Please help a total newbie buy a wok (and learn to stir fry)!

I’ve been slowly but surely moving into a cook more/cook healthier attitude. I’ve lately been very interested in learning how to stir-fry, but my “research” is leaving me hopelessly confused, especially my search for the perfect wok.

First off, I have a flat-burner glass electric stove. Can I even USE a wok on this? Do I get a flat bottom wok or a round bottom with a collar? Or do I forget the stove and use an electric wok? Or forget it and use a regular skillet? If it matters, I am only interested in stir-fry, no other type of cooking in the wok.

All the websites I’ve read have recommended a carbon steel wok. Is this true or does it really matter? (Remember - total newbie here, only interested in basic stir-fry.) And is 14 inches a good size? Can I go cheap or will I regret it if I skimp?

Thanks so much for any advice you can give, not just on the equipment but also on good stir-fry techniques for a beginner.

Oh, one last question - is there a “stock your wok” list of materials/spices/sauces that I should know of to get started?

I use a flat bottom on electric, round on gas. The asian market has burners for about $15

A good place to start learning

Start at the oldest. Lots of wok talk , ingredients methods, the lots of recipes as well.


I have used every variety of wok you mention and they all work fine. I find most people are more comfortable with an electric non-stick if you can get one cheap. Cuts out most of the heat variables. Just learn what setting does the job and stick to it. When I was married and used one for a family of four I would rinse it out straight away and put it back in the drawer.

The only other essential tip you need is that really stir fries are assemblies.

Get four to six cheap stainless steel bowls for your ingredients and prepare everything before hand. Put them in the bowls grouped by cooking time so that you can start with the onion and spices, then add the vegetables, then add the chicken, then toss in the rice or noodles.

Even good Asian restaurants base all their sauces on combinations of fresh herbs and spices and commercial sauces.

Usually these will cover all your basics:

Soy sauce
Fish sauce
Oyster sauce
Chili sauce
Rice-wine vinegar
Sesame oil
Rice wine

Spices vary according to regional styles but you collect them a recipe at atime anyway.

Yes, you can use a wok on an electric stove, but it really is not the best for the sorts of high heat cooking woks normally use. Obviously this isn’t practical for an impulse buy, but a high output gas burner is the best. I’m trying to imagine a round bottomed wok with a collar, but the only image that comes to my mind are those woks that are specifically used with woodburning stoves.

As far as the material for woks go, cheaper is in this case better. I’ve tried cooking with electric woks and nonstick woks, but really all you need (and want) is one solid hunk of stamped steel. With enough use, the oils you cook with will form a nonstick barrier. Plus, the high heat usually used for wok cooking contraindicates the use of nonstick coatings. As for the size, you should go for the biggest your burners can fit; larger width means more room to maneuver food, but you shouldn’t sacrifice the surface area in contact with the heat source.

Basic stir fry technique: add about a tablespoon of oil, heat until nearly smoking hot, add aromatics (garlic/ginger) and then your protein after 10 seconds, remove. Add another tablespoon of oil, then your vegetables, stir fry for a minute, then add your liquid and cover. Cook until your vegetables are tender-crisp, then add back in your protein, and then thickeners, if needed. I highly recommend cookbooks by Martin Yan of ‘Yan Can Cook’ fame (for all his showmanship, he has a knack for complementary flavors in his cooking).

As for flavorings, it really depends on what cuisine you are going to cook the most. For Chinese, at the minimum you should have soy sauce (please not Kikoman!), rice wine, and sesame oil, fresh garlic and ginger, though ingredients like chili sauce/oil and oyster sauce can make some great additions. Vietnamese usually adds citrus and (light) fish sauce. I’m sure others can chime in with some other basics.

ETA: Damn! Beaten to the punch by don’t ask. Until next time!

Thank you - great advice so far! I’m going to print this thread up when I go wok shopping. :slight_smile:

America’s Test Kitchen found a big skillet as effective, but they also found Jiffy’s corn muffin mix the best off the shelf.

Wait, I LOVE Jiffy’s. Though they are from Vermont, maybe ATK isn’t entirely clueless.

Unless your kitchen has a hell of of an exhaust fan you will likely end up lowering the temperature from smoking hot. Otherwise your whole place and your clothes will smell like your meal for days.

After a good dinner this is bad…why?

Wife, coming in some hours after dinner: “This place stinks of (name the dinner)!”

Me: “So?”

Another recommendation for Martin Yan’s books. Yan Can Cook and The Joy of Woking are the two I’m most familiar with. They have lots of tips and instruction on wok cooking and they are the only Chinese cookbooks I’ve used that produce the kind of unique, smoothly integrated and professional flavor that you get in good Chinese restaurants.

Don’t buy a round bottomed wok unless you have a wok stove or wok ring. They are not designed to be used on a flat stovetop. If you’re dead set on a wok then you have to get a flat bottomed one, or like dropzone mentioned, just use a skillet.

I’ll third this.

I have every kitchen utensil known to man, and am actively looking for more, and I don’t have a wok. It makes no sense to have one unless you have a stove built for a wok - even a gas range (which I have) won’t effectively heat the sides of a wok.
A big heavy-bottomed skillet is your best bet.

I’ve used a round-bottom wok with a stove ring for decades and it works just fine over an electric burner set on high. As for flat-bottomed woks, I’ve found that it’s too hard to keep the food moving away from the hot spot, and given that the hot spot is much larger, some of the food invariably gets burned.

I also prefer the round-ended, high-sided spatulas used in round-bottom woks that do such a great job of picking up and moving food around as needed. Their shape makes them largely unsuited for flat-bottom woks though, and the flat, rectangular spatulas required for flat-bottom woks allow too much food to fall off and drop back into the hot spot.

All in all, I’d almost rather not stir-fry anything at all as to stir-fry it in a flat-bottom wok or skillet (although skillets do allow you to do that cool flipping-in-the-air thing to keep the food moving ;)).

Anyone care to give advice on tenderizing meat? If cooking for two, I usually use about 1 TBS of corn starch in enough water to cover the meat, stirring occasionally. About 20 min for chicken and 40 for beef (cut up in small pieces, ready for stir-fry). Drain out as much of the water/starch as possible before cooking.

I’d be interested in hearing what others do, and I think the OP would benefit, too.

The key, really, is to cut your meat very thinly. I see packages of “stir fry meat” for sale in the supermarket, and it’s at least three times thicker than it should be. When you buy chicken, flank steak, or pork tenderloin, cut it into pieces large enough for one dish (I use 2-3 oz. but I know many people use much more meat). Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze. When ready to use, you defrost it for 20-30 seconds in the microwave and then very thinly slice your partially-frozen meat block–not paper thin, but approaching that.

You can then marinade the meat for at least 15 minutes or so, usually in some form of salt. You can either just use plain salt, soy sauce, or a combination of soy and rice wine. I’ve never found the cornstarch method to be that useful, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

Yeah, it’s much easier to slice the meat if it’s at least partially frozen. I tend to just pop it in the freezer for an hour or so beforehand. I’ve never tried anything but corn starch, as that’s what most cookbooks I’ve read call for, and it always works for me.

I never tenderize the meat. Like Taenia spp says, just cut it thinly.

But Teenia spp does marinade the meat, which I assume does some tenderizing, no? I’ll try that method next time and see how it works.

Yes, I marinate the meat. But 15-30 minutes in a marinade isn’t going to do much as far as tenderizing, unless you’ve got a VERY acidic marinade.

Can I ask what cut of meat you’re using? I’ve never even thought about tenderizing for stir fry. It’s never really been something I thought it needed.

And always across the grain if it’s a meat you want tenderer.

Just regular chicken. Maybe it’s a Cantonese thing, but most of the recipes I’ve seen in Chinese cookbooks call for tenderizing in corn starch plus some liquid(s).