I’ve spent most of my working years in a professional kitchen, many of them focused on manning busy wok station. And while I still love cooking with a wok at home, the experience isn’t quite the same.
Going from a 150,000 BTU professional wok station to a 2,000 BTU home burner is like moving to a candle from a fire-breathing dragon. Yes, they both make fire..but, it’s not the same.
If you’ve ever wondered why your wok cooking doesn’t taste quite like your favorite takeout spot, it’s likely a lack of burner power. Oh, and maybe the countless hours of practice and experience by the chef. There are many factors, but BTU is certainly a big one.
So, today I’ll be exploring how many BTUs you need for wok cooking so that you can start making restaurant-quality stir-fries in your own home.
What Are BTUs?
BTU stands for British Thermal Unit. When it comes to cooking with gas, BTUs will tell you the power or heat output of a gas burner.
Without getting too sciency, 1 BTU is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. But, all you really need to know is that the more BTUs a burner has, the more heat it is able to produce.
BTUs are only used for gas ranges and burners. If you have an electric cooktop you’ll be dealing with wattage to determine how hot a burner can get, but that’s a whole different story.
Household Cooktop vs. Wok Burner
When it comes to wok cooking at home, the easiest option is to simply use the stovetop that you already have. But, chances are you’re not going to have the BTUs (power) you need to get the most out of your wok.
Household gas ranges come with varying degrees of power, but I have never found one that can match the power of a true wok burner. The individual burners on most household ranges produce anywhere from 500 to around 12,000 BTUs.
And while 12,000 might sound like a lot, it’s really nothing compared to a wok burner that puts out over 100,000 BTUs. You can find gas ranges that have an extra-large burner for large pots or even specifically for a wok, but even those won’t generally go over 30,000 BTUs.
If you’ve never used a true wok burner before, trust me, it’s like cooking over a jet engine. So, no matter how powerful your range may be, it’s not quite the same.
And since it probably doesn’t make sense to install a professional wok set up inside your house, there is an easy solution that will give you similar results.
Enter the outdoor wok burner. A freestanding, propane burner that offers the power of a professional unit but in an affordable and even portable package. Most options will provide at least 50,000 BTUs but it’s fairly easy to find models that reach or exceed 100,000 BTUs.
That’s pro-level power.
Part of the reason that high BTUs are important for wok cooking, is that you want to ensure your wok doesn’t cool down during the cooking process.
When you add ingredients to a wok, they’re going to almost instantly cool down the wok. And it’s crucial to minimize the time it takes for your wok to heat back up. Recovery time.
If you’re cooking on a standard gas range, it can take a long time for your wok to get back up to temperature. When this happens it often leads to food sticking to the wok, or ingredients steaming when they should be frying. And that ends with soggy stir-fries and woks that are difficult to clean.
With a high BTU burner (50,000+), you can essentially eliminate the recovery time altogether. Your wok now stays hot through the entire cooking process. This keeps food from sticking and helps you produce perfectly cooked and nicely charred meat, veg, and rice.
The temperature of the food you add will also have an effect on recovery time. So avoid adding very cold or frozen ingredients directly to your wok as they can drastically lower the wok’s temperature and take longer to recover.
Batch size is the amount of food you cook in your wok at a time. And no matter how many BTUs you’re working with, batch size plays a role in the success of your wok cooking.
Batch size is directly related to recovery time, because the more food you add at once, the longer your wok is going to take to get back up to temperature.
If you’re using a wok on a standard household range you can still make a decent stir fry. But, you’ll get the best results if you only cook very small quantities at a time.
If you have a wok burner with 100,000 BTUs or more, you can definitely cook larger batches at a time. But, you should still try to avoid filling the wok more than ¼ or ⅓ of the way full for stir fry dishes.
High-BTU wok burners put out a lot of heat and can also produce a lot of smoke. So it’s important to ensure you have proper ventilation in place.
Even if you are using a regular gas range, wok cooking can produce a lot of smoke and fumes. Luckily, there are a lot of good residential hoods that can handle the job. Professional, indoor wok setups on the other hand, are likely out of the question.
However, you can easily go with an outdoor wok burner that will have all the power you’ll ever need. Just make sure you actually use it OUTDOORS!
The three most common materials for a wok are carbon steel, cast iron, and nonstick. And they all cook very differently.
Carbon steel woks are what I would recommend 90% of the time. They’re inexpensive, durable, and quite thin, which helps them to heat very quickly (faster recovery time). That makes them a good choice no matter how many BTUs you’re working with.
Cast iron woks are much thicker and heavier than carbon steel. That means they take a lot longer to adjust to temperature changes. So, even though they can get very hot and retain heat well, if they end up losing too much heat, it can take a long time to get back up to temperature.
Nonstick woks can be convenient because they are easy to use, clean, and maintain. But the convenience comes at a price. Nonstick coatings are not meant to be used over high heat, so if you plan on using your wok to stir fry or to use over an outdoor wok burner, nonstick is out.
What Are You Cooking?
High BTUs can be important for some types of wok cooking. But, a wok is no one-trick pony and can be used for a wide range of techniques, most of which can be done perfectly well on any stove.
Stir-frying is the primary use where a high-powered burner can make a huge difference. But things like deep frying, steaming, and simmering can all be done without the extra firepower.
Woks can be used on just about any cooktop, regardless of the BTUs. But, if what you’re after is the ever-elusive restaurant-style stir-fries, you’ll probably need to upgrade. An outdoor wok burner is an easy and fairly inexpensive solution.
A wok burner with 50,000 BTUs will be a huge step up from any household stovetop. But if you’re going to put in the effort and money for one, I would recommend choosing an option with at least 100,000 BTUs. That will give you professional power and wok hei for days.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many BTUs Do Restaurant Wok Burners Have?
Professional wok burners generally have between 100,000 and 150,000 BTUs per burner.
Can I Still Use A Wok If I Don’t Have Enough BTUs?
Yes, woks can be used for a wide range of cooking techniques. Stir-fries are the main use where high BTUs are helpful, but you can still make a great stir fry even on an underpowered stove.
What is wok hei?
Wok hei is a smokey flavor that you get when ingredients and oil are tossed above the rim of wok and they briefly come in contact with the cooking flame. It’s also called the breath of the wok or the kiss of the dragon.