowded cooking surface can trap water vapor and reduce the overall heat. Choose the biggest wok that your kitchen can easily accommodate to allow for easy movement of food inside the bowl. Commercial woks, such as those used by restaurants, can be up to several feet (about one meter) across, but most home cooks can get by with a 14 to 20 inch (about 35 to 50 cm) wok.
There are a variety of woks from which you can choose, and it usually depends upon your personal preference. Northern Chinese woks usually sport a relatively deep bowl and a long handle for shaking the food, while southern Chinese models are shallower and have two metal handles, which are more suitable for carrying and hanging the wok. Indian woks, called karahi, have a slightly-flattened bottom, and can be used for stews and soups, as well as frying. Westernized woks blend features of a frying pan with the traditional large wok, often including fairly flat bottoms to make them compatible with electric stove burners. To use a round-bottomed wok on an electric burner, purchase a wok ring that supports the utensil.
Choosing the right material for your wok is another decision that can influence your purchase. Traditional Chinese woks use carbon steel, which develops a slick oil patina over time, but is not compatible with acidic food. These woks require a strong heat source and can rust if not cared for properly, but produce the most authentic results. Aluminum woks, common in Western kitchens, are lighter, but hold heat poorly and often include a non-stick coating for easy care. Cast iron types can be very heavy, but hold heat well and produce results similar to carbon steel. Avoid these woks for cooking methods that require you to shake or tip the pan.