Wok cooking is all drama—high flames that curve around the underside of the dome-shaped pan as fragrant clouds of smoke cloak the stove, while vegetables and meat soar through the air above the pan, propelled by the chef’s practiced toss. Barely a minute or two passes before the finished dish is scooped out into an awaiting bowl. 

With the busy cook’s obsession with quick meals, it’s no wonder that the speed of wok cooking has captured the attention of most home cooks in the West.

“A wok distributes heat very evenly from the base and up the sides, and because of the steep sides, you can move food around in it,” explains Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China as well as several books about Chinese cooking. That means you can crank up the flame, get the pan really hot, and, by moving the food speedily around in the scalding pan, turn ingredients into dinner in almost no time.

But stir-frying isn’t all a wok can do, Dunlop wants us to know. “It is the main cooking pot in a Chinese kitchen,” she says. At a Chinese meal, there are many different types of dishes on the table at one time, and, “probably most of them will be done in a wok.” Stewing, steaming, boiling, and deep-frying are all in the wok’s wheelhouse.

Here, we’ve got Dunlop’s wide-ranging wok expertise down on paper, so you’ll know all about the crucial components of wok cookery when you shop for and cook with your pan.