The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with a Wok

Perfecting the art of cooking with a Wok is like any other cooking skill—it takes practice.

By Morgan Thompson
Aug 17, 2022
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The high heat and quick cook times might seem alarming at first, but cooking with a quality Wok is the best way to get perfectly fried vegetables for a stir fry or fajitas. Even some experience with the Wok’s large cooking capacity, balanced heat distribution and retention, and limitless versatility can quickly earn the Carbon Steel Wok status on par with your favorite  good cast iron pan or a Stainless Steel Skillet.

Learning to turn, toss, and mix food in a Wok is  not only deceptively easy, but will  improve the technique and style of all your other stovetop cooking, too.

How to Cook Ingredients in a Wok

Maintaining a high heat when working with a Wok is key. Most Wok cooking takes place while the pan is ripping hot, so turn that stove dial to high. Keep in mind that, in a professional kitchen, chefs use just about all the heat they can get when firing up their Wok, and a home stove won’t come nearly as close.  Hover a hand over the Wok to feel the heat as it’s coming up to temperature, then make sure a small drop of water instantly evaporates when added to the empty pan. Oil should immediately shimmer and even smoke slightly when added before cooking.

Once the Wok is ripping hot and your ingredients are prepared (a little mise en place goes a long way when cooking with a Wok), be deliberate about adding ingredients to the pan. This is our preferred order.

Step 1: Add Protein

First up are the proteins: chicken, pork, beef, tofu, seitan, shrimp, and more.. The sloped sides of a Carbon Steel Wok are ideal for maintaining a well-distributed high heat during cooking, so 4–7 minutes is a typical cook time for most proteins. The Wok’s signature char, the result of the maillard reaction, is best achieved by adding thinly sliced proteins without crowding the pan and when the heat is at its highest. This is right at the very beginning of the cooking process.

Chef’s Note: Based on recipe and preference, removing the protein and setting aside is an option to avoid overcooking. Common proteins like chicken, pork, and beef will be fine in the pan the whole way, but keep in mind that the contents of the wok continue to cook, albeit slower and at a lower heat as more ingredients are added, until removed from heat.

Step 2: Add Aromatics

Once the proteins have had a good turn in the pan, it’s time to add aromatics (think shallots, onions, leeks, chiles, peppers, garlic, ginger, carrots, and celery). These ingredients will quickly become part of the dish and don’t need much attention  as they will continue to cook the whole time the heat is on. 1–2  minutes is usually plenty of time for these ingredients.

Chef's Note:  Garlic cooks very quickly in a high heat environment. Consider adding some of your sturdier aromatics first, then garlic for a quick turn right before adding the vegetables.

Step 3: Add Vegetables

Vegetables come next. When cooking with a Wok, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and carrots come to mind first, but cooking time will depend on the size and density of the vegetable. Broccoli will take longer than swiss chard. Daikon will need more time than spinach—it truly depends on the vegetable.

Most vegetables fall within a range of 1–7 minutes but  like all aspects of Wok cooking, near constant supervision is key. If adding spices or seasoning, a good time to do so is about a minute or two before your vegetables are finished.

Step 4: Add Starch and Sauce

After proteins, aromatics, vegetables, and spices, it’s time for sauces and starches. Keep in mind that making your own stir-fry sauce is incredibly easy and often more interesting that what you pull off a grocery store shelf. Maintaining a high heat at this part of the process is essential as sauce can drain plenty of heat from the pan, so make use of the sides of the wok that have been storing heat this whole time.

Sauce added to the sides of the pan, especially in a stir-fry, will caramelize and get up to temperature before reaching the bottom of the pan and lowering the heat that’s been built up thus far. Make sure that any rice or grains are precooked and tender before adding. Once the sauce is hot and incorporated into the dish, cut the heat and serve.

More Ways to Ensure Wok Cooking Success

Heat control, order of ingredients, and supervision are key to successfully using a wok, but the ceiling is quite high on just what exactly you can do with this versatile and unique piece of cookware. Here are some more ways to make sure the next time you cook with your Wok is a success.

Get to Know Your Wok Material

Woks can come in different shapes and sizes, but most are made out of either Carbon Steel or cast iron. While you can get excellent results from many different kinds of Woks, one distinct advantage Carbon Steel has over other materials is its ability to build and sustain heat within the pan while remaining relatively light.

Woks are large and get very hot, so being able to manipulate the pan throughout the process is  crucial. In an industrial kitchen a carbon steel and cast iron wok perform similarly—they both build a nonstick patina over time and hold heat very well. However, most home cooks will have a harder time building and maintaining heat in a cast iron wok at home over a standard stovetop.

Season Your Wok

One of the Wok’s greatest assets is its ability to develop a better cooking surface over time. Like all Carbon Steel or cast iron cookware, the Carbon Steel in a Wok forms a protective, nonstick, polymerized layer of oil. The oil fills in thousands of tiny pores on the wok’s surface, which forms a layer that improves the nonstick quality of the pan with each use. Seasoning your Wok should be the first step out of the box, even if it’s preseasoned.

Preheat your oven (temperature depends on the kind of oil you’re using), clean and  dry  your wok, place it atop a sheet pan to protect your oven and make clean up easier, coat your wok in oil, bake it for about an hour, then let it cool. Seasoning a Wok is a simple process that can be all the difference in what you’re able to get out of this dynamic piece of equipment.

Use the Correct Oil

While there is a time and place for oils with lower smoke points (like butter, flaxseed, or pumpkin ) when cooking with a Wok, most of the time oils that thrive in high heat environments (such as vegetable, grapeseed, avocado, or canola) are best.

Scrambling eggs, a task which the wok is perfectly suited for, often takes place at a lower heat with butter or olive oil, but stir fried vegetables or deep fried squash blossoms will require an oil that can withstand all the heat your stovetop can throw at it.

Perfect the Technique

Wok cooking requires constant near constant movement, and constant attention, especially when starting out.

You can get phenomenal results when only focusing on the techniques and tenants of Wok cooking listed above, but adding a bit of wrist to the equation can unlock even more possibilities. Properly stirring, flipping, and folding ingredients in a Wok takes time to master, but doing so allows cooking at even higher temperatures and can lower cooking times. Ingredients can taste quite different when cooked in a Wok at the highest temperature with good technique compared with lower heat and simpler stirring techniques.

Constantly supervising and moving ingredients as they cook in the wok is a great place to start, but a bit of wrist doesn’t hurt either when cooking with a Wok. Grabbing the Wok by the handle, move the pan with small, quick pushes and pulls, without lifting the Wok off the stove, using a spoon to move the ingredients all the while. Finally, lift the Wok off the stove with one hand, and, with an elliptical motion, dip the Wok down and slightly tilt it away from you before  quickly but smoothly pulling up and reversing the angle of tilt back to you. The ingredients should flip in the air and thoroughly mix. This is where the Wok’s size and Carbon Steel’s weight really help out.

Note: A chuan or “wok spatula” will make life easier as this utensil is purpose built for cooking with a Wok, but a sturdy wooden spoon will work just as well for most wok cooking.

Think Beyond Stir-Fry

Stir-fry is almost always the first dish that comes to mind and is a great place to start when considering what to cook with a wok, but neglect the versatility of this piece of equipment at your own peril.

Deep frying can be made less messy, quicker, and better in the conical shape of the wok. Whether shallow frying onions or deep frying chicken, a wok is on par with a Dutch Oven for heat retention and capacity. Dry frying can also be flawlessly achieved in a wok (think thinly sliced pork and peppers).

Ready to Cook?

It is easy to accumulate five different sizes of the same Stainless Steel Pan, but keep in mind that a wok can do almost everything a skillet can, handle large or small portions, and deepens in quality the more it is used. The cookware that can do everything doesn’t yet exist, but the sheer variety of cooking styles and ingredients the wok can accommodate, on top of producing better stir fry than you’ll ever get in a skillet, earn the wok a place in the kitchen right alongside the dutch oven.