Nothing brings the unique flavor of Asian cooking to a dish like a wok. For years, Chinese, Japanese and even South Asian cuisines have relied on this round-bottomed cooking vessel to impart a distinct flavor, known as "wok hei" in Chinese, to the food. When making stir fries, fried rice, curries or even fried dumplings or won tons, woks are the number one tool. They are great for stir fries because the bottom of the wok sits very close to the flame or heat source, creating a hot spot, while the upper edges of the wok slowly curve away from the heat source. This means that food at the bottom will flash cook under the intense heat. As the pan is stirred and shaken, the ingredients on the bottom, which might otherwise burn, move up to the cooler sides of the pan and other ingredients get their place in the hot spot.
The professional wok is not just a stir fry wok. One of the best uses for woks is for deep frying. Since a traditional wok has a round bottom, greater oil depth is created with less amount of oil, which saves oil from being wasted. The wok is also ideal for steaming with the appropriate wok accessories. A classic Asian-style steamer that has a diameter slightly less than the diameter of the Asian wok can be rested in the wok cookware with several inches of water underneath for steaming.
When choosing your woks, metal type and the shape of the wok is most important. In general, the best type of wok is cast iron wok or carbon steel wok. Cast iron is the most traditional type of wok and retains heat well, making it ideal for underpowered, residential stoves. Carbon steel woks do not retain heat for as long. This can actually be an advantage if you are cooking on a high-powered stove and you want a large temperature difference between the hot spot and the sides of the wok, which is ideal for stir frying. Steel has a similar function but without the durability of carbon steel. Stainless steel is also a good material for stir frying, but it is difficult to season the pan or create a non-stick finish. If you are looking for a non-stick coating on your wok without the hassles of seasoning and cleaning the pan by hand, go with an aluminum non stick wok.