How to Season a Wok Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: Several Fool-Proof Methods
If cleaning and seasoning a new wok is so easy, like they say, why do so many of us get on chat rooms asking if we did it right?
I’ve been involved in two wok seasonings, and to this day, I’m not sure if we completely removed the manufacturer’s coating. My sister could still be eating broccoli with oyster sauce and waxy gunk.
Here’s the good news. Apparently, you can’t, I repeat, can not ruin a wok. I read somewhere that someone scrubbed rust from a wok with sandpaper. You can’t ruin it. You can ruin the seasoning, but then you just re-season it. With that warm thought in mind, here’s a list of varied ways to remove the stubborn coating and season your new wok. And if one doesn’t work, carry on down the list until you’ve tried them all. Trying them all won’t ruin it; because, that’s right, you can’t ruin a wok.
How to Remove the Manufacturer’s Coating.
Many woks are protected with various coatings (wax, machine oil, grease) to keep them from rusting before the first use. I’ve heard the coating can vary in color as well; mine have all been grayish, but apparently there are blue and yellow ones too. Some may have residual metal powder. Regardless of whatever is on your wok, it needs to be completely removed before “the seasoning” can commence.
- Steel Wool Scrub. This is a very common way to remove the gunk: Scrub thoroughly with a pad of steel wool, hot water and mild dish soap. This process may require more than one pad.
- Troubleshooting: If that doesn’t work, I have used a green, heavy-duty scrubbing pad before, and it worked great. This approach may scratch your wok, but think of her as a woman over 40: wokking (like life) is crazy-fast and blazing hot, she’s going to see some action, but those battle scars will be part of her charm.
- Baking Soda Bath. (Photo below.) I recently heard of this method, and it is genius. Wash wok in hot, soapy water; dry the outside and place on stove. Fill with hot water and 1/3-cup baking soda. (It’s easier and more efficient to fill the wok about three-quarters of the way, place on stove, and finish filling it to the top with a pitcher. A 14″ wok holds a lot of water and is quite heavy when filled to the brim; getting a full wok from sink to stove is tricky business.) Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Boil at full speed for 20 minutes.
- Troubleshooting: Okay, when I did this, the water never actually came to a full rolling boil (photo below), and my stove is good. Perhaps my fan was too powerful, but the coating on the bottom of the wok was being burned off by some pretty fierce heat, and I wasn’t about to breathe in those fumes. I let it go on high heat for about an hour, replacing the water as it evaporated. Hand-pounded woks are slightly uneven, so the water level was at capacity on one side, but there was 1/8-inch gap on the other. I got a pastry brush and occasionally brushed the soda water onto the exposed gap. It worked, and I could LITerally see the coating buckle around the edges.
- Potato Skins. Last Thanksgiving I bought a French carbon steel saute pan and the instructions said to toss in some potato skins, fill the rest of the way with water, and boil for 20 or 30 minutes. It worked brilliantly. Plus, I had 17 people coming over for Thanksgiving dinner, so I had a lot of potato skins available. (Insert smiley emoticon here.)
- Last Resort. The baking soda method worked very well, it felt noticeably cleaner, however, there were a few spots that didn’t feel completely smooth. I was cleaning the hood the same night as seasoning the new woks, and it hit me, orange grease remover. You know, the kind chefs use to clean the hood? I hesitate to recommend this because, well, for legal reasons, obviously, but also because it could have been a fluke. It made sense to me at the time, but I’ve never heard of it before. Apply a tiny amount with a paper towel; then use a few more paper towels to remove the remover; then wash really, really well with hot, soapy water and a sponge. It was a Godsend. But, you have been warned.
How to Know if the Coating is Gone.
- Two ways: the feel and smell. Until I had such defining results with this last baking-soda-orange-goop method, “the knowing” was always the part that drove me crazy. Here’s my take. When the coating is gone, the texture should feel different, although it is slight (somewhere between clean and cleaner). If you aren’t sure, place the wok over high heat, if your eyes water or you feel like you’re getting high from the fumes, there may be residual coating. Now, bear in mind, the outside of the wok sitting on the heat source could be the brazen chemicals you are smelling — I spend most of my scrubbing power on the inside, where the food is going, and have, in the past, somewhat neglected the outside. Try giving the outside one more good scrubbing with steel wool, and put it on the heat again. If you are even slightly concerned of possible residual muck on the inside, try another cleaning process, just to be safe.
How to Season Your New Wok.
Now that your wok is clean, it needs to be seasoned, to build a patina: i.e. the protective covering that prevents rust from forming and food from sticking. A well-seasoned wok is black.
- Oven Method. This is hands-down the easiest and most efficient method, and it’s idiot-proof. Preheat oven to 450°. If your wok has wooden handles, wrap the exposed wood in a damp cloth, and wrap that with a double layer of aluminum foil. Using a paper towel, rub a thin layer of grapeseed or peanut oil inside and outside the wok. Place wok upside-down on oven rack and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, carefully remove foil and cloth (it comes off much easier when hot), and let cool. Feel free to repeat the process to build up the patina.
- Stovetop Method. Place wok on stove over high heat. Pour in 2 or 3 tablespoons of grapeseed or peanut oil. Carefully tilt the wok back and forth, covering the entire surface inside. Use extreme caution, you don’t want to spill the oil and cause a grease fire. The goal is to “burn” the oil into the wok until it builds up a dark patina. This process may take a while, and sometimes the coloring is uneven; but just keep working through the process until it is dark and seasoned. (Or just do the oven method, and go watch Downton Abbey.)
- Salt Method for Gas Stoves Only. Place wok on gas stovetop over high heat and pour in 1 cup of salt. Cook for 20 minutes, pushing the salt up the sides, covering the entire surface of the wok. When the wok is black, carefully transfer salt to heat proof dish and wipe out wok.
What to do with Your Newly-Seasoned Wok.
- Traditional Garlic Chive Stir-fry. Sometimes a new wok will transfer a slight metal taste to the first dish, so before you waste money and effort on Kung Pao Chicken, stir-fry a handful of garlic chives (or a garlic/ginger combo) in a good dose of grapeseed or peanut oil (top photo), scootching them up the sides, covering the entire inside surface. When they blacken, toss them out, wipe out the wok and you are ready for your first dish. It’s easy and works every time.
- 3 Fatty Dishes. A new wok is thirsty and will “drink a lot of oil.” Grace Young, wok diva, suggests that the first few dishes be really fatty — like bacon or fried chicken. Also, for a while, stay away from anything too acidic, until the wok builds up a nice patina. With the first few dishes, my new woks lost some of the copper color, a couple areas were more silver; but, most of it is beginning to turn black. Just keep wokking — the more you wok, the better the patina, and the less food will stick.
- The Wok Shop. The brilliant ladies at the Wok Shop, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, are the professionals, and have methods they’ve been using for years. During my last trip to the shop, they gave me the Baking Soda tip. Check out their website for great how-to videos.
- Grace Young’s Books. Grace Young has written two remarkable in-depth books specifically about wokking. The Breath of a Wok not only offers tips on choosing, seasoning and using a wok, but also leads you through the story of woks, her journey to China to both find a wok and research recipes. Her follow-up book, Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge, is everything you would ever want to know about stir-frying. The recipes are straightforward, well-written, and they work.