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Wok vs. skillet for stir-frying

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Cook's Illustrated recently determined that a skillet works better for stir-frying on a western-style stove because more metal comes into contact with the fire as opposed to a Chinese style where the wok sits down in a hole. I thought one of the benfits of a wok was you used less oil than in a skillet.

Any thoughts?

"Last week Uncle Vinnie came over from Sicily and we took him to the Olive Garden. The next day the family car exploded."

--Nick DePaolo

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Traditionally wok-cooking needs a wok burner, and (just guessing) but at least 60% of the bottom is over the heat. And boy is that burner strong, like a mini-jet engine. Wok-cooking is very hot and very fast. So in average western homes, the stove is flat so less surface area on a wok since its rounded, skillets are flat. Less heat is all i'm assuming is what CI is proving here, thus less efficient cooking.


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Lots of Chinese people use skillets at home. The problem with CI's recommendation is they also tell you to use a nonstick pan, which is silly for stir frying. Not only will the nonstick coating decompose very quickly when using the high heat required of stir frying, but since the surface itself does not transfer heat as well as metal, the food cooked in it won't taste as good, either.

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Our wonderful hzrt8w has many great dishes (with pictures) where he has made the dish step-by-step --- all in a flat pan.

(They use to be listed in the topic section on top of these posts. Where are they now?

I first started out stir/frying in a large iron skillet. It worked just fine. The pan was heavy, but there was plenty of space and heat, AND the pan was well seasoned. BUT-------Using a wok gives me more flexibility. The sides of a wok make it easy to move ingredients around with a chinese utencil. And the woks with a handle give you lots of control over how you cook.

This coming fall, my cooking class is cooking a meal with only pots and pans -- no woks. It can be done, of course. I just prefer using a wok.

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I once heated my wok too much and the oil flamed when I added it, so I'm guessing I'm getting a lot of heat.

"Last week Uncle Vinnie came over from Sicily and we took him to the Olive Garden. The next day the family car exploded."

--Nick DePaolo

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Traditionally wok-cooking needs a wok burner

I've never seen one in any Chinese home.

Lots of Chinese people use skillets at home.

Never seen it. And the local kitchen supplies shops don't have them.

HEN YOU YISI!! 很有意思 -- very interesting!

So what happened to woks in China?

Beanie --Thanks for that link. Clicking on the titles of the dishes hzrt8w has cooked, shows how his flat pan is well able to turn out dishes of all kinds.

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There have been a few discussion threads on wok and burners in this forum. You may want to search for them as this topic has been discussed a few times.

I live in the USA. I do cook, to date still, all my Chinese home cookings with my 2 12-inch stainless steel frying pans (not the heavy iron skillets). I have done that for over 20 years. They are adequate for me for the most part. I do have a wok. But I believe to use a wok effectively we need to have a comparable gas stove. Most of the gas ranges in the common households of the USA are too "slow".

How do most Chinese cook at home in Hong Kong or Mainland China? They use woks mostly. But... one major difference I think... the gas ranges/stoves in Hong Kong/China are "stronger". The burner rings are bigger. Some have double rings. For home cooking with a wok, those work fairly well.

In the 60's/70's in Hong Kong, my father used to use an old kerosine stove (not the kind with compressed air, but the older kind that used several wicks to soak up kerosine). He used a wok, of course. We could still cook most stir-fried dishes. Just that we won't get the "wok hei" (breath of a wok) in our food.

W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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My wok ring here in my apartment in Beijing is very strong - I had a so-called wok ring in my house in the UK, but this one here in China blows that one away. My great-aunties place has a two-set burner which runs even fiercer and hotter.

Now, the funny thing is that in all the supermarkets they sell non-stick woks :unsure:

One thing I do know is that, outside of western-style cookstores, it's really hard to find a skillet here. I got mine at a professional hotel cookware store. I've also never seen one in a local kitchenware store...

<a href='http://www.longfengwines.com' target='_blank'>Wine Tasting in the Big Beige of Beijing</a>

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Yes, we've discussed this topic in depth many times before. A search would prove enlightening. However...

I've actually used woks even on electric stoves with no wok ring. I just got good at compensating for the teetering. Aside from all the other advantages, for a klutz like me a wok just better ensures I won't flip food out onto the floor!

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I use a skillet on my gas stove, but always wonder what I might be missing in the way of wok hei. Also, I'm short, and even working in a skillet, my arm gets tired pointing my elbow in the 1 or 2 o'clock position for the entire time.

Mr. Care suggested that we consider getting an outside wok. He saw the Eastman wok kit (about $200), but further research found the Eastman Baby Kahuna (only $60). They both have 65,000 BTUs and adjustable legs. (I haven't done an in-depth comparison of the burners--they may be essentially identical.)

Does anyone have experience with these or any of the similar products?

Life is short. Eat the roasted cauliflower first.

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I use a skillet on my gas stove, but always wonder what I might be missing in the way of wok hei.  Also, I'm short, and even working in a skillet, my arm gets tired pointing my elbow in the 1 or 2 o'clock position for the entire time.

Mr. Care suggested that we consider getting an outside wok.  He saw the Eastman wok kit (about $200), but further research found the Eastman  Baby Kahuna (only $60).  They both have 65,000 BTUs and adjustable legs.  (I haven't done an in-depth comparison of the burners--they may be essentially identical.)

Does anyone have experience with these or any of the similar products?

If the Baby Kahuna has the same burner and output as the Big Kahuna, go for it. I wouldn't recommend the kit with a 22" wok; I have the Big Kahuna and 16" - 18" carbon steel is ideal.

Monterey Bay area

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I too would go for it in a flash. The specs seem to indicate that the dual ring burners are the same.

I've been cooking for 10 years on a single ring burner turkey fryer rated at 48K BTU (brand name forgotten as it was a Sam's Club special). With a 16" carbon steel wok with wooden handle, we get consistent wok hei out the wazoo. Some folks talk about the need for 100K or even more, but that 65K on the Baby Kahuna will definitely do the job.

For stability and added height, we added a "log cabin" base of 2 to 3 foot long landscape timbers screwed together, and routed out some depressions where the burner's feet are tightly nestled. It's sturdy as a rock, and stays out year round on the deck.

It may be worth an email to the manufacturer to be assured that the ring burners are indeed the same.


If you purchase, I'd be curious to know how easily the regulator works to bring flame quickly up and down. I've always wanted one of those foot pumps that the pros use to put 'er into overdrive.

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A good cook can adapt to any type of cooking utensil - wok, skillet, pot, frypan. Once upon a time, our restaurant's 4-wok system conked out at the height of rush hour but the cooks didn't even bat an eyelash. They used frypans and pots on the commercial range and one guy even produce excellent food on the flat griddle.

Adaptability is a great word, no?

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I have to think back to a series I think Ken Hom (???) did where he cooked with his mom in Hong Kong. Complete postage stamp kitchen. I think at least one burner was one of those portable ones. Lots of great food. I understand the whole thing about a super hot wok and the lovely things that happen so quickly as to be almost magic, and I enjoy it when I can, but lots of wonderful Chinese food gets cooked in really tiny, poorly equipped kitchens- yes I try to be adaptable but also have explored the possibility of an outdoor wok set-up just for fun.

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Back in the villages of Toysan, every house had an earthen hearth/wok stove and a 24" wok. The firebox was fed from the front and the fuel was dried brush that the women of the household cut from the surrounding hillsides. Sometimes to get good woody brush, the women would have to travel quite a distance and tote it back on shoulder poles. The brush was stacked in the style of old haystacks about 12 feet high, and depending on the size of the family there may be 3-4 of these stacks in back of the house. This practice still goes on, despite the advent of modern fuels. Days and days of work for the womenfolk.

Dry cut brush is almost the ideal fuel for those conditions because it flares very hot and fast, and the cook controls the heat by controlling fuel supply...a handful of brush for more heat etc.

I would assume that the people in the northern part of China would use coal, which is more abundant.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I use a traditional round bottom steel wok on a regular gas stove, I just have gotten used to balancing it on the grates. :biggrin:

Not the ideal obviously, but I found that the flat-bottom works just weren't as useful without the concave bottom. But if you MUST use a wok on a regular stove, the flat bottom kind is probably the best.

While you CAN do most stir-frys, etc in a regular skillet, I've found that it gets too messy due to the short sides. The nice curve to the helps catch oil splatter and keep it from getting all over your stove. Due to the high heat required to properly stir-fry, cooking in a regular skillet gets too messy for my liking.

One option is to get one of those portable wok burners that hook up to a propane tank. I stayed with a friend's aunt who had one of those on their balcony and they did all of their stir-frying out on the balcony. They get pretty hot (30-40k btus) but it's pretty ghetto.

If you can get a wok range installed in your kitchen with a wok ring... I'm jealous.

Edibility is a state of mind.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Cook's Illustrated recently determined that a skillet works better for stir-frying on a western-style stove because more metal comes into contact with the fire as opposed to a Chinese style where the wok sits down in a hole. I thought one of the benfits of a wok was you used less oil than in a skillet.

Any thoughts?

When we talk about a skillet, are we referring to a saute pan or a frying pan? To me, a saute pan would be a better choice since you could flip and move the food in a similar manner to the way the food gets moved around in a traditonal wok.

And, what kind of material would you want for such a pan? Would something like All-Clad copper or stainless steel be better?

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  • 2 weeks later...
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