Do you own a wok? If you listen to Grace Young talk about stir-frying for long enough, you'll certainly start wanting one! The beauty of a carbon-steel wok is it heats quickly and evenly. When you stir-fry it sears meat and chicken perfectly, imparting wok fragrance. While the high sides of the wok are perfect for stir-frying meat and vegetables without crowding the pan or dumping ingredients over the side, a wok is also more than a stir-fry pan. You can pan-fry, braise, deep-fry, steam, boil, poach, and smoke with it. Carbon steel woks also become naturally nonstick the longer you use them, meaning less oil needed for cooking.
Ready to take the plunge? Here's how to pick a wok and season it for the first time. Also, Grace shows us how to give an adolescent wok a "facial" to keep it looking good as its true patina develops.
What To Look for In a Wok
• Round or Flat-Bottomed? Round-bottomed woks are traditional to Chinese cooking, but they don't work well on most of our Western stovetops. For both gas and electric ranges, a flat-bottomed wok is the most practical choice. This keeps the pan stable as you cook and brings the pan into direct contact with the heat source.
If you have a professional-style range with serious power like a Wolf or Viking, you can use an authentic round-bottomed wok and use a wok ring to stabilize the bottom. Most stoves won't get hot enough to reach up through the ring and create enough heat in the well of the wok. But you have a Wolf, Viking, or other semi-professional stove, it will be powerful enough to get the wok hot through the ring.
• What Size? A 14-inch wok is the best choice for most home cooks. A larger wok becomes unwieldy in a home kitchen and a smaller one doesn't always hold all the ingredients, causing us to crowd the pan and making it hard to cook food evenly.
• What Material? A carbon steel wok is the way to go. Like cast iron, carbon steel needs to be seasoned before using and then given special care to maintain its coating. This pan will become naturally nonstick over time and will last a lifetime. Avoid nonstick woks. Most if not all nonstick coatings are not supposed to be heated to a very high temperature, but all stir-fry cooking happens at a high temperature.
• What About Handles? Grace recommends woks with a long heat-resistant wood handle on one side and a small looped handle on opposite side. This arrangement is easiest for handling the work during stir-frying and then lifting the wok off the stove afterwards.
A few of Grace's old and well-seasoned woks, some of them heirlooms with a long patina of history.
Buying a Wok
• So, Which Wok Should I Buy? Look for a flat-bottomed 14-inch carbon steel wok with one long handle and a smaller looped handle opposite.
• Where Should I Buy My Wok? You can find these woks very inexpensively at Asian grocery stores and restaurant supply shops. If you are in the San Francisco area, Grace recommends The Wok Shop, a great store in Chinatown with a very knowledgeable owner and a superb supply of all sorts of cooking equipment, as well as the largest selection of woks in America. (They ship woks anywhere via their online shop, too.)
• Find it: Side Handle Flat Bottom Carbon Steel Wok - 14-inches - $24.95 at The Wok Shop
Now to season your brand new wok! Grace shows us a natural, simple way to get your wok all ready for cooking.
The seasoning process below will get your wok ready to cook, but don't expect it to be as black and nonstick as her woks until at least a year of regular weekly use. But don't worry; even if the patina isn't that dark yet, your wok will still be easy to cook with and clean.
Grace emphasizes that this seasoning process is a time of bonding with your wok — this half hour of cleaning, stir-frying, and drying. She says it with a quirk of her an eyebrow, only joking a little bit. This is the process by which you learn your new pan, how heavy it is, how to hold it, how to clean it, how it responds to you. This seasoning process is bonding indeed!
How to Season a Carbon Steel Wok
What You Need
1 bunch scallions, chopped into 2-inch pieces
1/2 cup sliced unpeeled ginger
2 tablespoons grapeseed, canola, or peanut oil
1 unseasoned 14-inch carbon-steel wok
Stainless steel scrubber
Liquid dish soap
1. Wash the New Wok: Unseasoned woks are coated with a factory oil to protect the metal and keep it from rusting until it is sold. This needs to be scrubbed away before the wok can be seasoned. Thoroughly scrub the wok inside and out using a steel scrubbing pad and dish soap. Rinse with hot water.
2. Dry the Wok: Set the clean wok over low heat and let it dry for 1 to 2 minutes, until no water droplets are visible. (We'll cover wok cleaning in a separate post, but know that this is always the right way to dry a wok; it should be dried over low heat until no water remains. Otherwise it can and will rust.)
3. Prepare Your Wok Space: Open the windows and turn on the exhaust fan. Although the wok is clean, some chemicals from the oil will still remain; make sure your kitchen is thoroughly ventilated before seasoning. Set the bowls with scallions, ginger, and oil near the stove. Also, have a very small bowl of water next to the stove.
4. Heat the Wok Turn on a stove burner, as high as it will go. Set a 14-inch wok over this high heat burner. To determine when the wok is hot enough, start flicking droplets of water from the small bowl into the pan after 30 seconds. As soon as a bead of water evaporates within 1 to 2 seconds of contact, the wok is heated and ready for stir-frying. (In some new woks, the water may not evaporate immediately. It may just roll around like a mercury ball. This is common with new woks. After heating the wok for about a minute, add the oil.)
5. Pull Wok off the Heat and Add Oil: Pull the wok off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil. Pick up the pan and carefully swirl it to coat the bottom and sides. (If the wok smokes wildly the moment you add the oil you've overheated the wok. Remove the wok from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. When it's cool enough to handle carefully remove the oil with paper towels, wash the wok, and start again.)
6. Add the Aromatics to the Wok: Put the wok back on the heat. Add the scallions and ginger.
7. Reduce Heat and Stir-Fry: Reduce the heat to medium and stir-fry the aromatics for 15 to 20 minutes. Smear the aromatics up the sides of the wok all the way to the edge. If the mixture becomes too dry, add an additional tablespoon of oil as needed.
8. Watch for Color Change The color of the wok will gradually change from shiny new silver to mottled light yellow-brown. You may possibly see some blue, bright yellow, or even black colors; this is fine. (With some woks there will be no change. Every pan will react differently.) The wok will also start to look smoother.
9. Cool and Wash the Wok Remove the wok from heat and let it cool. Discard the aromatics. Wash the wok with hot water (no dish soap).
10. Dry the Wok: Set the wok over low heat and let it dry for 1 to 2 minutes, until no water droplets are visible. The wok is now seasoned and is ready to be used for cooking.
Wok Care After Seasoning:
• New Woks are Hungry for Fat: As Grace says, "A new wok is hungry for fat," meaning that it will soak up any fat you give it. This also helps develop the seasoning on the new wok. Cook anything that uses fat: stir-fries, deep-fat frying, cooking bacon, etc.
• Things to Avoid: Avoid steaming, boiling, or poaching in your new work. Also avoid cooking with any acid such as tomatoes, vinegar, and lemons. These things are fine once you've been using your wok for a while, but can damage the delicate seasoning on the newly-seasoned wok.
• The Teenage Wok: Woks go through an adolescent stage before they develop the deep patina and nonstick coating of a well-used wok. During this stage (and throughout the life of a wok), the seasoning can look splotchy, feel gummy, or develop rust spots (especially if you live somewhere humid or go a few weeks between uses). This is all fine. Just keep cooking and the patina will develop.
How To Give Your Teenage Wok a Facial
To give a wok a facial and clean up any yellowed, gummy, or rusted spots (this happens especially often with a new teenage wok): Fold three layers of paper towels into a pad. Heat the wok as described above. Off the heat, swirl in 1 1/2 teaspoons oil and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Scrub all over with the pad of paper towels until the gumminess and rust spots are gone.Repeat as needed. Throughout your wok's life, you can rejuvenate it with this wok facial.
More From Grace Young
Visit Grace's Website
• Grace Young.com
Find Grace's Books
• Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories
• The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore
• The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing
Want to Learn More About Wok Cooking?
• Join Wok Wednesdays, a group of enthusiastic cooks working their way through Grace's book, Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge
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(Images: Faith Durand)