How to season a wok

Grace Young shares her technique

June 1, 2010

Kitchen stores stock plenty of nonstick woks, but wok-cooking expert Grace Young leaves those on the shelf.

The author of several books on wok cookery, including the recent Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, Young prefers carbon-steel woks — specifically, the flat-bottomed models designed for Western kitchens.

Recently, Grace Young brought her wok — and her wok know-how — to Portland, Oregon.

But carbon-steel woks need to be scrubbed and seasoned before you can cook with them. Recently, Young showed us her technique for seasoning a new carbon-steel wok. It’s a one-time procedure that creates the coveted (and safe) nonstick surface that’s the hallmark of the carbon-steel wok.

Seasoning a carbon-steel wok

Begin by buying the right wok. A 12-inch wok is too small for most cooking, says Young; the ingredients in the wok will be too crowded to cook efficiently. A 14-inch wok is the size she prefers.

And a wok with one long wooden handle, Young says, is preferable to one with two smaller handles on either side. Why? Because it’s easier to grab and move a wok (especially over high heat) with one long handle than with two little ones.

Once you’ve procured a wok, fill your kitchen sink with warm soapy water and push up your sleeves. It’s time to get to work.

Begin by scrubbing your wok with an abrasive metal scrubber. When you do this, you’re actually removing a coating that the manufacturer uses to protect the wok.
Be sure to scrub the outside as well.
After you scrub the wok, rinse it well, then place it, wet, over low heat on the stove. Turn on the exhaust fan or open a window; the chemical odor you will begin to smell is the remaining coating burning off.
As it heats for the first time, the wok will change color, turning blue or brown. After a minute or two, when it is just dry, remove the wok from the heat. It’s now ready for seasoning.
Cut a bunch of scallions into roughly 2-inch lengths (make sure they are not wet) and slice a knob of ginger (no need to peel it; about 1/2 cup total). Have these ready at the stove.
Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within a couple of seconds.
Add a couple of tablespoons of oil that can withstand high heat; we used rice-bran oil here, but Young also likes peanut oil. Chinese home cooks often use pork fat.
Add the vegetables and cook them in oil to season the wok. Young takes her time — at least 15 minutes — using a flexible metal spatula to press the seasonings around the sides of the wok, all the way to the top edge.
When you’re satisfied that your wok is well-seasoned, remove it from the heat and discard the seasonings. Use a sponge and warm water to clean it; be careful not to burn yourself on the still-hot wok.
Heat the wok over low heat on the stove one more time, just until it’s dry. Now it’s ready to use.

Cleaning and drying a wok

Once she’s done cooking with it, Young sets her wok in the sink to soak in hot water for as long as an hour. After dinner, she washes it with a sponge; although some wok purists don’t use soap, Young doesn’t mind having a little residual dish soap on the sponge.

Young recommends never using a towel to dry your wok, nor does she place hers in the drying rack. Instead, she recommends drying it over low heat on the stove.

And maybe it goes without saying: Never wash your wok in the dishwasher.

A wok facial

Use a thickly folded paper towel to scrub your well-used wok.

If you have an already-seasoned carbon-steel wok that has developed a tacky surface, there’s a way to smooth it out: Young’s “wok facial.”

  1. First, fold several paper towels into a thick pad about three inches square.
  2. Heat your wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within a couple of seconds. Remove the wok from the heat.
  3. Pour a tablespoon or so of salt into the wok, then add a teaspoon of peanut or vegetable oil.
  4. Using your paper-towel pad, thoroughly scrub the bowl of your wok with the salt-oil mixture. Be careful not to burn your hand or arm!
  5. As you scrub, the salt crystals will turn brown from the food residue gumming up your wok.
  6. When you’re satisfied that your wok is clean, rinse it under hot tap water, using a sponge as necessary to remove any remaining salt.

After your “facial,” the bowl of your wok should be smooth and clean to the touch.

Finally, here’s a photo of three carbon-steel woks: clockwise from left, Young’s well-seasoned wok, our newly seasoned wok, and our two-month-old wok, newly treated with a wok facial.

Once your wok is ready to go, you’ll need to know how to use it correctly. Check out Leslie Cole’s recent Oregonian account of stir-frying with Young, or Matthew Amster-Burton’s Culinate explanation of the best ways to stir-fry.

Kim Carlson is Culinate’s editorial director.

Related recipe: Velvet Chicken with Asparagus

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by Laura Parisi on Jun 2, 2010 at 5:03 PM PDT

OMG! Just last night I was wonder how I should go about reviving my mother’s old wok. She sent it to me a few months ago and I wanted to use it for my stir-fry last night but it definitely needs to be re-seasoned--it’s all sticky and icky. This article is a wonderful coincidence!

2. by Jane Finch-Howell on Jun 3, 2010 at 8:40 AM PDT

So good to have this primer. And great to know the nonstick ones aren’t the way to go! I’ve been wanting a wok for awhile...used to have one but over the years it disappeared. Now I can prepare it properly. Thanks!

3. by veron on Aug 17, 2010 at 10:57 AM PDT

I was thinking a tacky wok has not been cleaned right. Good think I read about this wok facial.

4. by anonymous on Apr 7, 2011 at 5:42 PM PDT

OMG!!! thank you very much for sharing the “seaesoned” info.

5. by anonymous on Jan 4, 2014 at 4:46 PM PST

I received a carbon steel wok for Christmas, and I ended up following Grace’s Youtube video about seasoning the wok to get myself up and going. I have used the wok three times in the last week (not always stir-frying), and the wok is definitely on its way to “seasoned”! I admit I was scared at first. Grace helped my wok and me to understand one another, haha!

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