Wok: Flat or Round Bottom?
by Kasma Loha-unchit
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Which Type of Wok is Better for Your Kitchen?
Indispensable in the Chinese and Southeast Asian kitchen, the wok has survived the centuries and traveled across many continents and oceans into the kitchens of lands afar. Its roundness, depth and balance make it one of the most well-designed, versatile and practical cooking utensils of all time. Though originally designed for pit cooking in China, it is easily adaptable to various types of stovetops, and people the world over who have learned to master wok cooking and care, find it hard to replace it with flat skillets for many kinds of stovetop cooking, from sauteing and stir-frying to poaching, braising and deep-frying.
Questions regarding wok selection, usage and care are among the most frequently asked in my classes. Although many of my cooking students have had previous exposure to wok cooking, nonetheless they are still curious to hear the perspective of yet another Asian cook in hopes of picking up new tips to improve their wok techniques and extend their wok's usefulness. For those beginners who do not yet own a wok, seeing me cook with great ease and enjoyment with my wok during the class demonstrations, perk their interest in wanting to own one. They seek advice on how to select one from the many sizes, styles and makes available in the stores; how to season and ready it for use; and how to care for it.
Types of Woks
The wok comes in many sizes and is made with many types of materials, from the humble carbon steel that makes for easy seasoning, to stainless and state-of-the-art metallic alloys that position it in the same category as gourmet label cookware. It comes either with two short, ear-like handles, or with one long handle and one short one. It also comes in differing depths, from shallow to well-rounded and deep. But after surviving through the centuries with its quintessential round bottom, in very recent times, a flat bottom variety has emerged.
Flat bottom or round bottom, which is better? This is one of the major choice issues with which many of my students are faced. The answer, of course, will depend on the experience and style of cooking of the chef and on the attributes that are most important to him or her. There are pros and cons for each, and therefore, varying preferences and opinions. That is why both types of woks continue to sell well in the markets.
Round-Bottomed Versus Flat-Bottomed Wok
In my opinion, there is good reason why the wok has made it down through the ages with its round bottom and I am not about to compromise away this most important feature that gives the wok such great versatility. I have come to this point of view not without first having tried out one of the flat bottoms. Initially, the flat bottom wok makes great sense to me and I was just as eager to switch to it as did many of my friends when its popularity made it widely available. But after using one for a few weeks, I decided it just can't do as many tricks as my beloved round bottom and ended up giving it away. As with other people's opinions, I admit that this decision may be biased, reflecting my own life-long experience and familiarity with the round bottom.
Stir-frying is perhaps the single most important function for which the wok is best suited. The wide wok spatula has a rounded edge that fits the rounded contours of the wok, making it a breeze to toss and move about all the particles of food being cooked in it. When the stir-fry is complete, the spatula easily dishes out all the pieces of food from the wok surface, including tiny pieces of chopped garlic. Without any food particles remaining in the wok, it becomes unnecessary to wash the wok before proceeding with the next stir-fry, thereby saving precious time in cleaning, drying and reheating the wok.
With a flat bottom wok, the introduction of a slight angle where its bottom flattens out makes tossing with the wok spatula a bit more challenging and less fun, and often, food is less evenly cooked. Particles of food caught around this edge sometimes end up overcooking or burning, making cleanup more of a chore and increasing the likelihood of scrubbing off some of the precious, hard-earned patina. This slight angle also increases the likelihood of the wok spatula putting scratches in the area just above it in an attempt to turn the pieces of food evenly. Some people solve this problem by replacing the wok spatula with a wooden spoon with which to stir-fry, but tossing with a wooden spoon is much less efficient than with the wide wok spatula, and therefore, defeats the purpose of cooking with a wok.
Although the flat bottom wok is specially designed for better balance on flat American stovetops such as the electric stove, it can be a challenge to stir-fry food evenly in it as the flat bottom that sits directly on a coil heats up much hotter than the rounded sides above it. Food can easily burn if it is not tossed quickly enough and tossing is made more difficult for the reason mentioned above.
So even on an electric stove, I advise my students to use a wok ring to lift the wok slightly above the coil. The burners of most electric stoves do put out plenty of heat; even if the wok is slightly lifted from the coils, enough heat will be conducted upward with the proper wok ring for a successful stir-fry. If a wok ring is to be used anyway, then why not stay with the more efficient round bottom wok?
There are two kinds of wok rings: one that is made of thick wire with open sides and the other of enclosed metal with small holes for venting. The former is best suited for use on gas burners where flames can leap up the sides of the wok and good air circulation can be maintained for the flames to burn hot, while the latter works well on electric burners as it concentrates and conducts heat upwards. Use both types with the narrower end placed down, so that the wok sits on the wider end. This gives better balance to the wok and brings it closer to the source of heat (but not touching the coil on an electric burner).
Wok rings do come in different widths and depths, so select one that fits best over the burner you will use for wok cooking. For many gas stoves, a round bottom wok balances well enough on the grate that comes with the burners. Though wobbly on a flat surface, the round bottom wok has a center of gravity that makes it difficult to tip over unless one is really careless. Holding on to one of the handles while stir-frying will steady the wok and give it balance. For some gas stoves, a wok ring easily fits in the groove around the burner, bringing the wok as close to the flames as possible. However, placing the ring on the grate lifts the wok too far from the flames, and therefore, will not give good results to your stir-fry.
Besides stir-frying, the wok is the best utensil to use for frying and braising good-size whole fish. A wok has much more surface area than a flat skillet to accommodate the length of the fish, and its shape makes for less splattering out onto the stovetop and less likelihood of a grease fire. The entire fish can lie flat on the rounded surface of the wok and browns much more evenly than if the wok had a flat bottom.
It is also easier to turn the fish over as the wok spatula can simply roll it over. When balanced on a wok ring, the wok can be tilted from side to side so that both the head and tail are given sufficient heat and are browned evenly with the rest of the fish. The ring I use on my stove is just perfect: when I tilt the wok, it will stay tilted on its own for as long as I wish it. A flat bottom wok placed directly on a flat burner cannot be tilted, and therefore, frying a whole fish evenly is much more of a challenge.
For the above reasons and many more than I can cover in this brief article, I prefer the wok in its original design and trust the wisdom of the ages. My students, too, have found the round bottom to work well for them, even on their flat American stovetops. To them and me, instead of changing an important feature of the wok to fit modern stovetops, the more practical solution would be to adapt the stovetops to accommodate this already very well designed cooking utensil.
Just bought a wok? Learn how to Season & Care for a Wok.
We're sorry but we are unable to answer specific questions about woks.