With simple dishes, proper tools and elevated ingredients make all the difference. Case in point: cooking a stir fry in a wok, a tool distinguished by its ability to reach and retain ripping-hot temperatures, but also, given its shape — tall, sloped sides — enable (if not encourage) liberal tossing.
Carbon steel, the material most commonly found in woks, heats evenly and becomes non-stick when properly seasoned. This makes it ideal for swift, high-temperature stir fries. Flat-bottom woks sit squarely on stovetops, allowing for more concentrated heat, as opposed to round-bottom pans, which require special rings to sit stably on burners, in turn reducing direct contact with the heat source.
A wok 12–14 inches in diameter is spacious enough to allow for liberal tossing — the key to an even distribution of ingredients — yet isn’t so large that it’s unwieldy. Woks made from hammered or spun steel are preferable, with ridges that grip food along the side of the pan as newer ingredients are added to the center.
For further ease of use, look for a pan with a long handle. Characteristic of northern-style woks, the long handle allows for easier tossing and a better distribution of ingredients than Cantonese-style woks, which have small, round handles on either side of the pan.
Unlike with stainless steel cookware and chef’s knives, cost doesn’t necessarily correlate to quality. So long as a pan is made from carbon steel, with a flat bottom, textured sides and a handle, it gets the job done.
Joyce Chen 14-Inch Carbon Steel Wok
Joyce Chen’s spun wok is made from 2mm-thick carbon steel and has a 14-inch diameter, flat bottom and ergonomically designed, heat-resistant handle. It checks all the boxes without breaking the bank. It’s a notch thicker than the brand’s Classic Series line — a small tweak that improves heat retention, durability and ease of handling.
Cen Lian Gen Handmade Carbon Steel Wok
Brothers Cen Rong Gen and Cen Lian Gen are the last remaining craftsmen making carbon steel woks by hand in all of China. While their cookware was formerly available through Williams Sonoma, the easiest way to purchase their wares is directly from their Shanghai workshop. And, yes, while their woks stray from our recommended flat bottom and Northern-style handle, the hand-hammered craftsmanship sets it in a league far above any factory-made wok.