Cleaning, Seasoning, and Maintaining a Wok

Do you have your wok? Have you named it yet? Just kidding.

The first step a new wok-owner should take is to remove the anti-rust coating that protects every new carbon-steel or cast-iron wok. Most wok chefs agree that the best way to remove this coating is to scrub it off with soap, hot water, and a stainless-steel scouring pad. Scour the inside of the wok with hot soapy water, rinse, and repeat the process four or more times. You can’t be too thorough in removing this coating.

Is your arm tired from all that scrubbing? Take a deep breath; that was the last time you’ll ever scrub your wok with soap.

After you’ve rinsed the wok for the last time, put it on a burner on medium heat and let it heat up for three minutes. It’s likely that, not for a lack of trying, you’ve left a slight amount of residual oil on the wok, which will produce smoke and a faint smell while being burned away. Now, let the wok cool. 

Congratulations! Your wok is clean and ready to be seasoned.

The importance of seasoning a wok cannot be overstated. Most woks manufactured today are made of carbon steel, which is porous and will absorb water, causing the wok to rust. By seasoning your wok, you’re filling the pores in the carbon-steel with oil and specific aromatic ingredients, which prevents rusting, creates a non-stick surface, and seasons every meal. 

There are many different ways to season a wok; including one that requires rubbing a peeled ginger root all over the inside of the wok, one that requires removing the handles from the wok and placing it in the oven, and one lazy option that only uses oil. I’ll explain my favorite technique: one that doesn’t require the disassembly of the wok, but depends on more affection than simply adding oil to a heated wok.

First, cut up some slivers of garlic, green onion, and ginger. It doesn’t really matter how you cut them; they won’t be eaten. 

Now, heat the wok over a burner on medium-high heat. The most common method that wok chefs like to use is to drop a bead of water into the well of the wok. If the water evaporates within two seconds, the wok is hot enough. This will be a method you use for almost every dish you cook in your wok. 

Once your wok is heated, coat the entire inside with oil. The best way to do this is to ball up a paper towel, grab it with some tongs, dip it in oil and rub it across the entire surface of the wok. Then—just for good measure—drop another teaspoon of oil in the well of the wok and swirl it around. Because of the wok’s ability to get very hot very fast, the best oil to use is that with a high smoking point. The best oils to use are corn oil and peanut oil; both have a smoking point of about 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Olive oil typically has the same smoking point as corn oil and peanut oil, but it’s pricey and will not augment your wok or any dish you cook in it more than the less-expensive alternatives.

Now that your wok is coated with oil, throw in the garlic, green onion, and ginger and start stirring it around. You can use anything you want to move the ingredients around the wok, but experienced wok chefs use a wok spatula, or chuan. A chuan is very similar to the spatula we’re familiar with in the west, but its sides have raised edges, perfect for scooping. You want to stir the ingredients so that they spend time on every inch of your wok’s surface. 

Garlic, green onion, and ginger working together to bring out the wok’s true potential.

 
Once you’ve stirred them around for a minute or two, any friends or family members in the house will start to peak their heads into the kitchen asking “what is that sensational aroma?” Just stay silent. The beauty and complexity of the process exceeds the ancient technology of language. They will have to wait, in salivating expectation, for your first stir-fried creation.

Continue stirring the ingredients around for eight to 13 minutes, or until they’re burnt. Remove the wok from the burner and let the mixture cool down. Then, scoop them out with your chuan and throw them away. 

Well done. Your wok is now seasoned and ready to unite your favorite ingredients in culinary matrimony.

Now, it’s time to learn how to properly clean your wok. The cleaning process is an important one because it can affect the taste of the ingredients cooked in it. If you’re going to cook in your wok now, then wait until you’re done cooking to clean it. 

Although it’s an important process, cleaning a wok requires minimal labor. It’s the method you will likely use after every use of your wok. Using a soft sponge, rub the entire surface of the wok with hot water. Don’t use soap. That first time you used soap to remove the antirust coating was the last time you’ll use soap on your wok. If soap is used after the wok is seasoned, it will cause food to stick and taste like soap. 

Wipe the surface of the wok with water as long as needed, then put the wok on a burner on high heat to evaporate the remaining water and sanitize the surface. Let the wok cool and hang it up!

It may seem like the maintenance of a wok is demanding, but woks are forgiving; if food is stuck on the surface of your wok and can’t be clean, or you’ve allowed your wok to gather some rust, both can be scrubbed off using oil, salt, and hot water in a process many call the “Wok Facial Scrub.” And that is a lesson for later post.

Don’t forget to turn off your stove.

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