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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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