A wok is an extremely versatile, traditionally round-bottomed cooking vessel that originated in China. It is used throughout East and Southeast Asia, and over the years its use has spread throughout the world. A wok has many of the advantages of both a pot and a pan combined. It can be used for stir-frying, pan-frying, deep-frying, steaming, poaching, braising, boiling, searing, stewing and smoking. It can serve as a soup pot, a stew pot and has even been used as a fermenting vessel for making rice wine.
What does a wok look like?
One of the most distinguishing features of a wok is its shape. Traditional woks have a round bottom and gently sloping sidewalls. More contemporary-design woks have flat bottoms, which are ideal for use on electric range tops but render them little more than a modified skillet or frying pan when used on a gas burner range. Traditional woks sit on top of a wok ring, which provides stability for the wok resting on a gas burner and helps concentrate the heat to the very bottom of the wok.
What you need to cook with a wok
The walls on a wok tend to be higher than those of a standard frying pan, so special implements that are designed for use with a wok are important accessories. Their long handles keep the cook from being burned when working with the wok. The two primary utensils used in wok cooking are the spatula (known in Chinese as the chahn) and the ladle (known in Chinese as the hoak).
Why use a wok?
The primary advantage to using a wok to cook is its concave, curved shape. Its shape allows for the heat of the burner to be concentrated into a small area at the bottom. This allows for some of the food to be seared with very intense heat while using comparatively little fuel compared to flat-bottomed vessels. The tall, sloped sides make it much easier for the cook to use a tossing type of cooking technique when cooking solid foods or thick liquids without spilling it all over the range top. The sides also allow for stirring food while cooking without having to chase the food all over the pan. Because the sides of the wok are less hot than the very bottom, food can be seared at the bottom and then gently pushed up on the sides to continue cooking at a lower temperature over a longer period of time. Because any oil that is being used continually flows toward the pointed bottom of the wok, frying any food requires considerably less oil than if it had been prepared in a standard pot or pan.