Note to the reader: This Food for Thought post about woks is certified to be pun-free.
An email from listener Nancy B suggesting we do a show on woks got Nancy L and me talking about things you can do with them other than stir-fry. It's certainly the most versatile cooking vessel in my kitchen.
Unless you have one of those blow-torch professional wok burners, I say cast iron woks are the way to go. Mine, pictured above, has a traditionally concave interior but the outside bottom is thick and flat to get maximum contact with the heat source. Because cast iron is a poor conductor of heat, it takes a while to get hot but once it does, stores heat like a battery so the stuff to be stir-fried doesn't sit there in a puddle of water
Nancy likes her carbon steel, northern-style wok. Carbon steel is a good heat conductor. It gets hot fast and cools off fast, which can be a convenience. Steel works for her because her stove's heat output rivals that of the Space X Dragon rocket's. She also likes it for its stick-handle, which enables her to flip the ingredients. With my cast iron job, I'd need forearms like Popeye to do that.
A few of our favorite non-stir-fry uses for woks.
Deep frying: My cast iron wok's deep sides, wide diameter and rock-steady bottom take the anxiety out of dealing with a potful of boiling oil. Nances likes hers for all kinds of frying, including “Some amazing fresh smelt I picked up a few weeks ago. Glorious.”
I love to cook Italian sauces in my wok. Those high sides make it perfect for tossing with the pasta. Plus it's historically appropriate. Wasn't Marco Polo said to have brought pasta to Italy from China? And even if he didn't, the wok is still a great choice.
You can make popcorn and roast coffee beans in a wok. Nance recently used hers to make the Indian spinach and cheese dish Saag Paneer. “I used the wok to steam, fry, saute and stir fry – one pot for everything.”
Both of us make flatbread by draping the dough over the dome of a preheated inverted wok.
I use my wok for everything from goulash to gumbo. I recently put together a nice batch of Shrimp Etouffee in it.
Wok warnings: Don't get a non-stick. You'll never get it hot enough without over heating the coating. And don't bother with an electric wok. They're usually non-stick, too, and won't get hot enough for efficient stir frying.
“Versatility is an extra string to a player's bow.” – Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain.