Step aside, Instant Pots and Air Fryers…

By Stacey Ballis
July 14, 2020
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How many adults of a certain age have a wok somewhere in the very back of their kitchen cabinets, long ignored? It’s time to pull it out and put it in front, friends. Because during the creative challenges of pandemic cookery, I’ve found this kitchen wallflower to be an underappreciated workhorse. Pull out your woks, America, and read on for how this budget-minded tool can play a daily role in your home cooking life.

Why a wok is wonderful

First, woks tend to be larger than traditional pans, which makes sautéing in them a joy, especially for someone like me who has a tendency to fling bits of things around during exuberant cooking. The sloped sides mean that you can park cooked ingredients temporarily up above the intense heat of the center while you cook the next step, and then easily re-incorporate those still-warm bits into your dish.

The wok is also the perfect vessel for cooking the abundant greens of summer, those magic leaves that are voluminous at the start of your recipe and cook down into nothingness. I can pile two full pounds of spinach or Swiss chard in mine at once, and not have to keep adding handfuls to a crowded pan in stages.

Think beyond the stir-fry

Any fast sauté is great in a wok, but maybe the best are hardy greens like collards or kale. A visit to a super-hot wok with a bit of oil and salt and these tough greens become sweet, nutty, and a whole new taste sensation; plus, you don’t have to wait all day for them to braise. Scrambled eggs cook so fast they don’t have time to dry out or get rubbery. And as a pan to bring together a pasta dish—that magic finishing of sauce, cooked pasta, pasta water, and cheese that is the difference between noodles with sauce on them and a fully integrated pasta dish—the wok rules all.

A budget-friendly piece

Even better, the best woks are not expensive. Don’t be seduced by nonstick surfaces, fancy accessories, or luxury brand names. If you have access to an Asian market, you can often find a great one there, or you can order online. Get the largest one you have room for, and don’t settle for smaller than 14 inches diameter. I prefer rounded bottoms, which work fine on my gas stovetop, but if that won’t work for you, get a wok ring or a flat-bottomed version.

Three woks to buy right now

 

Amazon

Buy it: Lightweight Cast Iron Wok ($68.99), amazon.com

This traditional hand-hammered wok is the style I use, and the one I. You should be able to find one at your local market. I don’t use it for steaming, so I don’t have a lid on mine, but if you want that feature, lids are easy to source.

Amazon

Buy it: Joyce Chen J21-9972 Classic Series Carbon Steel Wok Set ($35.77), amazon.com

If you want a flat-bottomed wok, this product is a good one and very affordable.

Sur la Table

Buy it: BK Black Steel Wok ($59.95), surlatable.com

Got a tiny kitchen, not much storage space, or just cook for yourself? This 12-inch version will do the trick.Take the wok challenge

The best way to learn how a wok is a pan to change your life, is to give it a week on your stove without putting it away. Suddenly, when it is there at the ready, you will discover which of your oft-cooked dishes are really made better and easier in this vessel. Who knows? You might even get (back) in the mood for an old-fashioned stir-fry!