Williams-Sonoma 14-Inch Hammered Flat Bottom Wok review:
Is This the Wok You'll Want to Settle Down With?
A carbon-steel wok that's hand hammered and an ideal size.
The metal handles are hard to deal with, and the diameter of the flat bottom is too small, especially for cooking on an electric burner.
The handles make this wok trickier to use than it should be.
A wok is the kind of thing you buy once in your life, or hope to. CHOW Senior Editor John Birdsall has the same wood-handled carbon-steel wok his dad bought him more than 20 years ago. It’s fried lots of chicken, steamed many a whole fish, and made more stir-fries than he cares to count. In order to have that kind of longevity, a wok has to suit both the cook and the cooking conditions. For most cooks, their stir-fry skills grow along with the pan's patina, the shiny black interior surface that keeps food from sticking and gives stir-fries a rich, seared flavor that food writer Grace Young taught us to call wok hay, or “the breath of the wok.” You need to be able to toss food in the wok comfortably, to tip the contents out onto a serving platter. Your wok also needs to work with your heat source, whether gas or electric, to produce the coveted wok hay.
Hammered carbon-steel woks are just that: a disk of metal, formed into a wok shape by craftspeople wielding hammers. Spun woks, which have fine grooves that run around the interior like on vinyl LPs, are formed by machine. Some say that the uneven surface of a hand-hammered wok is more conducive to forming the patina, upping the wok hay factor and creating a better nonstick surface. (There’s a discussion on Chowhound about whether this Williams-Sonoma wok is actually formed entirely by hand, or is a spun wok finished by hand.) The debate between spinning and hammering aside, the question here is this: Is the Williams-Sonoma 14-Inch Hammered Flat Bottom Wok the one you want to grow old with?
This Chinese-made wok (a Williams-Sonoma exclusive) has an optimal diameter for home use, 14 inches, with a maximum capacity of five quarts. That means it can produce stir-fries for up to six people without crowding the ingredients, which makes the food steam and cook unevenly, two things you definitely don’t want. It weighs slightly more than three pounds. As the name indicates, it has a flat bottom ideally suited for range-top cooking (round-bottomed woks require a ring to work on modern ranges, but since that takes the pan out of direct contact with the heat source, it’s far from ideal). On this wok, the flat bottom is a small four inches in diameter. The pan has two shallow metal handles riveted to the rim. And as with any carbon-steel wok, you have to start by seasoning it; Williams-Sonoma provides easy instructions for cleaning and seasoning. Note that this wok does not come with a lid (essential for steaming). Williams-Sonoma sells those for $17.95, but since these hammered woks have slight inconsistencies in shape, it’s best if you can test different lids to find one that seals adequately.
We tested the Williams-Sonoma wok with three recipes: Grace Young’s stir-fried clams with spicy bean sauce; CHOW’s Kimchi and Shrimp Fried Rice; and CHOW’s Easy Chicken Stir-Fry.
Stir-fried clams: We used a gas burner for this, plus the companion lid we bought separately from Williams-Sonoma. Apart from the 1/4-inch gaps in a couple of places around the lid (no fault of the wok’s), the wok worked fine—until we went to shake it to help distribute our clams. The short handles brought our hands way too close to the flame, and it was awkward to lift the wok to pour the finished sauce over the clams in the serving platter—we had to keep our hands swaddled in bunched-up towels.
Fried rice: Again, we made this on a gas range. A gas flame heats the sides as well as the bottom of a wok, so there was decent surface area for searing the shrimp. We used a pretty large volume of cooked rice (4 cups), and the results were pretty good. There was essentially no sticking, despite the fact that we’d only recently seasoned the carbon steel. Some of the rice grains ended up nicely browned, with perceptible wok hay.
Chicken stir-fry: We made this on both a gas and an electric range. This is one recipe where you definitely don’t want to crowd the wok, or you’ll end up with steamed chicken. We got some nice blistering on our snow peas, but even over gas, we didn’t get the best sear on our velveted chicken strips. It was even worse on the electric burner. Because the flat bottom is only four inches (on other woks it’s five and a half), we could only try to sear on a very small piece of real estate. And again, the two short handles made it hard to lift the wok to transfer stir-fried ingredients to the bowl we used for batching.
General stuff: This is not the wok to buy if you have an electric range. And while it generally performs fine over gas, this is a wok that takes extra skill to wield while hot because of its short handles.
Photos by Chris Rochelle