Wok vs Pan

Wok vs Pan, what should be used in a traditional kitchen. Although most chinese home and even professional cook would swear by the Wok, a wok is only truly effective at a restraunt with a professional burner. If you ever step foot in a Chinese Wok Station, you will see that the flame that is outputted from a Wok looks like an actual jet engine. Dont believe me? Check out the video below.

The heat output from your home burner will never reach that temperature.

How a Traditional Wok is Designed

The wok that is designed for the home kitchen and the one for professional kitchen is different. In a traditional wok, the whole wok is rounded, including the bottom. If you look at the video below, you can see that it is hollow beneath. That empty space is where the rounded portion of a traditional wok sits.

Woks are Thin for heat responsiveness

A wok is traditionally made in thin Carbon Steel, it will loose and raise its temperature fast in a professional stove. What professional Chinese chef will often do is fry something, clean it off with water, then fry something else. This is usually done within minutes. Home cook simply do not have the same equipment as the professional chef. We cannot raise and lower the temperature fast enough. Ever wonder how Chinese cook seem to put out so many dish in a short amount of time?

A Wok for the Home Kitchen

Manufacturers are not dumb, they know that the rounded bottom pans will not sell well. So they designed flat bottom wok to mesh with how the average American Kitchen is designed. 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 too far away from the heat source. Food will steam instead of ry.

Home Wok vs Pan

That was a long introduction about the design of a traditional wok. But knowing how something work is important before making a comparison.

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 cook stir fry, a wok handle will let you toss food easily. However, for other types of cooking, a traditional skillet with a normal handle will do just fine. Below, you will see what you should look for when buying a wok.

Wok Handles

Wok actually comes in two type of handle. One has a long handle that allows for more maneuverability of the pan and it lets you toss food with ease. The other type is just a two loop handle. Since you probably wont bake in a wok, a long handle would probably suite you better.

Different Wok Handle Material

Usually wok handle 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. However, professional Chinese cook usually buy metal due to its durability. They are use to grabbing pots and pans with a towel so that isn’t really a problem for them. But like I said, since this is for home cooking a wok with a wooden handle is probably better.

Angled for Tossing

Traditional wok are angled for tossing. The goal of any wok master is to toss the food to the top center of the wok. It is at that area where chef achieve the Wok Hei. 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.
If you do get a Wok, get one that is angled almost 45 degree upward. Do not get one that is angled like a traditional frying pan, they are not designed to let you toss food around.

Frying Pan Handles

On a traditional fring pan, the angle is almost perpendicular to the pan. They are not designed to toss food around. That is not to say that you cant do it, its just a little more difficult.

Wok vs Pan Shape


The wok that you buy for your home has a flat surface area with a bowl like shape. That flat bottom is the area where you can actually sear food. The bigger rim of the wok is good for letting you toss food. However, they will often develop cold spot and food will steam at those area. If you intend to sear the food properly you need to cook in a lot of tiny batches. Chinese Chef get around this by deep frying food. Almost all the dish that I see them make starts off with a deep fry. This will develop the same maillard reaction as searing.


Skillets usually have a larger base area so that you can sear more food. This will save you more time in the long run. However, you will also have some difficulty tossing food around. To get around this, you can buy a saute pan with large walls. This way you can toss food more easily.

Wok vs Pan Non Stick Capability

What most people dont know about Chinese cook is that they deep fry almost everything. That is part of the reason why food does not stick when they cook. Most home cook are not willing to actually use that much oil. The good thing is that Carbon Steel will develop a non stick finish over time. But even then, a non stick pan will probably outperform the carbon steel.
In my experience, whenever I try to stir fry noodle in a carbon steel pan, it always stick. There is no way around it for me unless I add a ton of oil.

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 definetly a lot easier due to the shape and handle of the wok. However, you can also do the same thing in a non stick pan. It just wont be as convenient as a wok. 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 doesnt work unless you have that jet burner.

If you want a wok, get the one recommended by America Test Kitchen. Which is the Joyce Chen Version. For a traditional skillet, I recommend getting a cheap 12 inch t fal pan. Those are really affordable and great for cooking, the tallish sidewall lets you toss food as well.

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