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What is a Wok: And How it Differ from a Frying Pan

In home chef circles (and professional workplaces), the same question always arises: do I need a wok or a frying pan? And what’s the big difference anyway?

While the answers are slightly complex, one truth is simple. You don’t need one or the other. You need both.

While they can be used interchangeably for the most part, it’s important to understand which kind of dishes are best prepared in a traditional frying pan as opposed to an authentic wok.

So, let’s settle in and tackle the age-old conundrum: to fry or to wok? Follow these tips, and things will ‘pan out’ perfectly every single time.

wok pan cooking beef

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

While both are used as stovetop fundamentals, woks and frying pans are totally different when it comes to design.

The typical frying pan has a flat bottom and moderately sloped walls, which allows for oil, sauce or other liquids to rest evenly across the bottom of the vessel. On the other hand, a wok boasts a rounded bottom, so liquids concentrate in one spot at the center. Woks are also known for their deep sloping walls, which trap heat inside and enable food to cook much quicker than in a frying pan.

What materials are woks made of? What about frying pans?

While the sky’s the limit when it comes to material construction, many modern-day woks are made of carbon steel. This lightweight yet durable metal cleans easy, conducts heat quickly and is relatively resilient compared to older models made of cast iron.

Now, when considering a frying pan, there are truly endless options. However, many home chefs prefer sleek stainless steel, which is super versatile, durable, oven-safe and excellent when it comes to even heating. A high quality stainless steel frying pan can stick with you for decades.

What are the perks of a wok vs. frying pan?

In the world of cooking, preference is subjective. But there are a few obvious pros and cons we see when comparing a wok and frying pan. Since we think a good chef really needs both, here are a few points to consider:

Carbon Steel Wok

Pros:

  • Great heat retention
  • Quick cooking speed
  • Naturally non-stick
  • Relatively lightweight
  • Great for stir-fry veggies
  • Can handle super high heat
  • Healthier results

Cons:

  • Might overcook food
  • Prone to rusting
  • Needs to be seasoned
  • May react to acidic foods

Stainless Steel Frying Pan

Pros:

  • Incredibly durable
  • Dishwasher safe
  • Sleek, clean look
  • Excellent heat retention
  • Quick response to heat change
  • Oven safe
  • Great for meats

Cons:

  • Prone to sticking
  • Can’t season
  • Has to be scrubbed
  • Slower cooking

Considering material performance, cooking techniques and other factors, it’s difficult to assess which is technically better. The reality is, chefs should use both a frying pan and a wok for their respective advantages.

What foods should be cooked in a wok?

When reaching in the cabinet, opt for a wok in the following situations:

  • When you’re short on time. Thanks to its deeply sloped walls, the wok heats up super fast and cooks food very quickly.
  • When stir frying veggies. If you uniformly slice and dice your carrots, zucchini, broccoli and other vegetables, a wok will yield amazingly fast and consistent results.
  • When you’re watching your weight. Since you constantly stir the wok’s contents during cooking, food only comes into direct contact with oil periodically. This technique saves you time and calories in the long run.
  • When you have a lot of ingredients. The wok’s deep walls and rounded bottom are perfect for accommodating a bunch of stuff. Factor in its high heat retention, and you have no trouble cooking everything at once. It’s that simple.

What foods should be cooked in a frying pan?

Skip the wok and grab your frying pan in these cooking scenarios:

  • When cooking with soft foods. While a wok requires you to constantly move food around to bring it to temperature, a frying pan is much better for tofu, fragile veggies and other ingredients that tend to break. Remember: presentation matters.
  • When searing meats. A wok’s rounded bottom is not conducive to charring a steak or pan searing an entire piece of chicken. Small pieces are good for the wok, but in the frying pan, you can handle the whole thing.
  • When you’re feeling lazy. Not interested in seasoning your pan? Tired of your kitchen smelling of smoke? When used properly, a wok is fast but also tends to get messy. You might lose a few ingredients while stirring, and if you don’t have a decent exhaust fan, the kitchen stinks. A frying pan is generally cleaner.

Do you have both a wok and a frying pan in your arsenal? If you’re in need of a good piece, check out the latest additions to the Made In lineup of premium carbon steel and stainless steel cookware.

Here’s wishing you many happy meals whether you wok or fry!



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