Oct 19, 2017

Wok or normal pan?

What benefits does using a wok have over using a normal pan?

Usually use woks for foods that require contant tossing and mixing.
Chinese wok cooking is usually done over very high heat (392F/200C). The shape allows quick tossing while maintaining contact with the heat source (carbon steel loses heat quickly), and as the oil aerosolizes, it gets vaporized by the flame, imparting "wok hei". It's an essential flavor of stir-fry.
You probably can't get your home cooktop to put out that much energy. I can't, which is why I usually resign myself to ordering out for certain dishes because I really need the wok hei. Not to say you can't get any at home, it's just a lot more pronounced. But it's highly dependent on your gas setup. If you're on electric or induction it's a lost cause.
But as others have mentioned, there are still advantages, primarily the heat zones as you get away from the center. This lets you easily do one-pan cooking, and who doesn't love one-pan cooking? That's the theme of the wok: it's the most versatile pan in the kitchen.
Take for example, how the shape lends itself to steaming. All you need is a properly-sized bamboo steam basket and it will sit above the water. Its round shape also lets you braise, deep fry, and make soups.
This versatility does depend on a couple criteria. You want a carbon steel wok. It has the right durability and weight to perform these tasks, and it's reasonably nonstick with seasoning. It loses heat quickly, so food does not overcook when you take it off the heat. Cast iron is too heavy, and thin cast iron breaks. You do not want any chance of your pan breaking. Stainless steel is too heavy and food sticks. Nonstick coatings vaporize and leech harmful chemicals at these temperatures. They also can't brown food.
It is literally a round pan, but some are made with more flat bottoms so they are stable on Western cooktops. I personally use a round pan in conjunction with a stovetop wok ring because having a flat bottom defeats its purpose.
There's the matter of handles. Cantonese style have two loop handles because you're usually cooking huge batches and need the leverage and power. Cooking for up to four, you can probably get away with a long single handle (there's usually a loop handle opposite it though). Tossing is all in the wrist.
Ventilation is another important aspect. I'm in an apartment and I have no range hood. I ended up installing a heavy blocking curtain at the kitchen doorway and a twin two-way window fan to pull fresh air in and pump the smoke and other stuff out.
On that note, smoke point. Since you're cooking at high temperatures you want an oil that can handle it. I love the flavor of peanut oil and it's got one of the higher smokepoints. Soybean oil has a slightly higher smokepoint and more neutral flavor.
A wok is great for high-heat cooking. When doing stir fry, you can get all of the meat and veggies cooked in just a couple minutes, and when you add your sauce to the pan it thickens almost instantly. In a normal pan the heat is distributed differently, so there is less of a concentration of heat on each part of whatever you're cooking.
A wok has different heat-zones, the bottom is the hottest. For example once you cooked your meat nearly trough push it up the sides and throw in your vegetables. If you wanted to make an asian wok meal in a normal pan the meat would be overcooked and the vegetables undercooked.