First-time wokkers are always excited to jump right in and start cooking with their newest toy, but— like learning to care for an infant — it can sometimes be a little intimidating. Here are some essentials to get you started on what promises to be a long and happy relationship with your new bundle of kitchen joy.
Seasoning Your New Baby
A new wok, like a new baby, has delicate skin! The iron surface needs a little TLC before use to develop a natural nonstick surface; this is called seasoning (a cast iron skillet requires the same kind of treatment). My two favorite methods for seasoning a wok are stir-frying scallions and ginger in a little oil, or baking the wok with flaxseed oil in the oven.
Whichever method you choose, you must first scrub the wok inside and out with a stainless-steel scouring pad and liquid detergent. Do this several times, rinsing with hot water. Then, dry the wok on the stovetop on low heat.
For most wok newbies, the stir-fry seasoning method is easier, and it's also a fun way to bond with your wok. The oven method is one I recently developed with Tane Chan, the owner of the Wok Shop, in San Francisco. It's a cool technique because it gives the wok a sturdier patina. But it takes longer, and you have to protect the wood handles so that they don't burn in the oven. (You can't use this method if the wok has plastic handles.)
Washing the Baby
If you adopted your wok in Chinatown, you probably noticed the intriguing traditional wok brushes made of bamboo. Let me caution you that while they make a cool addition to your kitchen decor, you shouldn't use one on your new "baby." They're intended for restaurant woks with thick, tough patinas. Used on a home wok, the bamboo brush will strip, scratch, and otherwise ruin your wok's delicate patina.
Now for the after-dinner bath: Once you're finished cooking, let the wok cool for about a minute before soaking it in water. After 20 to 30 minutes, any bits of food that are stuck on will have softened. Use a sponge to gently scrub any food that remains; you can finish up gently with the scouring side of a Scotch Brite pad if there are any stubborn spots.
Lots of new wokkers can't accept washing a wok with hot water alone. How can it possibly get clean without soap? But like a cast iron skillet, a carbon-steel wok and its carefully nurtured patina need nothing more than hot water for a thorough washing. If there's a little soap left on your sponge, that's OK, but don't add dishwashing liquid to the wok — it's unnecessary. And instead of wiping the wok dry with a towel, place it on the stove over low heat until all the water has evaporated, and then let it cool before you put it away. (While the metal might look dry after being toweled off, it may still be damp, and this can lead to the wok's worst enemy: rust.)
The Toddler Wok
A young wok craves — and deserves — plenty of attention. If you stir-fry just once a month, your wok is unlikely to develop a sturdy patina. Shower your wok with love by using it at least a few times a week and you'll be rewarded. Keep in mind that your wok is thirsty for fat. Cook up some french fries in plenty of oil and your wok will drink up the fat. If you're not fond of deep-fat frying, pan-fry bacon. Woks love pork fat, and you'll see the patina begin to darken as it mellows into a natural nonstick surface.
The Teenage Stage
After you've been stir-frying for 3 or 4 months, your wok will have what I call an "adolescent" look. The inside of the wok turns a light golden-brown and will have some blotchy "wok acne." Try not to get antsy and impatient wondering when the black patina will come. Be kind — don't compare your teenager to other woks with richer patinas! It may take a year or even two. Every wok is different.
My advice is keep cooking, which is simple if you remember that a wok is more than a stir-fry pan. Turn to it for scrambled eggs or a pan-fried a steak. Your teenage wok will thrive on deep-fat frying and bacon fat as much as it did while a toddler. But avoid using your wok for steaming, boiling, or poaching, which will dry out the patina. Also be careful not to cook with acidic ingredients, like pineapple, tomatoes, and vinegar, which will dissolve the coveted patina.
Sometimes life gets busy and your wok doesn't get a workout for a few weeks. If the weather is humid, you might be alarmed to find your wok has a little rust on the surface or find that it feels sticky. Don't panic — just treat it to my easy "wok facial" — a salt-and-oil buffing of the hot pan that will revitalize your wok. Keep up the care of your wok as it matures and it will repay you with years of amazing meals.
Last Words of Advice
It's natural to want your wok to have a stunning, grown-up black patina, but don't get hung up on its looks. Cherish every stage of its development. Shower it with love and attention, delicious ingredients, and gentle cleaning, and the ebony patina will come in time. It's all the more precious as a reminder of how your cooking skills and your wok matured together.