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J. Kenji López-Alt usually reaches for his wok. It isn’t some heavy tri-ply that set him back $250, either. It’s light, cheap and blackened by 20-plus years of heavy use. He loves it, and he’s just taken the affair public.
Kenji — as he’s known to his over 1 million subscribers on YouTube — mentions woks, albeit briefly, in his 2016 James Beard Award-winning culinary tome The Food Lab. But it’s in The Wok, his near-700-page manifesto released this spring, where he fully shares the secrets of cooking’s most versatile tool.
To prepare, we asked Kenji what features to look for when buying a new wok.
Go with carbon steel
Carbon steel’s high volumetric heat capacity means it can sear with the best of them while remaining thin enough to stir and toss with ease. As a bonus, Kenji says, “it’s virtually indestructible. I’ve had the same wok for over 20 years and I cook in it all the time.”
You want a 14-inch diameter wok
Skip the 22-inch wok from your favorite Chinese joint. You want 14 inches, lip-to-lip — large enough to cook for a family of four while still remaining nimble. “When you’re stir-frying food,” says Kenji, “the most important thing is to get the food moving around and up in the air.”
Get 14- or 16-gauge steel
“Oftentimes in a recipe, you’ll be adjusting the heat many times over the course of just a few minutes,” says Kenji, so you need a wok thin enough to respond quickly to these temperature changes. Careful now: too thin and it’ll become unstable and warp.
A flat bottom is key
For electric, induction and gas ranges, Kenji likes to keep his wok bottoms flat. Sure, round bottoms are traditional, but they require a gas range with a wok ring for stability, which “ends up elevating your wok too far above the flame to be effective. In the kitchen, heat dissipates at the inverse square law.”
A long wooden handle is best
“For people familiar with Western equipment, the long handle is the way to go,” says Kenji, who prefers a wooden-handled pow wok, in contrast to Cantonese-style woks, which have two ear-shaped handles. “I look for one with a relatively low angle and a helper handle on the other side. Sometimes you want to lift the whole thing.”
Now, here are the best woks to buy.