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You might have noticed the phrase ‘carbon steel’ popping up a lot more than it used to in the cookware space. You might or might not be familiar with this material, but one thing is for sure: more and more people are choosing it over the other traditional options.
The reason is simple. Carbon steel manages to find a sweet spot, sort of a middle point between the heavier cookware that retains heat well, and those on the other side of the spectrum, light but doesn’t offer enough heat control. What you get is a well-balanced material that cooks well and is easy to handle. Who wouldn’t want that?
Combine it with one of the most practical cookware pieces around – especially for Asian cooking – the wok, and get a really useful combination. Having a large cooking surface paired with excellent heat control, stir-frying a perfect dish of fragrant diced meats or vegetables is no longer a difficult feat.
In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of carbon steel cookware, how to shop for them, our best carbon steel wok reviews, and some maintenance tips for a carbon steel piece.
If you’re looking for the absolute best carbon steel wok without having to read through the article, we recommend the Craft Wok 14” round-bottom for gas stove readers. For induction and glass stove users who require a flat-bottom piece, the Joyce Chen carbon steel wok is a good pick.
If you’re looking for something that is more value-friendly, our recommendation would be the Mammafong pieces. They offer both round-bottom as well as flat-bottom variants, so you’re able to get the one that fits your stove set-up.
For an alternative to carbon steel, minus the need for seasoning and worrying about rust, the Calphalon Tri-Ply stainless steel wok is a fantastic piece that retains all the benefits of a carbon steel wok. Be warned though, it is a pricey option, but well worth it.
Table of Contents
Carbon Steel Cookware: Pros and Cons
What makes carbon steel the popular choice for many cooks, even established chefs? Here are some of the advantages of the material:
This is the single most valid reason why carbon steel pieces are becoming so popular. It weighs significantly less than cast iron, while having about the same characteristics. In fact, it is in roughly the same territory as stainless steel, in terms of weight.
As mentioned, it has about the same heat conductivity levels as cast iron. This is not great by itself per se, as cast iron is one of the materials with the worst heat conductivity (which makes it retain heat really well). But when compared to its closest-weighing material, stainless steel, it conducts heat more than three times better!
Compared to stainless steel, carbon steel is also much more durable. It is not as easily dented and warped as stainless steel, and is closer to the likes of aluminum. However, it still pales in comparison to the almighty cast iron, which is practically indestructible.
Even though not as affordable as cast iron, carbon steel pieces are fairly affordable. Especially for the quality and durability that they offer! This is especially true when compared to cookware of other materials of its price point, including high-quality aluminum, heavy-gauge stainless steel, etc.
Of course, it is not entirely perfect, or every cook in the world would be using it. Here are some of its disadvantages:
Need For Seasoning
Yes, carbon steel woks require seasoning. This is to prevent rust, and to build up a slick non-stick surface that is a pleasure to cook on. That being said, it is much easier to season compared to cast iron, and less of the need to continuously re-season.
Lower Heat Retainability, Compared to Cast Iron
If you’re looking for high heat retainability for cooking techniques such as searing or grilling, carbon steel has a lower heat retention than cast iron. However when compared to other popular materials such as stainless steel and aluminum, they are pretty similar in this regard.
Yes, unlike its closest sibling, stainless steel, carbon steel does rust. Lacking the high chromium content of stainless steel, carbon steel does not possess corrosion-resistant properties. This makes it necessary to dry carbon steel pieces after every wash.
Shopping Guide: How to Shop For Carbon Steel Woks
If you’re not sure how to look for the perfect wok, here are some tips to guide you.
The obvious factor to selecting any cookware piece is its size. It is important to take into consideration your exact needs when deciding.
The regular and standard sizes for wok range between 14” and 16”. For most home cooks though, we recommend 14” as being the most practical. Anything below 14” would defeat the purpose of having a wok. After all, you’re after its generous cooking space that allows for ease of stir-frying.
There is one exception to this in our list of recommendations – the Calphalon wok. Even being at 12”, the way it is shaped still passes the test, especially if you cook only for yourself, or a couple!
Thickness and weight
When looking around for a carbon steel piece, its thickness is something to take note of.
The standard is around 1.5-2mm thick, with the lower end sacrificing durability for being lightweight, and the higher end doing the opposite.
Apart from weight and durability, the thickness and density of material also directly impacts the heat control of the carbon steel piece. Generally, thicker carbon steel would equate to better heat retainability but poorer conductivity. This implies a slower response to temperature changes.
Back to the topic of ease of stir-frying, having a round bottom is one of the main characteristics of what makes a traditional wok, a wok.
A round-bottom wok is able to concentrate more heat at the direct bottom, while distributing it more evenly to the sides. This creates a cookware piece that is able to carry out high-heat cooking very effectively.
However do take note if you’re an induction or glass stove user, as it is apparent that these pieces will not be usable on flat surfaces. In which case, you should opt for flat-bottom ones (check out the best induction woks).
While this is technically not part of the cookware piece itself, if you do decide to snag a round-bottom wok, you might also want to look into getting a ring stand.
Depending on the style of your stove rack, or trivet, you might have a hard time trying to correct positioned the wok on top of the heat source. If you’re having trouble getting the wok to sit properly on the stove, having a wok ring might help.
Our Picks for the Best Carbon Steel Woks
This is most possibly, one of the best carbon steel woks on Amazon. Being a high performer in the online retailer marketplace, it carries with it a flurry of excellent reviews. It’s not for no reason, too. Just simply looking at it, you can tell that it’s high-quality.
Made with 15 gauge carbon steel that measures 1.8mm thick, there’s no shortage of material density and weight here to make the wok retain heat properly. Being a hand-hammered carbon steel wok, it has slight irregularities on the surface that some may find authentic and appealing. Note though, these do not degrade or improve the cooking experience whatsoever.
It is also a traditional round bottom wok, compared to the many flat-bottom options you find on the market today. If you’re not an induction or glass stove owner, you’re able to take advantage of its perfect shape for stir-frying.
- 1.8mm thick carbon steel construction
- Hand-hammered look is aesthetically preferable for some
- Good balance between being durable and lightweight
- Golden equilibrium between heat retainability and fast response to temperature changes
- Not suitable for glass or induction stove tops
Another round-bottom, this Japanese-inspired carbon steel wok (not made in Japan, however) is a close runner-up to the Craft Wok. Being the same size at 14” across, this one is made of carbon steel that is a little thinner, at 1.5mm. The thickness is not all bad though, because even though it doesn’t retain heat as well, it trades that for the ability to heat up much faster.
In terms of its construction, it feels durable and most importantly, comfortable to hold in the hands. Not only because of its weight distribution, but the slightly thicker handle (compared to most you would find on the market) is a plus on ergonomics.
Comes pre-seasoned, there is no need for you to spend time seasoning the wok before using it for the first time.
- Pre-seasoned so you can get up and running immediately
- Handle is a little thicker than most and more comfortable to hold
- Screwed-on handle allows for removal, for instances such as use in the oven
- A little less thick than competitors at 1.5mm
- Not compatible with glass or induction flat stove tops
Best Wok Value Pick: Mammafong 14” Round-Bottom/Flat-Bottom
If you were looking at the price tags of the woks and wondering how low can it go, while still being high quality, this is the one you were looking for.
The wok is carefully-constructed to be thicker on its base, and thinner on the sides, in order to strike a good balance between good heat distribution while still being lightweight. Being another hand-hammered carbon steel wok alongside the Craft Wok, there’s a little authentic touch to the piece.
What’s amazing is this wok comes in two variants – round- and flat-bottom – so you’re able to pick whichever suits your kitchen setup. Just to reiterate, we only recommend going for the flat-bottom one if you’re using a flat stove top, out of necessity. If you’re using a gas stove however, a round bottom provides more benefits that most seek for in a wok, in the first place, anyway. These include better heat distribution and ease of stir-frying due to the sloping sides.
- Durable 16-gauge carbon steel construction
- Hand-hammered gives an authentic feel – hard to come by at this price range!
- Relatively lightweight for its size and durability
- Has a flat-bottom variant which is compatible with flat cooktops e.g. induction and glass
- The thinnest side walls are only 1.3mm, which impacts heat retainability
- A few complaints of warping, possibly due to its thinner construct, so extra care is necessary
This economical choice is not only attractive for its price, but also as an overall package. In fact, it was recommended as the best carbon steel wok by Serious Eats, a food enthusiast blog by New York-based food writer, Ed Levine.
In our opinion, we would say this is the best carbon steel wok, flat-bottom. This also makes it the best carbon steel wok for electric stove, or induction cooktops. But for gas ranges, we suggest looking at round-bottom ones.
Anyway, I digress. So what makes this wok worthy of a purchase?
For one, it is one of the woks with the thickest construction on this list, or even ones you could find on the market, for that matter! But how does this translate into real-world use?
It is definitely durable, that is of no denying. But being thicker, this means that it is also more dense, and heavier as a result. But because dense materials are able to hold more heat, this wok actually takes longer to get heated up to your desired temperature, which might not be ideal for some quick stir-frying.
- Extra durable with 2mm construction
- Helper handle is Phenolic-coated and stays cooler than its competitors’ looped metal handles
- Flat-bottom makes it compatible with flat stoves e.g. glass and induction
- Thick construction makes it heavier than most
- Heats slower due to its thick material
- Comes with stubborn coating that seems to be rather hard to remove
Okay, well, this isn’t a carbon steel wok, which is what this article is admittedly all about. But there’s a compelling reason why this is on the list. Put simply, it achieves everything that a carbon steel wok is meant to excel at, with a premium build, from a reputable brand.
As with their other cookware pieces, Calphalon’s stainless steel options are triple-layer. The two outer layers are stainless steel, which does a good job of retaining heat, with the core layer being heavy-gauge aluminum which conducts heat really well. This combination allows for good and even heat distribution.
Being smaller at 12”, some would say that it kind of misses the point of having a wok in the first place. After all, is a wok still a wok without its generous cooking surface? While this makes sense, from another perspective, if you find regular 14” ones too big and would love a smaller one that is of exceptional quality, this might be the better one for you. Not to mention, the slope angle and the way this piece is shaped makes the best use of its space!
And the best thing about this piece, when compared to carbon steel cookware – this does not require seasoning!
- Heavy-gauge aluminum core provides more even heat distribution than carbon steel, while its encapsulating stainless steel layers help retain heat
- Oven-safe without having to remove the handle, unlike the wooden handles in most of its competitors
- Comes with a tempered glass lid
- Suitable for induction and glass cooktops
- The only dishwasher-safe option on this list
- No seasoning required!
- Pricey option
- Only 12”, slightly losing out on the advantage of a big cooking surface of a wok
This initially did not make it into our list. But seeing that it was recommended as the best carbon steel wok by America’s Test Kitchen, we decided to take a closer look into it.
By looks, it appears to be quite promising. The shape and size of the helper handle would be exceptionally helpful, we imagine. It also comes pre-seasoned, so that’s a plus. But when diving deeper into this cookware piece, it turns out that it is also one of its biggest complaints. Many have reported that it is difficult to remove the protective film even when following the instructions.
But looking past that, workmanship and durability seem to be on point though, as many have given compliments on those ends.
Still doesn’t make it into our top picks. But if you’re interested and trust America’s Test Kitchen’s opinions, you can find this wok on the shelves here.
So Which One To Pick?
If you’re still confused after reading through our list of top picks, this might help you decide.
If you have an induction or glass stove top at home, round-bottom ones are out of the question. For the best flat-bottom wok, we recommend the Joyce Chen carbon steel wok. If you’re looking for a more value-friendly option, the Mammafong flat-bottom wok is a good pick as well.
On the other hand if you’re fine with spending more and not entirely fixated on a carbon steel option, the Calphalon Tri-ply stainless steel wok is a solid pick, offering most of the advantages of carbon steel.
However for most who use gas stoves, round-bottom woks are usually the better one to go for. The best one in this category would be the Craft Wok 14” round-bottom. If you’re looking for a more lightweight piece, the YOSUKATA is a close runner-up.
For a more value-friendly option, Mammafong offers a round-bottom option as well, and is a good entry into the world of carbon steel woks.
Does Carbon Steel Require Seasoning?
The short answer is, yes, carbon steel woks do require some seasoning. However, when compared to their closest rival, cast iron, carbon steel does not need nearly the level of care and seasoning. For those who are not familiar with the process of seasoning, let me explain.
Due to the lack of synthetic non-stick coatings on these iron and steel cookware pieces, they require seasoning to achieve a slick surface. Apart from that, seasoning the cookware with a layer of fat or oil also helps prevent corrosion and rusting.
As carbon steel generally has small and shallow pores when compared to cast iron, this means that carbon steel woks are also easier to properly season. This is because less oil is needed to fill these pores and make the surface smooth, as compared to cast iron.
So how do you season a carbon steel wok? Simple.
Before you do anything, make sure to rinse, soap, and wash the piece to get rid of any manufacturer protective coating. Then, the first step is to heat your wok on medium for up to 10 minutes. When it is hot, add some oil in, and spread around the surface and on the sides. Continue doing this for about 5 minutes. Lastly, pour out any excess oil, and use a paper towel to wipe so that only a thin layer of oil remains, and you’re done!
Note that during the seasoning process, it’s normal for the wok to smoke up, due to the reaction with the oil and a lack of food to absorb that reaction. Just make sure the room is well-ventilated, and there should be nothing to worry about.
Maintenance of Carbon Steel Woks
Okay so, now you know how to properly season a carbon steel wok, how do you continue to maintain them throughout their lifetime?
In case you were wondering if there is a need to continuously season the wok, in the general case, not really. Given that you cook in the wok relatively often, and use oil when cooking, the process of ‘seasoning’ is already happening with every meal you toss up in the cookware piece. The only scenario where a deliberate re-seasoning is required, is when you notice that non-stick property starts fading, in which case simply re-apply the steps of seasoning mentioned above.
This is also important – do not put it in the dishwasher! We’ve seen many people looking for a dishwasher-safe carbon steel wok online, but that simply does not exist. In this regard, it is very similar to a cast iron piece, being that its hand-wash only.
How about soap? Is it safe to use, and will it eat away the seasoning layer?
In our experience, using soap is absolutely fine, but you wouldn’t want to do so after every use. While I personally can’t stand the idea of not using soap at all, there is some truth to the risk of washing away the seasoning with soap. In the case that it happens though, no big deal, simply re-season the wok again and you’ll be good to go!
Lastly, unlike stainless steel, carbon steel does rust, just like cast iron. So it’s a really good idea to wipe it dry after every wash.
There you have it, our list of top recommendations for the best carbon steel woks.
To recap, for most people using a gas stove, the Craft Wok is your safest bet. Offering a good balance between weight and durability, it also strikes a good middle point between heat retainability and even heat transfer.
For induction or glass stove owners, the Joyce Chen carbon steel wok would be the best choice. Being extra durable and recommended as the best wok by Serious Eats, it’s hard to go wrong with this one.
What’s next after carbon steel woks? If you’re interested, be sure to check out the best pots for cooking rice, some of the top pans for cooking fish (be it frying, sautéing, searing etc.), or maybe even an electric skillet if you fancy some convenience.
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