Wok vs Pan, is one better than the other? Although most Chinese home and even professional chef have one at home. A wok is only useful in a restaurant. If you ever step foot in a Chinese Wok Station, you will see a jet like flame. Dont believe me? Watch the video below.
Our home burner simply does not have the btu and power to produce this sort of heat. Not only that, our home burner is circular. It does not encompass the bottom like the professional burner.
How a Traditional Wok is Designed
There are two common wok design, round and flat bottom. A traditional Wok has a fully rounded bottom. In the video above, you can see that the stove has hollow opening. This lets the wok sit securely on the burner.
Manufacturers are not dumb, they know that the rounded bottom pans will not sell well. So they designed flat bottom wok to with our home range. By increasing the flat surface area, they increase the amount of heat that is outputted by the wok. If they dont do this, only the portion of the wok that is in direct contact of the fire will get hot. The other area of the wok will be relatively cool. Food will steam instead of fry.
Woks are Thin for Heat Responsiveness
A wok is traditionally made with thin Carbon Steel. It is very responsive to the changes in heat. However, the issue with thin woks is that it cannot hold heat well. If you sear a piece of meat, all the heat will be lost. To get around this, they use a huge flame. While it is a little wasteful. This is perfect for Chinese style of cooking. If you ever seen a Chinese Chef Cook, they fry, then clean then fry again. This is all done within a few minutes.
Since most home cook cant and wont do this. It is pointless to have a thin Wok. We will actually benefit from a heavier thicker wok. This lets us sear food while at the same time, maintain the large cooking area that woks have.
Wok vs Pan Design
Now that you know how a Wok works, we will take a closer look at the difference between a wok and a pan.
Wok vs Pan Handle
The handle of the wok is designed so that you can toss food with ease. If your goal is to just stir fry and toss food, then the wok handle is better. However, for other types of cooking, a traditional skillet with a normal handle will do just fine. Wok actually comes in two type of handle. One has a long handle that allows for easy tossing and stirring. The other is just a two loop handle. I recommend that you get the long handle one. Since the shorter two loop handle gets really hot. Tossing is also a little bit difficult with the two loop handle.
The handle of the wok comes in two type of material wood and metal. Since most Chinese dishes do not require the uses of oven. A wooden handle might be better for the home use. They wont get hot like a metal one.
However, professional Chinese cook usually buy metal due to its durability. They are use to grabbing hot objects and they typically wrap the handle in a towel. But for home use, I recommend getting a wooden one.
Angled for Tossing
Traditional wok are angled for tossing. In Chinese cooking there is a thing called wok hei. At the peak above the wok, it is said to get really hot. The fire and the oil will ignite and develop a different flavor compound. By tossing food over it, the food is capturing the Wok Hei. Or the breath of the Wok. But really, you can accomplish this without tossing. If your pan has enough oil in the air, all you need to do is tilt it towards the heat. You will see flame shoot up.
When buying a wok, look for a handle that is angled almost 45 degree upward. This lets you tilt the pan with ease. Handles that are perpendicular do not give you enough leverage.
Frying Pan Handles
Like Wok, the handles on Frying Pan come in different materials. The two most common one are plastic and metal. Which one you choose should not really matter. However, I recommend that you get a plastic one if you plan on Stir Frying. This way you wont burn yourself when tossing the food. In terms of tossing, most home cook are not use to tossing food with their wrist. For that reason, most frying pan are perpendicular to the pan. You would use a spatula it its place.
Wok vs Pan Shape
The base diameter of the pan is really small. The area where it curves upward, is usually up and away from the heat. For that reason, if you are not in the hot zone, food will steam. Chinese Chef generally do not have to worry about this. The heat output from the burner more than makes up for it.
Frying pans do not have the same problem. Since most of the base is in contact with the flame, it generates enough heat to sear food. The downside to the frying pan is the sidewall. It is too small and food will fall out. You can get around this by buying a deep saute pan. The deep saute pan lets you hold more food and stir it as well.
Wok vs Pan Non Stick Capability
In Chinese Cooking, the Chef will usually start with a deep fry. The oil ensures that nothing sticks even with a carbon steel pan. While the carbon steel pan does have nonstick properties, have you ever tried stir frying noodles in one? More than likely it will stick to the pan and break.
One way to get around this is to use a nonstick pan. Nonstick pan has teflon that will outperform carbon steel any day. If you must use a carbon steel wok, you have to be ready to use a lot of oil. To make your life easier, I recommend that you just get a pan with a nonstick coating.
Wok vs Pan, What Should you Buy?
In my opinion, a wok is a pretty niche type of cookware. It is a good buy if you plan on making a lot of stir fry. Tossing and stirring is is a lot easier on a wok. However, you can also do the same thing in a non stick pan. It just wont be as convenient. If you are dead set on a Wok avoid the traditional round bottom Wok. Even though I think woks are really versatile and well designed, it doesn’t work at home. What I do recommend is to get a deep sided saute pan. They have the convenience of a wok without the downside. I recommend getting a 12 inch t fal pan. They are really affordable and great for cooking. The sidewalls are really tall so food wont accidentally spill out.
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