Kitchen Design for Wok Cooking

By Charleen - June 03, 2021

Six years ago in June, I bought a beautiful hand-hammered carbon steel wok that completely changed my life. Over the prior year, I had been cooking my way through Grace Young's Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge with the support of a Facebook group called Wok Wednesdays. But truth be told, I was a wok skeptic until I actually tried using one, aided by her tips on technique. I now reach for one of my woks for almost every meal I make, whether Asian or not. And I have been paying attention to and researching what factors make a stove better or worse for stir-frying in a wok. It all boils down to geometry, power and distance. My kitchen remodel is centered around wok cooking and I can hardly wait for it to all be done!


Outdoor wokking on a propane powered Volcano Grill. For more on Szechuan green beans, click here
Chinese-Jamaican Stir-fried Beef and Carrots in Calypso sauce from Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge
Spring rolls with homemade wrappers deep-fried in the wok. Click here for recipes.

It all started with a luscious photo of a stir-fried chicken dish that was posted by my friend Alice. She suggested that I would enjoy the group Wok Wednesdays (WW), which was originally started as a place for wok aficionados to post links to their cooking blogs, but has now grown to over 4000 members worldwide. 

In those early days, I stubbornly used my made-in-Illinois Revere copper bottom 12-inch skillet as I had bad experiences in the past that had made me into a wok skeptic. After all, my parents created delicious meals on an electric coil range for as long as I could remember using the Revere skillet bought the year I was born. And even in Grace's The Breath of a Wok, she documents the fantastic meals made by some of her relatives using a wok, and others using skillets. I was enamored by my Pennsylvania-made All Clad cookware, and had no room for wok explorations. Or so I thought.  
Flipping a pan-fried chow mein noodle cake the way my dad had showed me. I was very comfortable cooking with my stainless skillet and saw no reason, at first, to fuss over a wok.

It was the unparalleled opportunity to acquire a hand-hammered wok made by one of the Cen brothers in Shanghai, the very same unassuming wok that graces the cover of The Breath of a Wok, that seduced me. A WW member had bought extras and was generously selling them at cost plus shipping to members of the group. Mr. Cen sold them for the equivalent of about $24, and Williams Sonoma marked them up to $180 -- but they are now priceless as the brothers were forced to retire. I thought, if nothing else, I would have a handcrafted heirloom to hang on the wall as a nod to my Chinese heritage.

But as soon as I started cooking with this first wok, which I named Revelation, I was hooked. Grace's tips to avoid overcrowding the wok, and to allow for weaker home stoves by letting the ingredients sit undisturbed for a minute or two to sear made all the difference in the world. That and her meticulously tested and written recipes, which are incredibly varied in flavor, cooking style and ingredients, yet always come out delicious. 

The wok is best for stirfrying, with the fluid that emerges from the ingredients falling into the center of the wok and vaporizing, leaving the undiluted essence of flavor behind along with some wonderful, browned Maillard notes.

The wok is best for deep frying. Whereas I have to use up almost a quart of oil in my deep fryer saucepan with the cute mesh lid to prevent splattering, I can fry spring rolls using just a bit more than a cup of oil. If I'm making a large batch, I might start with 1.5 cups. 

The wok also works great for cooking bacon, making vegan "bacon" from king oyster mushroom slices, popping popcorn, and even smoking meats.  
With foil, fuel and a trivet, the wok turns in an indoor smoker. Here I have a combination of rice and black tea for making Florence Lin's tea smoked chicken and eggs from The Breath of a Wok. The leftover chicken is fantastic in ramen, and I use her egg marinade for ramen eggs. 

It functions as a large mixing bowl, and can be used as a roasting pan after browning chicken pieces that nestle nicely in the curved bottom, or for making hot and sour soup. 

The wok is perfect for steaming, as you can rest larger platters with more surface area directly on the flared sides without needing a trivet.  It can be used to steam or deep fry a much larger whole fish than possible in any other pot that I own.  
With a trivet and a cup of water, you can steam on a plate or shallow dish. On the left, I am making fresh broad rice noodles. When using a multilayered steamer basket or this noodle pan you do not even need the trivet, as the sloping sides will hold it in place over the boiling water in the well. 

The wok's naturally nonstick finish makes it great for fried eggs, scrambled eggs and you can dry roast nuts or toast whole spices in it faster and easier than using an oven.  Needless to say, my woks have become my most frequently used cooking utensil, second only to knife and cutting board.

Power, Geometry, Distance

Stir-frying is an ancient cooking method designed to save fuel due to the quick cooking of small, evenly cut pieces of meat and vegetables. Wok hay, or the breath or energy of a wok, is achieved when the fluid that emits from the ingredients or from the added sauce vaporizes, allowing concentrated flavor to coat each piece. 

Stir-fry is uniquely suited for a wok, and considerations of power, geometry and distance are important for this style of cooking. Unlike braising, boiling, or steaming, there is no water with its high heat capacity to resist cooling when new ingredients are added. There is no liquid like hot water (or oil as in deep frying) to even out the hot spots and ensure that the lowest point of the wok stays hot. 

If the power of the stove is insufficient, the wok cools when ingredients are added.  If insufficient heat is directed at the center, or lowest point, of a wok, the fluid which rushes by gravity to the center acts to cool off the wok instead of vaporizing. Foods get soggy in this fluid and fail to heat to temperatures that allow browning, and the stir-fry turns into a braise. And at the end of the stir-fry, there is insufficient power to rapidly thicken the sauce so that it lightly glazes the food.

Unfortunately in most western stoves, the higher power burners direct the heat outwards into a large circle. All that fluid stays around in the cooler center of the wok, while the heat travels outwards along the flared sides to singe the cook's forearms. As a result, you have to turn down the burner, which defeats the purpose of having a higher BTU. 

The final factor to consider is distance. In traditional wok stoves, the bottom of the wok nestles down under the surface of the stove so that it is close to the heat source. If the bottom of the wok is too far from the flame, then the heat that reaches the food is greatly diminished. Many wok rings are really just cosmetic - a round bottom wok looks nice sitting on a collar. However, most of these collars are too thick, raising the wok too far from an already relatively weak home flame. 

In this situation, it is probably better to go with a flat bottomed wok, even if you have a gas stove, which allows the bottom of the wok to be closer irregardless of the heating element. This 14 inch flat bottom carbon steel wok is what Grace recommends for first time wokkers. Following Grace's advice is the secret to success for most WW members.

My sister had the perfect setup on her old Russell cooktop, shown below with the wok ring.  If you look at the burner in action, there are 5 central jets of flame aimed at the center of the wok, and then a larger ring that bathes a larger area, but is still focused around the cup shaped bottom of the wok with no flames extending up the flared sides. I have eaten many perfect meals cooked on this stove.
Composite showing an ideal home wok setup. Unfortunately, these stoves are no longer made.

Work-arounds

Fortunately for me, my 22 year old Dacor range has two 12,500 BTU burners, and caps that work interchangeably on the different sized burners. I found that placing the 9,500 BTU cap on the larger burner allowed the flames to emerge in a more vertical direction, curving inward a little  over the cap instead of flaring out. I have been satisfied with this set up for stir-fry.
The Dacor PGR30 gas range came with a nice low profile cast iron wok ring. But the flame from the more powerful burner was directed out to the sides (top). Putting the smaller burner cap on the higher BTU burner (bottom) acts to direct the flames to the center of the wok. This unfortunately does not work on a GE Profile stove.


Of course, many people enjoy moving the stirfry outdoors, weather permitting. While some of these setups have crazy high BTUs, as Grace points out, much of this is overkill and there is not as much room for error, with only seconds separating perfect from burnt. Nevertheless, I wanted to cook with my wok while camping and received a multifuel Volcano Grill as a gift from my husband.
The Volcano Grill holds my 14 inch wok perfectly.

The wok nestles down deep inside the grill and the bottom comes close to the 19,500 BTU propane burner.  Even better, the burner has a small diameter, meaning that the heat is focused at the bottom/center of the wok. I do not think I come anywhere close to using the full power of this burner, yet the food comes out tasting even better than my current set up, because the geometry is perfect for wokking.
The Volcano grill propane burner is only 2.75" across, allowing the flame to stay focused near the center of the wok.

I did not have great success using charcoal in this setup (maybe I was not using enough). However, the first time I tried the propane burner outdoors, I could not believe how delicious the eggplant was. Even completely unseasoned with no sauce added, I was having trouble keeping people from snacking on them. As it was a large group, I cooked the basil eggplant in two batches, before returning both batches to the wok to glaze on the sauce.
Wok-charred eggplant, cooked in batches in a 14 inch wok on the Volcano Grill before being tossed in my basil-soy-fish sauce. Click here for the recipe.

I have found that large right burner on the GE stove is just too wide, while the power of the front left burner is insufficient. Sure, I can preheat the wok longer to yield a great initial sizzle, but the wok cools off for the rest of the cooking period, with insipid results. I tried out the Wokmon, which does help make things better. Unfortunately, the GE base is sloped so it is hard to keep it centered. When it slips, the flames escape out the side holes and do not contribute to heating the wok. This set up does work well for deep frying and steaming, two techniques that are less dependent on power and geometry.
The Wokmon, sized for the left hand burner, creates a better flame with the larger burner. I could not use the ring and feet that came with it, due to the slope and multilayered geometry of the stove top. The device does not stay centered around the burner, and loses efficacy for wokking on this stove.

Multiple people in WW solve this problem in another way, by getting a fifth burner dedicated to wok cooking. An advantage here is that these are portable.  The most frequent brand I recall reading about is the Iwatani butane stove.

Kitchen Design

In the summer of 2019, I leaped at the chance to design my own kitchen on a new construction home. While this opportunity ended up falling through, I kept the most important elements of my research into the ideal indoor home wok cooking setup for remodeling the kitchen as we downsize to a smaller house.

Given that my husband is an avid baker, we had already decided we needed to separate the cooking from the baking area. It's no fun to dodge opening and closing oven doors, while trying to keep the steaming, braising, frying or stir-frying going. And somehow, they always want to bake at the same time that I am cooking. 

My first step was to research wok kitchens on the internet. I found this photo, and posted it. Everyone immediately offered fantastic feedback. The essence was that the space was too boxed in and there was no room for setting up the all important mise en place so that you could proceed quickly and efficiently at the stove. 

Members of WW, my sister's friend, and Grace Young herself all recommended that I look into the home wok burner made by the Robert Yick Company in San Francisco. Unfortunately, when I finally contacted Sam Yick with the assistance of a WW member, I found out that he had just retired. 
The wok and its lid can be stored in this beautifully designed wok burner. The lid of the unit acts as a backsplash when in use, and then closes down flat so you do not lose precious counter space.

Nevertheless, my sister and her friend helped to measure the burner configuration, which I present below.
The Yick burner features two concentric rings to focus heat in the center well area of the wok, so liquids that flow there can easily vaporize.  The inner ring of flames is 3.5" in diameter and the other ring is 6.5" in diameter. It is sized for a 14" round bottom wok.

Several members of the group swear by their Blue Star ranges. These have a central plate that can lift out to create a cradle for the wok. My sister placed one in her home, but unfortunately, she was not happy with the setup. The cooktop does not feature the same convenient lift out round plate that the range has, and she said it was hard to keep the open burners clean. 

Then I found the most amazing looking home wok burner.  Designed from the bottom up around wok cooking, you can see from the video that the Asko Fusion Volcano Wok burner has the perfect geometry as well as lots of power.

Unfortunately, this burner is not available in the US -- only their dishwasher is sold here.

Would I be stuck with an outdoor wok burner, as used by many in the WW group to great success? While my 21 year old Dacor works great, the oven is not lighting well and I know I will have to replace it soon.

Then another WW member posted a link to a new Wolf range with a central cradle for wok cooking over a 35,000 BTU burner. This product was released in Dec 2020. I drove to Maryland to view the unit in a showroom, but it was not hooked up to gas. The demo videos they posted showed an overcrowded wok, and it was impossible to tell whether the fluid in the center of the wok was boiling off properly. I was that picky customer that kept requesting more photos and measurements and videos from their tech support. But for the price, I wanted to be sure. 
The Wolf wok burner has an inner ring that is just over 3" and an outer ring that is 5".

The final element in kitchen design was to ensure that the wok burner was the proper height for me, without having the rest of the stove be too low for my husband. According to Grace, most traditional stoves are 30" high, and my sister says the wok should be at hip level for ergonomics. Yet, I did not want to rest of the stove to be too low for my husband.  

We compromised by dropping the countertop for 12-15" on either side of the rangetop to 33" high instead of the standard 36".  We also made sure the oven was positioned at a comfortable height. I did not want to risk burning my elbows on the open oven door when reaching in to lift a heavy turkey pan.

The house already had a professional hood that vented to the outside, so it was just a matter of selling the fantastic old 48" Thermador range that was still going strong, but whose burners were even larger in diameter than any of my current stoves, replacing cabinetry, and adding a tile backsplash. 

Of course, I am out of town when the range actually gets installed!  But here is a photo my husband took for me. The grate would be removed for wok cooking, allowing the wok to nestle down into the opening. No cooking on it yet, as the countertops, tile and hood are still missing. 
Wolf 48" rangetop with central wok burner, and the grate for stockpots in place.

I can hardly wait to start cooking on this stove in my new kitchen!


Tips: 

🐾 This website goes over recommended distances and countertop heights for different tasks, based on your height. (The original link I had found failed to credit the design studio for the counter height image, so I switched to another link that does).
"...when the height difference between cooks approaches 12 inches, Grey designs the kitchen for the person who does most of the cooking, and adds a second food prep counter to accommodate the other person." Image by Johnny Grey Studios
Image by Johnny Grey Studios
🐾 Outdoor Wok Burners used by members of Wok Wednesdays, by date of post. 
For more info, visit the FB page and search posts for the full discussion.
- April 2020. Concord Deluxe Banjo Single Square Burner Stove, 55,000 BTU
- August 2019. 10 jet 100,000 btu in a 16x16x15 crab cooker frame 
- Sept 2016. Use of Big Green Egg with a "Spider" from Ceramicgrillstore. "I set the EGG for direct cooking at 600F. Once the EGG is steadily at this temp, shut the bottom draft door and carefully open the lid. Put the wok in (I used a flat-bottomed 14-inch wok. If it has a wood handle I covered the handles with heavy duty aluminum foil."
- August 2015. Lots of WW members use the "big Kahuna" propane cooker by Eastman.
- August 2015. Post about the Volcano 3 hybrid fuel grill, the same thing that I have as pictured above.
- April 2015.  Auscrown wok burners . "Probably a bit pricey but the steel braided hose and brass fittings alone are probably worth it from a safety perspective."
July 2014. Some did not like the big Kahuna, and prefer Outdoorstirfry.com.  It was noted that the legs are not too stable, so either the tabletop model or reinforcing may be in order.  One person expressed the concern that "The connectors they use are not u.s standard meaning all gas connectors here must be crimped to spec. For pressure. From the pictures I saw it looks like they are using regular hose clamps."

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SETUP FOR COOKING?

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