Essential Tools

How to Season a Wok

March 17, 2015

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Grace Young made her case for why a wok is the one pan you must have. Here, she tells us how to season one for a lifetime of good stir-frys.

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As with a cast iron skillet, you’ll need to season the pan before cooking so that the pan ages well and develops a patina, giving it a natural nonstick surface that seals it from rust. Luckily, seasoning is a snap. 

To get wokking, you obviously need a wok: Treat yourself to a good quality wok. I recommend a 14-inch flat-bottomed, carbon-steel wok from the WokShop.com, in business for over 40 years in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This American-made pan is a small but worthwhile investment that will last a lifetime. 

In addition to your wok, you’ll need:

2 to 4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 cup sliced, unpeeled ginger
1 bunch scallions, washed, dried and cut into 2-inch pieces 

Here’s what you do:

Scour the inside and outside of the wok with a stainless-steel scouring pad and dish soap using lots of elbow grease. Rinse with hot tap water, but don't dry with towels.

Open your kitchen windows and turn on your exhaust fan. Put your wok on a burner and heat over low heat until all of the water evaporates, about 1 minute. There may be a faint smell of the residue from the factory coating. Do not be alarmed if the metal changes color, darkens or even turns black. This is normal. 

Increase the heat to high and heat the wok until a drop of water vaporizes within a second or two of contact. (Sometimes, with a new wok, the water will roll around and not evaporate, in which case you’ll have to judge the heat based on the next step and whether the oil smokes and the ingredients sizzle. If oil smokes wildly, your wok is too hot. When you add the scallions and ginger and there's no sizzle, there's not enough heat.) Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil, add the ginger and scallions, and reduce the temperature to medium heat. Stir-fry 15 to 20 minutes, using a metal spatula to press the mixture along the entire interior surface, from top to bottom, as you stir-fry. As you stir-fry the mixture, the pores of the metal will open and absorb the oil, which seals the surface from rust and creates the patina. If the mixture becomes dry, add another tablespoon or two of oil. Remove the wok from the heat and allow to cool.

More: Does seasoning with scallions make you want to eat them too? Try one of these recipes

Discard the ginger and scallions. Let the wok cool for 5 minutes before washing. Use a soft sponge to wash the interior of the wok with hot water and no soap. Rinse the wok and place it back on the burner and heat over low heat until there is no longer any water visible in the wok, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. This is how you will wash the wok from now on. The wok is seasoned and ready for cooking. Do not be alarmed if the wok looks mottled or has blackened areas. The patina will gradually darken the more you cook with the wok, giving you a natural nonstick surface. A newly seasoned wok (left, below) looks mottled and some think they've ruined the pan (but they haven't). After cooking with it for 3 or 4 months, it will acquire a copper or light golden hue (middle, below). Most woks take 1 to 2 years and lots of cooking to acquire an ebony-black patina (right, below).

More: Watch Grace season a wok.

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James Beard Award winner, Weight Watchers stir-fry guru.

19 Comments

e June 30, 2019
Hi Grace, I have been using my carbon-steel wok now for a year or so and I think it's seasoned properly (not much sticks to it), however, when I heat it up initially (before adding oil), it smokes and makes the entire kitchen a bit smokey. Does this mean I should scrub it down with soap an re-season? Or is it supposed to do this? Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. July 7, 2019
Sorry to be late answering your question. When you heat your wok there should be a wisp of smoke but it should not smoke up your kitchen. My question to you is what kind of oil are you using to cook with? Is it a high smoking point oil like peanut, grapeseed, rice bran, safflower? You might be over-preheating your wok. Generally the wok is correctly preheated when the wok gives off a wisp of smoke or a drop of water evaporates within a second. There's no need to reseason. I suspect you are overheating your wok.
 
e July 7, 2019
Hi Grace, we use canola oil. If we are over-preheating the wok, would the food burn fairly immediately? Maybe our choice of oil is the issue? Thank you for your help!
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. July 7, 2019
Yes if the food burns immediately you are over-preheating your wok. Canola oil is fine for stir-frying. Can I ask you do you have a stove with average power or are you using a semi-professional range like a Wolf, Viking that has 15,000 to 20,000BTUs?
 
e July 7, 2019
Sorry, our food never burns immediately. Just wondering if we *did* overeheat the wok, would it cause the food to burn immediately. I believe it might be about 10-12,000BTUs. Just concerned whether we are not cleaning the wok properly and that causes the smoking. there does not seem to be anything crusted on it. but if I rub a dry paper towel on it, it there will be some brown on the paper towel. Is that normal? Or should we scrub at it some more?
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. July 7, 2019
If you over preheat the wok the aromatics like ginger/garlic will burn immediately. The best way to test if the wok is preheated correctly is to continually flick drops of water into the wok. The moment the drop of water evaporates within a second your wok is ready. Maybe try an oil with a higher smoking point than canola, like grapeseed or avocado or rice bran oil. You should clean your wok as you would a cast-iron skillet. Just hot water and a sponge is sufficient and then dry on low heat on the stove 1 to 2 mins or until there is no longer water in the pan. It's normal when you wipe the wok to have a little brown on the paper towel. You should look at my video on youtube. Search for Wok Therapist. :-)
 
e July 7, 2019
Thank you for your troubleshooting help, Grace! I will give all of those a try.
 
aaron June 10, 2018
Hi, Grace, thank you for this method. Unfortunately, I failed. My work looks like this now(pic: https://ibb.co/ghmKf8). How I can save this wok? Thanks!
 
Penny H. November 13, 2017
Would this process work on iron skillets? It sounds a lot easier than coating the iron skillet in oil and baking it.
 
judy July 15, 2016
I have learned to season my stainless steel using this method, and also her method for heating and oiling before each use. Far superior results. I have gone to stainless because I can no longer lift my cast iron pans-especially when full of food. The single handle is just not enough--I need both hands. But then the bigger the pot and the more the food, even that is though. I live my stainless steel, and made the best stir fry of my life using my stainless steel frying pan and this method.--still not Asian restaurant quality-but then I don't have the high heat or use that much oil! But so much better!
 
Jenny T. August 26, 2015
Hi Grace, thank you for sharing this. This really amazing. I have been wasting money changing to a new wok every few years for not performing as it should be. Now I know I have been using it wrongly. Currently I have a stainless steel wok and I wonder if It should be seasoned the same way? Thanks again
 
e June 20, 2015
Hi Grace, there is a wok seasoning video on wokshop that recommends baking the wok with a thin layer of oil (inside and out) in the oven before cooking with aromatics (chives) to treat the inside. What does this step do for the wok? I presume it is not necessary as your seasoning steps do not include it?
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. June 20, 2015
In China, traditionally most homes did not have an oven. The most common way to season a wok was to stir-fry Chinese chives or scallions and ginger. I like this method as it's so simple. The baking method is more involved (as you have to wrap the handles in wet wash cloths and foil to protect them from burning but it does give a sturdier patina because the high heat burns the oil into the metal's pores.
 
Yosh B. March 19, 2015
this is great!! thank u grace.
 
Zelda March 17, 2015
So the 'seasoning' is burnt oil? And what is the factory coating? Why do new woks not come with instructions to remove this? Why is it even on there if it needs to be vigorously scrubbed off? I cook a lot of Chinese food, but I'm not convinced about carbon steel woks.
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 18, 2015
Zelda, Sorry I couldn't get to your questions sooner. All carbon-steel woks are sealed with a factory coating that prevents the pan from rusting. If the coating was not used the pan could rust just from the humidity in the air sitting in a warehouse or in a retail store. And of course, a rusted pan will not sell. Many wok manufacturers don't provide adequate instructions on how to remove the factory oil. I think it's horrible that they don't care to educate their customers on how to take care of their pans but... Every Chinese restaurant chef uses a carbon-steel wok. It heats quickly and cools down quickly so food is never overcooked; it conducts heat evenly and with use it develops a natural nonstick surface so that very little oil is needed for cooking. A high quality carbon-steel wok cost under $30 from the WokShop.com. I believe once you try it your cooking will never be the same.
 
I A. March 18, 2015
This is very useful information. Thank you!
BTW, do you also suggest using your wok in a hot oven (450-500 degrees F) with the wood handle wrapped in a wet towel and that towel wrapped in aluminum foil? Me thinks that this could be a dangerous trick to try. I'd appreciate your thoughts. Again, thanks!
 
Zelda March 19, 2015
Thanks for that, Grace. I have had a few carbon steel woks, none of which came with instructions about removing the protective coating!
 
Author Comment
Grace Y. March 19, 2015
I've used my wok with wood handles in the oven---it makes a great roasting pan. You must uses wet wash cloths (I don't use towels because they're too big). And then wrap the wet cloths totally and tightly in aluminum foil. I've put the wok in an oven at 475 degrees for up to 45 mins. Longer and the cloths may dry out. You do have to be extremely careful when you remove the wok from the oven. I let the wok sit for about an hour before I carefully unwrap the aluminum foil. There is bound to be steam build up from the wet cloths and you can get a nasty burn if you unwrap the aluminum foil sooner.