If you are wondering whether a wok or a frying pan would be the better tool for your kitchen, read on. We are comparing woks and fry pans based on their differences, the materials they are made of, and the kind of foods they are best for. By the end, you will be able to make the right choice between these 2 popular cookware types.
Wok vs Frying Pan: Design
You can easily tell the difference between a wok and a frying pan by their looks.
A wok is a traditional Chinese cookware with a round bottom and much deeper walls than fry pans. The shape serves multiple purposes. It allows liquids to pool in the center and the high walls retain heat much more effectively, allowing for faster cooking.
Since most Western kitchens use stoves with flat surfaces, the round bottom of the traditional woks is not a great fit. This is why flat bottom woks were invented, which allow the use of this super versatile Asian cookware on stoves.
Many wok manufacturers are making both round and flat bottom versions of their woks, serving both markets.
Frying pans have significantly shallower walls than woks, as well as a large flat bottom.
This allows heat to evaporate much more freely compared to a wok, so preparing your food in a frying pan typically means longer cooking times.
The flat bottom also means that oils and other liquids spread evenly at the bottom of the pan, rather than pooling in the middle.
Wok vs Frying Pan: Materials
The modern cookware industry is using a wide selection of materials for cooking utensils but woks are typically only made of carbon steel, stainless steel, or black steel. Cast iron has also been used in older models.
Carbon steel is by far the most popular material used due to its light weight, high heat resistance, and natural nonstick properties.
Some traditional Chinese manufacturers are still making their models by hand hammering, just like they used to for several centuries. These pieces usually command a higher price tag due to the amount of work required for the process.
There is no added surface material for woks, food is typically cooked on the carbon steel or stainless steel surface itself. Most woks require seasoning before first use and the natural nonstick properties of the material come out only after several uses.
Frying pans are made from a much wider range of materials than woks.
Aluminum is the most common cookware material which requires an additional cooking surface for the inside of the pan. This can be Teflon or other nonstick layers, ceramic, or other stone derived coatings. Many modern cookware manufacturers have their own brand of nonstick coating used in their appliances.
Stainless steel is another popular choice for frying pans. Since stainless steel is food safe, it can be used by itself or it can be clad, which means a layer of different metal sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel.
This is usually aluminum, due to the more even heat distribution properties of this metal. Some high-end fry pans can also use copper for this purpose.
Cast iron pans offer a durable and cheaper alternative to steel and aluminum but they are also a lot heavier. However, pans don't need to be moved around like woks, so this is not an important factor for many cooks.
Wok vs Frying Pan: Cooking and Types of Food
While both woks and frying pans are used to fry food, they work very differently due to the differences in their design.
Woks are primarily used for stir-frying.
This cooking method involves moving the food around constantly to avoid burning it. The traditional Chinese kitchens use gas burners with very high heat output which heat up the wok in just a few seconds. This, combined with the high heat retention of a wok allows for a very quick and even cooking of the ingredients inside.
Stir frying is great for that can withstand the constant stirring without breaking up too much in the process. Pasta, rice, diced vegetables, and small pieces of meat are great candidates for stir frying.
You also need to consider the amount of oils or sauces you need to add to the food. At first sight, a wok uses less oil due to the liquids concentrating at the bottom of the dish.
However, due to the constant stirring, some ingredients can soak up more oil while moved around in the wok, which can be up to twice the amount you would use in a fry pan. This can add a significant amount of extra calories to your meal.
Apart from stir frying, woks can also be used for steaming, deep frying and smoking food.
Some of the cons of cooking with a wok include the need for seasoning it before use, smoke in the kitchen due to the high heat involved in the cooking process, and the more difficult cleaning of the wok if you happen to burn the food.
Woks are also not recommended for larger pieces of meat that require searing such as steaks or chicken breast fillets.
Cooking in a frying pan is quite different than cooking in a wok.
You don't move the pan itself around (unless you are flipping pancakes in the air), so it's better suited for soft and fragile ingredients such as eggs, or delicate vegetables.
Frying pans are also great for steaks, burgers, bacon, and other bigger pieces of meat that require longer contact with a hot surface to cook through.
Before you put your ingredients to fry into the pan, you can heat and spread a small amount of oil so it covers the entire cooking surface, allowing you to use small amounts of oil. Many modern coatings such as ceramic and high-quality nonstick surfaces also require less oil for food preparation.
Due to the lower heat involved during cooking with a fry pan, there tends to be less smoke in the kitchen in the end.
Most nonstick cooking surfaces of frying pans also release food easily, making cleaning the pan a breeze compared to a wok.
Do I need a wok to stir fry?
While woks are advantageous for some stir fried dishes, most food can also be stir-fried in a frying pan. If you don't have a wok at home, you can use a skillet with higher walls instead.
Does cooking in a wok make a difference?
Cooking in a wok definitely makes a difference in the time needed to prepare a dish. Due to high heat retention, it's much quicker to fry food in a wok compared to a frying pan. Woks also allow for a very even and cooking of the ingredients.
What kind of wok do Chinese chefs use?
Chinese chefs use carbon steel woks which is the traditional choice of cookware material for these cooking tools.
Can you use a wok for everything?
No. You can use a wok for one-pot dishes involving pasta, rice, veggies, and strips of meat, but I would not recommend a wok for steaks, burgers, and other bigger pieces of meat.