Celebrate Chinese New Year 2022: The best woks for stir-frys, stews and more

·14-min read
Not just for noodles, rice or veggies, these versatile tools can braise, deep fry, steam,  and even whip up an omelette (iStock/The Independent )
Not just for noodles, rice or veggies, these versatile tools can braise, deep fry, steam, and even whip up an omelette (iStock/The Independent )

A quick and tasty stir-fry supper is the go-to for so many of us, especially in the wake of a New Year’s pledge to up the five-a-day. A wok, then, might be your new best friend – the piece of cookware that can transform a humble bag of bean sprouts, some tofu and a splash of sticky, sugary sauce into a mouth-watering Asian-inspired family dinner.

While a regular frying pan can often do the job quite nicely, the beauty of a traditional wok is its deeper, bowl-like exterior and its round-bottom that encourages the flames of a conventional gas hob to lick the base to create a faster, more agile cooking mode as the pan heats up.

Carbon steel and cast iron have historically been chef’s choice when it comes to a wok’s raw materials, but this doesn’t always translate to a consumer market. Though inexpensive, carbon steel requires a lifetime’s seasoning which means regular coatings of oil plus heat to build up the wok’s own “non-stick” properties over years. This in turn creates a wok’s unique, smoky flavour.

For those looking for less commitment, there’s a raft of aluminium and stainless steel varieties on the market, most boasting non-stick properties for ease of cooking and cleaning. With the nation’s hobs including gas, electric, induction and ceramic and more, most woks now sit pretty atop most stoves, with a rise too in flat-bottomed woks, much better suited for retracting the heat of an electric hob.

The great thing about a wok is that it’s not just for noodles, rice and veggies. These versatile vessels are perfect for braising meat, deep frying food, steaming or even for whipping up a quick omelette on your lunch break at home. Time to wok and roll.

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How we tested

We sizzled up two dishes for each wok in class: a meat dish with noodles and a classic vegetable stir fry in a sticky homemade sauce. We cooked on an electric, glass hob which did lack the theatre of roaring gas flames, but it was important that the majority of woks could withstand a full spectrum of stove tops.

We assessed the weight of each wok, its versatility, the length and material of the handle, the wok’s base and how quickly the wok reached peak heat. When cooking we were looking for minimum scratch marks, an even and uniform heat distribution and, where possible, a finish free of too many burnt bits. Lids were a bonus and we were keen to see how each wok came up in the wash.

The best woks for 2022 are:

  • Best overall – GreenPan venice pro extra ceramic non-stick wok, 30cm: £85, Johnlewis.com

  • Best for learning new tricks – School of Wok 35.5cm non-stick wok: £31.99, Lakeland.co.uk

  • Best British-made excellence – Samuel Groves classic 32cm non-stick stainless steel tri-ply wok: £170, Samuelgroves.com

  • Best electric wok – Judge non-stick electric wok: £61, Horwood.co.uk

  • Best carbon steel wok – Ken Hom classic carbon steel 10 piece wok set : £24.95, Onbuy.com

  • Best retro wok – Smeg 50’s style wok, 30cm: £149.95, Smeguk.com

  • Best heavyweight wok – Tower titan cast iron 32cm wok: £59.99, Towerhousewares.co.uk

  • Best starter wok – Elements black CVD wok long handle: £28, Dunelm.com

  • Best wok with substance – Kuhn Rikon essential wok 32cm: £79.95, Kuhnrikon.co.uk

  • Best budget wok – Typhoon world foods 31cm wok: £22.50, Typhoonhousewares.com

GreenPan venice pro extra ceramic non-stick wok, 30cm

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

If you have a family and want to invest in a timeless pan that will save you crucial minutes at dinner, this non-stick wok can stand daily use and is dishwasher-friendly. There’s many similarities to the Smeg version (£149.95, Smeguk.com), but comes with a more digestible price tag and offers reassurance when on the hob – both sturdy and stylish.

The wok took quite a while to heat but the ceramic non-stick coating (specific to Belgian makers GreenPan and free from harmful toxins) helped our ingredients to cook freely and evenly, while our metal spatula, used for breaking up egg and rice, caused no scratches to the base. An extra eco-point is GreenPan’s pledge to use, where possible, upcycled stainless steel and aluminium in the making of its pans. An excellent all-rounder.

Buy now £85.00, Johnlewis.com

School of Wok 35.5cm non-stick wok

Best: For learning new tricks

Rating: 8/10

Straight from the kitchen of Covent Garden’s award-winning School of Wok, this non-stick wok was developed under the expert eye of the school’s founder, chef Jeremy Pang, who recommends a non-stick option for fast, mid-week meals or if you’re dipping your toe into Asian cuisine for the first time.

The wok delivered fantastic results with little effort required. At 35.5cm with a flat bottom, the wok felt robust on the hob while still allowing for a lightness of touch when it came to folding, flicking and tossing our ingredients into a fast and tasty supper. Suitable for all types of hobs it also comes with a three-year guarantee from Lakeland. Super value for its price point.

Buy now £31.99, Lakeland.co.uk

Samuel Groves classic 32cm non-stick stainless steel tri-ply wok

Best: British-made excellence

Rating: 9/10

“Buy once, use forever” is the promise of Midlands-based cookware specialists Samuel Groves, which brings over two centuries of craftsmanship to the kitchen. Presented in a hessian bag, this sleek, elegant three-ply wok feels like a supreme piece of kit for your arsenal of pans. At its core is a thermally efficient aluminium core sandwiched together with layers of stainless steel that act as a protective barrier toward scratching, rusting and acidic foods.

This cooked our supper quickly and evenly thanks to the inner non-stick layer, retaining heat off the hob to keep food piping hot. At 2.6kg, it’s not a pan that’s easily tossed about but everything about the design and functionality feels thoroughly thought out, plus, it’s compatible with all hob types as well as being dishwasher-friendly. It’s certainly a bit of a splash price-wise, but a lifetime guarantee makes this an attractive option.

Buy now £170.00, Samuelgroves.com

Judge non-stick electric wok

Best: Electric wok

Rating: 7/10

Think you need roaring flames to whip up a tasty stir fry? Think again. We were more than impressed with this plug-in version from Judge, which cooked our veggies to perfection thanks to the simple, controlled thermostat that takes the dish from 60C to 220C in just a few seconds. The cool touch handles make it easy to move around and with a great simmer function along with a tactile lid, this would cook up casserole suppers with the same ease.

This appliance is a brilliant option if you want to cook supper on the go – from motorhomes and allotments to a pop-up dinner in the village hall. The non-stick aluminium coating makes cleaning a piece of cake. Just be mindful if you have younger children around to choose a power point away from the hub of the kitchen as the wok is a deceptively hot appliance to be sitting on the side.

Buy now £61.00, Horwood.co.uk

Ken Hom classic carbon steel 10 piece wok set

Best: Carbon steel wok

Rating: 7/10

If you like the idea of seasoning your own wok to build up your own smoky flavours over time, this carbon steel wok set is a ready-made starter kit that doesn’t blow the budget. We loved the surprisingly lightweight feel to the wok itself, and it was one of the best in show for rising to the heat in a matter of seconds, a trait of carbon steel.

Scouring it before use is essential to dismantle the wok’s lacquer, which prevents it from rusting before use (this has to be repeated on the wok’s bottom if, like us, you’re using an electric hob). Then it’s a case of bringing a thin coat of oil to a smoky heat, before allowing it to cool and dry several times over. It’s a timely process so not advisable if you’re just home from work ready to raid the fridge.

Unlike the non-stick versions, our pan looked a bit stained and scarred after the first stir fry but deepened into its own darker hue as it began to create its own non-stick seasoning the second time round. Complete with lid, turner, tempura rack, cooking sticks and chop sticks, plus a helpful recipe book, this is excellent banger for your buck for an authentic Asian supper with friends.

Buy now £24.95, Onbuy.com

Smeg 50’s style wok, 30cm

Best: Retro wok

Rating: 8/10

For substance and a generous splash of vintage style, Smeg’s 50’s style wok is up there with the best of them. We were struck by its roominess (30cm with a generous 5.2l volume) and high sloping sides which made it the perfect vessel for a family stir fry supper. Made from stainless steel with a cold-forged aluminium coating and a thick, sturdy stainless steel handle, the wok has three non-stick layers which means our bean sprouts and tofu were able to cook evenly without the faff of sticking to the pan.

An extra perk is that you can pop it in the dishwasher for a deep clean and, like all Smeg cookware, it’s oven-proof for temperatures up to 250 degrees. Suitable for all hob types, it comes in trademark shades of black and red. Not a cheap buy but it really feels like a wok for life and a great addition for collectors of this iconic kitchenware and cookware brand.

Buy now £149.95, Smeguk.com

Tower titan cast iron 32cm wok

Best: Heavyweight wok

Rating: 8/10

From century-old cookware makers, Tower, this wok is heavyweight in every sense of the word. The cast iron base is created with a nitriding hardening surface which fuses metal with nitrogen to create ultra tough hardwearing cookware. Although the pan requires one coat of seasoning before first use, it also has non-stick qualities which mean seasoning isn’t a lifelong requirement.

It cooked up our beef stir fry quickly and evenly, although patience is required as cast iron will take several more minutes to heat up than a conventional non-stick variety. The weight of the wok means tossing ingredients requires some elbow grease but the cast iron is great for heat retention and searing in particular. A riveted stainless steel handle offered comfort while we cooked and the glass lid is ideal for simmering and steaming. Free from PFOA lead and toxins the wok is suitable for all varying hob types too and, testament to its longevity, has a 25-year warranty.

Buy now £59.99, Towerhousewares.co.uk

Elements black CVD wok long handle

Best: Starter wok

Rating: 9/10

The long, secure handle plus the lightweight nature of this ceramic non-stick wok seriously ticked some boxes for us in the test and trial round. Dunelm has some brilliant and affordable woks in its range and this lidded number really held its own. We liked the fact it was scratch resistant and, for under £30, it felt like a wok you could really have fun with while getting to work on your techniques. The rubber-rimmed lid felt safe and secure and the wok washed up quickly and easily in warm, soapy water. A great option for a uni kitchen or anyone looking to get creative with Asian cooking techniques on a budget.

Buy now £28.00, Dunelm.com

Kuhn Rikon essential wok, 32cm

Best: Wok with substance

Rating: 7/10

Swiss makers Kuhn Rikon have been crafting top-notch cookware for nearly 100 years and its essential tools range was developed by American chef Christopher Kimball of Milk Street. The wok is made of durable iron so requires seasoning, which involves washing the wok, drying over a low heat on the hob before seasoning with vegetable oil before first use, and thereon after every cook-off.

We found the wok reassuringly deep. It heated up quickly, stayed nicely hot and cooked food at speed, so it’s important that all ingredients are ready to go straight in. Off the heat the glass lid does a stellar job of keeping the food piping hot, too. Weighing in at 2.4kg, we needed chef’s muscles for tossing our ingredients but it’s a solid buy for its price.

Buy now £79.95, Kuhnrikon.co.uk

Typhoon world foods 31cm wok

Best: Budget wok

Rating: 8/10

Although this carbon steel wok has two layers of non-stick properties, it came to the heat in super fast time, and emitted a smoky flavour when we added our ingredients, despite us using only the lightest touch of oil in the initial round of seasoning. The round-bottom seemed to work well with the glass hob and it had a lightness of weight that offered us a chance to flick, toss and shake a little more than many in the line-up.

It’s suitable for all stove tops and the sculpted wooden handle is ergonomically shaped and felt comfy in our hands as we cooked. As the wok doesn’t require regular seasoning, this feels like a nice half way between an authentic carbon steel body with some of the insurance of a non-stick. It washed up a dream and is excellent value for money.

Buy now £22.50, Typhoonhousewares.com

Wok FAQs

What’s the difference between a wok and a frying pan?

Even though saucepans and woks are both designed for use on top of a stove, a traditional pan has a flat bottom with slightly sloped walls, whereas a wok usually has a rounded bottom that allows liquids to concentrate in the centre, and enables food to cook quicker, as it traps heat.

What materials are woks made from?

While traditionally woks are made from carbon steel, because of its light, cheap structure that can withstand high temperatures, now you can choose from a wider variety of materials, such as stainless steel or cast iron.

How to choose a good Chinese wok and the key features to look out for

Get a good wok and you’ll be able to stir-fry, deep-fry, braise, steam and stew food.

When shopping for a wok, you’ll need to consider size, not only because you’ll want one that’ll suit the size of how many mouths you may be feeding, but also because you will need it to fit on your cooker top. Ideally, a good wok will be deep enough to allow you to toss vegetables and other ingredients while cooking

What cooker top you have will also dictate what material and coating you will need. For example, if you have an induction hob, you will need a wok that can specifically be used on that surface. Additionally, consider whether you want a non-stick or seasoned wok.

A cast-iron pan is extremely durable but very heavy, whereas a stainless steel wok is easy to clean and manoeuvre, however it can discolour over time.

The verdict: Woks

The GreenPan was a real delight to use. We loved its eco values and the fact we had a healthier supper due to needing just a drop of oil to cook with. For a cheaper wok, we highly recommend both the Typhoon and Dunelm’s Elements wok – both are light on their feet and got our stir-fry suppers to the table pronto.

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