How to Season a Chinese Wok


A precious wok is one that has seen lots of use and experienced little scrubbing. A shiny, black patina covers its surface like a well-used and well-seasoned cast-iron pan. Foods do not stick to it even when cooked over high heat; moreover, their flavors are enhanced. Clean-up and care are easy, taking little time and effort.

To get your wok looking this way is not difficult if you start out with the right kind of wok. The easiest for seasoning and care is made of carbon steel (or spun steel), which has pores that open when heated to absorb oil and become sealed, and this is the kind I recommend. Widely available today in Asian markets that carry cookware, it has the added advantage of being inexpensive.

In the stores, carbon steel woks come covered with a coating of machine oil to keep the metal from rusting, so be careful when going through the stack of woks while making your choice not to get the dirty oil all over your hands, arms and clothing. When you get home and are ready to season the wok you've selected, rinse thoroughly with lots of hot, soapy water to remove every trace of the machine oil. (If you have an old rusty wok stuffed somewhere in your garage from a previous attempt at wok cooking, it is most likely made of carbon steel and can be seasoned as described below. Just rinse well, scrubbing off the rust, before proceeding.)

The wok may be seasoned like any cast-iron pan, by brushing the surface with cooking oil and baking in a moderate oven for an hour. However, because of its shape and center of gravity, oil tends to flow down and gather in the center, resulting in an unevenly seasoned surface. For this reason, I prefer to do the seasoning over a burner on top of the stove. [Added on October 15, 2001: Probably the best fat to use is lard -- traditionally when you bought a wok you were given a piece of pig fat to season it. I have also used peanut oil. Polyunsaturated oils are not recommended as they can make the wok very "gunky."]

Heat the wok for a few minutes until its entire surface is hot. Using a heat-proof brush (e.g., the type for barbecuing) or a piece of cloth, brush a thin layer of cooking oil over every inch of its surface. Use an oil with a high smoking point (e.g., peanut oil or corn oil) to minimize oil fumes. Make sure you have plenty of ventilation -- turn the fan on high and open all the windows. Tilt the wok from side to side, subjecting the entire surface to intense heat to burn the oil into it. After burning a few minutes all around, turn the heat off and let the pan cool completely to room temperature before beginning round two. When the wok has cooled, sop up the excess grease in the center with a paper towel. Turn the heat on high and let the wok heat for a few minutes until wafts of smoke can be seen lifting off its surface. Turn the pan from side to side and again "roast" every inch of it to further burn in the first layer of oil. Then, brush in another coating and proceed as before to burn this second layer into the pan. After a few minutes, turn off heat and let pan cool.

Repeat the foregoing steps a few more times, alternating heating with cooling, each time burning in the previous layer before adding another layer. Make sure to sop up excess grease that tends to collect in the center before each reheating to prevent a thick, gel-like coating from forming there. After several coats of oil have been burned in, the wok will begin to turn dark, though the coloring may be uneven and splotchy. When the wok has developed enough of a tacky, oily surface that does not look dry when heated up, you may begin to use it for cooking.

Stir-fry only as described earlier -- always heating the wok until it is smoking hot to open up the pores before adding oil to seal them. Initially, bits and pieces of food may stick to the wok's surface. Avoid cooking starchy foods, which have a tendency to stick, and foods that are either acidic or require prolonged cooking by simmering with lots of liquid, as this can cook off some of the seasoning. Deep-fat frying, on the other hand, can help build up the layers of seasoning.

At the beginning, your wok will require a little more attention and care. Following each cooking session, rinse only with plain water and never use soap on it. If there are bits of food sticking on the surface, use a soft sponge and work the area gently -- just enough to remove the food particles. Do not wipe with a towel after rinsing. Instead, dry the wok over a burner set on high heat, allowing the traces of grease from the cooking session to burn into the surface. Heat until the wok is smoking and if the surface does not look shiny and oily, brush in a thin coating of cooking oil, letting it burn thoroughly into the metal. Let cool, sop up the excess grease before putting away.

After repeated use and the proper care, your wok will develop a beautiful, black patina and food no longer will stick to the surface during cooking. Even if it does, a coaxing with the wok spatula lifts it off without damaging the seasoning. By this time, you may no longer need to re-season your wok after each cleaning. Simply rinse with water and soft sponge and dry either on the stove, or turn it over on the drain board to dry on its own. From time to time, heavy usage may deplete part of the seasoning. When this happens, re-season after cleaning like you did in its earlier days.

I pay little attention to the bottom side of my wok. I neither clean it, nor season it. Over time, it develops a thick layer of carbon from oil and food spilling over the side during cooking. This crusty layer gives the wok more heat and sometimes contributes a smoky dimension to your cooking. A well-seasoned wok will not rust and its blackened surface greatly enhances the flavors of food like no other non-stick pan can. It is as if it has stored memories of the many meals it has cooked and calls on this storehouse of experience to enrich the food it is now asked to cook.