Wok or skillet?

To make Chinese or Thai dishes as tasty as those from your favorite restaurant, you need a cooking vessel that provides each morsel of food with an even coating of oil and a blast of high heat. It's the combination of these two factors that locks in flavor, creates a caramelized texture and -- in the case of vegetables -- brings out rich, appetizing colors.

Although the experts from Cook's Illustrated magazine suggest that a regular skillet is up to the task, Grace Young, a cookbook author and blogger for The New York Times website, says the deep, sloping sides of a wok make foods tumble and roll in an optimal fashion as you stir and flip the ingredients over heat. Young also points out that you need less oil in a wok, compared with a skillet, because the diameter of the cooking surface is smaller. This, she says, results in more healthful cooking.

Woks come in a variety of materials, including carbon steel, anodized aluminum and cast iron. Carbon steel is the workhorse of the category because of its excellent cooking performance, durable construction and affordable cost. Cast iron, which tends to be more expensive, has the benefit of imparting healthful iron into food, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But for some cooks, cast iron's heavy weight is a deal breaker. Anodized-aluminum woks generally come with a nonstick finish, which makes cleaning and care easier, but experts and users find that they don't deliver the same level of browning and the same crispy texture as carbon steel. Another convenient option is an electric wok, although some reviewers note that heat output is superior with a stovetop product.

Some things to keep in mind when purchasing and using a wok:

  • Size matters. There's nothing worse than filling a wok to the brim with ingredients - only to find out that the cooked meal will serve just half of your family. To make sure you have room for plenty of ingredients, look for a wok with a diameter of at least 12 to 14 inches. If you choose a flat-bottom wok, the flat part should measure about 6.5-inches in diameter.
  • Prepare to season your wok. Unless they have a nonstick coating, most woks require seasoning before the first use. Seasoning is a process that allows oil to seep into the wok's porous metal interior, creating a smooth nonstick finishes that resists rusting. It also involves scrubbing the wok to remove the protective coating that manufacturers apply before shipment. Seasoning instructions come with most woks, and many professional cooks and kitchen websites also offer seasoning methods.
  • Preheat before cooking. Expert cooks recommend preheating your carbon-steel wok before you add oil -- but how do you know when the pan is hot enough? The rule of thumb is to sprinkle a few drops of water onto the surface. If they evaporate within two seconds, the wok is ready for cooking. Note: you should never heat a nonstick wok without anything in it -- the pan will reach extremely high temperatures in only a couple minutes, according to the editors at Good Housekeeping.
  • Use the right oil. If you're stir-frying or searing at high heat, you'll need an oil with a high smoke point. Peanut, safflower, canola and grapeseed are suitable options; avoid extra-virgin olive oil, it burns at high temperatures.
  • Ditch the soap! Many nonstick woks are dishwasher safe, but just as many require hand washing. Experts suggest limiting your washing regimen to just hot water and a stiff nylon brush or nonscratch sponge, meaning don't use soap. Heat the wok over a low flame for a few seconds after washing, it will dry out any remaining moisture and help keep the wok from rusting.
  • Take care with nonstick. The chemicals PFOA and PTFE, which are used in the production of some nonstick cookware, are the subject of recent inquiries regarding potential health risks. As a result, many experts advise handling nonstick cookware (including nonstick woks) with care. This means following the manufacturer's guidelines regarding how much heat the wok can withstand; never heating an empty nonstick wok; and throwing out any wok if the nonstick surface is nicked, chipped or peeling. Consult the wok's manufacturer for additional tips. More information can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and FDA websites.
  • Lose the ring. Traditional woks have round bottoms that make them unsuitable for stovetops without a wok ring, a collar-like accessory that sits on the burner and holds the wok steady. Some reviewers say the ring adds too much distance between the cooking surface and the burner, which means the wok cannot get hot enough for optimal cooking. Others note that wok rings don't keep woks stable enough to be left alone. Many experts recommend flat-bottom woks that can sit directly on the burner.

Wok or skillet?

To make Chinese or Thai dishes as tasty as those from your favorite restaurant, you need a cooking vessel that provides each morsel of food with an even coating of oil and a blast of high heat. It's the combination of these two factors that locks in flavor, creates a caramelized texture and -- in the case of vegetables -- brings out rich, appetizing colors.

Although the experts from Cook's Illustrated magazine suggest that a regular skillet is up to the task, Grace Young, a cookbook author and blogger for The New York Times website, says the deep, sloping sides of a wok make foods tumble and roll in an optimal fashion as you stir and flip the ingredients over heat. Young also points out that you need less oil in a wok, compared with a skillet, because the diameter of the cooking surface is smaller. This, she says, results in more healthful cooking.

Woks come in a variety of materials, including carbon steel, anodized aluminum and cast iron. Carbon steel is the workhorse of the category because of its excellent cooking performance, durable construction and affordable cost. Cast iron, which tends to be more expensive, has the benefit of imparting healthful iron into food, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But for some cooks, cast iron's heavy weight is a deal breaker. Anodized-aluminum woks generally come with a nonstick finish, which makes cleaning and care easier, but experts and users find that they don't deliver the same level of browning and the same crispy texture as carbon steel. Another convenient option is an electric wok, although some reviewers note that heat output is superior with a stovetop product.

Some things to keep in mind when purchasing and using a wok:

  • Size matters. There's nothing worse than filling a wok to the brim with ingredients – only to find out that the cooked meal will serve just half of your family. To make sure you have room for plenty of ingredients, look for a wok with a diameter of at least 12 to 14 inches. If you choose a flat-bottom wok, the flat part should measure about 6.5-inches in diameter.
  • Prepare to season your wok. Unless they have a nonstick coating, most woks require seasoning before the first use. Seasoning is a process that allows oil to seep into the wok's porous metal interior, creating a smooth nonstick finishes that resists rusting. It also involves scrubbing the wok to remove the protective coating that manufacturers apply before shipment. Seasoning instructions come with most woks, and many professional cooks and kitchen websites also offer seasoning methods.
  • Preheat before cooking. Expert cooks recommend preheating your carbon-steel wok before you add oil -- but how do you know when the pan is hot enough? The rule of thumb is to sprinkle a few drops of water onto the surface. If they evaporate within two seconds, the wok is ready for cooking. Note: you should never heat a nonstick wok without anything in it -- the pan will reach extremely high temperatures in only a couple minutes, according to the editors at Good Housekeeping.
  • Use the right oil. If you're stir-frying or searing at high heat, you'll need an oil with a high smoke point. Peanut, safflower, canola and grapeseed are suitable options; avoid extra-virgin olive oil, it burns at high temperatures.
  • Ditch the soap! Many nonstick woks are dishwasher safe, but just as many require hand washing. Experts suggest limiting your washing regimen to just hot water and a stiff nylon brush or nonscratch sponge, meaning don't use soap. Heat the wok over a low flame for a few seconds after washing, it will dry out any remaining moisture and help keep the wok from rusting.
  • Take care with nonstick. The chemicals PFOA and PTFE, which are used in the production of some nonstick cookware, are the subject of recent inquiries regarding potential health risks. As a result, many experts advise handling nonstick cookware (including nonstick woks) with care. This means following the manufacturer's guidelines regarding how much heat the wok can withstand; never heating an empty nonstick wok; and throwing out any wok if the nonstick surface is nicked, chipped or peeling. Consult the wok's manufacturer for additional tips. More information can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and FDA websites.
  • Lose the ring. Traditional woks have round bottoms that make them unsuitable for stovetops without a wok ring, a collar-like accessory that sits on the burner and holds the wok steady. Some reviewers say the ring adds too much distance between the cooking surface and the burner, which means the wok cannot get hot enough for optimal cooking. Others note that wok rings don't keep woks stable enough to be left alone. Many experts recommend flat-bottom woks that can sit directly on the burner.

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