Have you ever wondered which wok is better: cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel?
Carbon steel is the most popular type of wok because it’s lightweight and heats up quickly and evenly. It is also inexpensive. However, it tends to warp when it gets hot. The shape changes when it’s heated and returns once it cools.
Cast iron, on the other hand, does not warp when heated. Plus, it’s great at retaining heat. But it’s heavy and heats up slowly. And it costs more.
Stainless steel also costs more. And can be more difficult to season (making your pan nonstick). However, stainless steel is also lightweight and won’t warp when heated.
All three types come in multiple sizes and have natural surfaces. And all three are easy to clean.
Furthermore, they all have strengths and weaknesses; therefore, it’s hard to answer which one is better.
Which Wok is Better: Carbon Steel, Cast Iron, or Stainless Steel?
There is no way to say which wok is better because everyone has different needs. So, the easiest way to know is to compare all three and determine which will work best for you. If you are looking for a lightweight, inexpensive wok, carbon steel is better. If you are partial to cast iron and don’t mind that it’s heavy, you’ll want to get a cast iron wok. And if cost isn’t a factor, but you want something light, then stainless steel will be the best.
Comparing All Three
By choosing between carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel, you have already decided you want a natural surface over a wok with a nonstick coating.
So, that’s one thing out of the way.
You’ve probably already started comparing by reading up to this point. By learning the pros and cons of each type of wok, you can narrow down what’s most important to you.
For example, let’s say you already know you want something lightweight.
Great! That rules out cast iron.
And you cook on a glass top stove. Therefore, you’ll need a wok that won’t change its shape when heated.
So, now you’ve ruled out carbon steel as well.
That leaves stainless steel.
But wait. Didn’t you say stainless steel costs more? You didn’t want to spend a whole lot.
So, now you have to compromise. Which of the three things you want is the least important?
Do you see what I’m saying?
There is no perfect wok.
You have to look at what each one offers and go from there. Choosing your wok will require compromise.
That’s why I have a list of questions you can ask yourself to better determine what you want most in a wok.
However, be prepared because we haven’t covered everything yet.
Questions to Ask
How much do I want to spend?
Cast iron woks cost more, period. And so does a decent stainless steel wok. Because stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, you will want one that is all-clad, at least on the bottom. Carbon steel is the most affordable.
Is weight important?
Cast iron is closer to 10 pounds, whereas carbon steel and stainless steel are generally under four pounds. In fact, one stainless steel wok is just over two pounds.
How important is the handle?
You can get all three types of woks with a long handle and a helper handle or two loop handles (though cast iron usually comes with two loop handles). And both stainless steel and carbon steel offer stay-cool handles but not cast iron. Cast iron is cast as one piece, so the handles get hot just like the rest of the wok.
Will You Need a Cover?
You don’t need a cover to stirfry or make fried rice, which is what a wok is most often used for. However, depending on your wok, you may be able to cook foods that require a cover, such as soups and stews. Most woks don’t come with a lid, but a few that do. Or you may already have a large lid in your kitchen that would work should you need one.
How many people do you cook for?
The size of your wok is a huge consideration. A 14-inch is the standard size suitable for 2-6 people. The 16-inch would be better if you cook for more than six people. And a 9-inch (or smaller) is best for a single person (or two people who eat small portions).
What is your cooking surface?
If you have a gas stove, you don’t need to worry. Any of these woks will do fine. However, carbon steel won’t work as well if you cook on a flat surface (glass top or induction). When the wok changes shapes, the bottom becomes rounded and won’t sit flat.
Do you want a round or flat bottom?
Obviously, you want the outside base to be flat, but what about the inside? Traditionally, woks had round bottoms, but you can get them either way today. Carbon steel, cast iron, and stainless steel offer both. Often round-bottomed ones have a heat ring built in that is flat. For example, my Lodge is flat on the bottom and rounded on the inside.
How important is it that your wok can go in the oven?
To ensure your wok can go in the oven, all parts of it must be heat-resistant and made for oven use. Some woks with stay-cool handles (or other features) may not be oven-safe.
A Few Other Things to Consider
Durability – all are durable and will last, though cast iron and stainless steel are probably the most durable.
Cleaning – all are easy to clean, but stainless steel is the easiest. It is also the only one that can be put in the dishwasher.
Maintenence – all three need to be seasoned (hot surface and oil) to be nonstick, but carbon steel and cast iron must also be seasoned to protect the metal from rust. So, in that way, stainless steel is the easiest to maintain.
Seasoning – Cast iron is the easiest to season, and stainless steel is the most difficult.
Heat Retention – Cast iron is by far the best at retaining heat. This is not necessarily a plus in fast cooking, such as stirfry. The food may continue cooking when you turn off the heat. But it will still keep your food hot longer. Carbon steel heats and loses its heat quickly. Stainless steel is probably closer to carbon steel than cast iron.
Heat Conduction – Carbon steel heats up more quickly than cast iron or stainless steel. Cast iron is known for heating up slowly. However, if the stainless steel is clad with aluminum in the base, it will conduct heat just as well as carbon steel.
Heat Distribution – Carbon steel is the best at distributing heat evenly. And neither cast iron nor stainless steel is known for heating evenly.
At a Glance
Carbon Steel Pros
- Most affordable of the three
- Heats up quickly
- Heats up evenly
- Most common of the three
- Offers a heat-resistant handle
Carbon Steel Cons
- Changes shape when hot (therefore not good for flat cooking surfaces)
- Requires more maintenance
- Prone to rusting and corrosion
- Loses its heat quickly
Cast Iron Pros
- Best heat retention of the three
- Doesn’t warp when heated
- Easiest to season of the three
- Gaining in popularity
- Generally known for its searing ability
Cast Iron Cons
- More expensive
- Heats up slowly
- Requires more maintenance
- Susceptible to rusting
- Doesn’t offer a heat-resistant handle
Stainless Steel Pros
- Won’t warp when heated
- Heats up quickly
- Heats up evenly
- Requires little maintenance
- Won’t rust
- Retains heat well
- Offers a heat resistant handle
Stainless Steel Cons
- More expensive
- Requires more oil to make nonstick for cooking
- Food prone to sticking
- Least popular (but that may change)
I will make three suggestions, one for each type of wok. I am basing two on research and one on personal experience.
Carbon Steel – Imusa 14-inch Traditional Natural Interior Wok (Walmart)
I don’t feel confident in recommending this one since my only experience with a carbon steel wok was negative. I knew absolutely nothing about carbon steel, so I was ill-prepared for the maintenance. And because this one is natural, it will require initial seasoning. And according to some reviewers, it was a lot of work. However, it is lightweight, inexpensive, has insulated handles and a flat bottom. Also, many reviewers spoke very highly of it.
Cast Iron – Lodge 14-inch Cast Iron Wok (Lodge)
This is the one I have, and I would recommend it for those who already like cast iron. I like mine a lot. Frankly, when compared to the other two types, cast iron has more cons, yet it is gaining popularity. So, that must say something good about cast iron itself. However, it is heavy (10.8 lbs), doesn’t have a heat-resistant handle, does require additional maintenance, and costs more than carbon steel.
Stainless Steel – Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Stainless 14-inch Stir Fry Pan (Amazon)
I can’t recommend this one yet, but maybe soon. I am intrigued with the benefits of a stainless steel wok and have placed my order. It got high reviews on Amazon, and it’s Tak’s (Wok With Tak YouTube) favorite wok (I think he has eleven woks now). It is very light (2lbs, 13oz), clad with aluminum in the base for quicker and more even heating, has a stay-cool handle, and didn’t cost as much as I thought it would.
Which Wok Materials to Buy
I hope you have enjoyed reading about which wok is better: carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel.
And hopefully, it’s helped you make a decision if you are looking for a wok.
No one can really say which wok is better because it is all about preference.
But you can learn the pros and cons of each type and make an informed decision.
So, which wok do you think is better for you?
If, by chance, you are leaning towards cast iron, then check out my review on the Lodge 14-inch cast iron wok.