Iron, cast iron, steel and carbon steel woks all need to be seasoned before they are used for cooking because iron and steel are porous metals. That means they can absorb liquids and acids into the metal, and over times those liquids will cause rust. Fortunately, the metal will also absorb oil, and oil repels water. By creating layers and layers of burnt oil coatings on the surface of the metals, you can cover the pores and protect them from rusting or corroding due to water or acid exposure. You will also create a non-stick layer on the surface of the wok, which makes for easier stir frying.
Seasoning a wok will also allow you to impart more flavor on the dish you are cooking. As you cook with the wok, the seasoning absorbs the flavor of the foods you are frying. Over time, it will develop a unique flavor of its own and will impart this flavor onto any new food that you flash-cook in the wok. This unique flavor is known as “wok hei” in Chinese, which literally means “breath of wok.”
Before You Begin
Make sure that you have everything in order before you start seasoning your wok. Following these steps will ensure that you season your wok safely and successfully.
- Choose a fat. Lard is the traditional fat used for seasoning a wok. Oil with a high smoke point, like peanut oil, canola oil or grape-seed oil works best for seasoning a wok. Avoid fish oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, flax oil and margarine, because they contain polyunsaturated fat that will make the seasoning gummy and sticky.
- Wash the wok thoroughly. Before you begin to season the metal of a new wok, you must first remove the coating of preservative oil that the manufacturers put on the wok. If it is an old wok, you need to remove any traces of rust. To do this, scrub the surface using hot water, steel wool and, if necessary, a small amount of soap or detergent.
- Boil water in the wok. To make certain that there are is no residue of the protective oil the manufacturer uses, fill the wok with water, put it over the heat and boil the water for several minutes. This will remove any of the oil coating that might remain.
- Open windows. Open windows and turn on your kitchen hood to ensure that there is plenty of ventilation. In order to create the seasoning, the fats and oil on the wok have to burn, creating smoke.
Method #1: Oven Seasoning Method
The advantage of seasoning in an oven is that the heat inside the chamber is usually distributed fairly evenly. The drawback of seasoning in an oven is that the oil will slide down the sides of the pan and gather at the bottom of the wok, resulting in an uneven seasoning. Make sure to remove wooden or plastic handles before putting the wok in the oven. Follow these steps to season the pan oven-style:
- Use a paper towel or brush to cover the inner wok surface with oil.
- Bake the pan in the oven at 350° – 450° F for about half an hour.
- Wait for the pan to cool.
- Use a paper towel to absorb any excess oil left in the pan.
- Repeat steps 1-4 until the wok has a shiny, black or dark brown finish and no black or brown ash is seen when wiping it with a paper towel.
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Method #2: Stovetop Seasoning Method
The best reason to season a wok over an open burner rather than in the oven is that you are able to tilt the pan as the oil burns, resulting in a more even seasoning that covers the whole interior surface of the wok. This is also the only way to season a wok with plastic or wooden handles, which cannot go in the oven. The downside of seasoning a wok on the stovetop is that the high heat involved can cause the oil to sputter, which can be dangerous. Many people like to begin by seasoning the wok with salt to aid in the formation of a nonstick patina.
- Fill the wok with a cup of salt. (Optional)
- Put the wok over high heat and toss the salt continuously for 20 minutes. (Optional)
- Pour out the salt. (Optional)
- Use a BBQ brush to cover surface with fat.
- Put it over intense heat.
- Tilt the pan to coat the surface with oil as it burns.
- Let the pan cool.
- Absorb excess grease with a paper towel.
- Heat the wok on high heat again, until smoke is produced.
- Repeat steps 1-6 several times until the wok surface turns dark and shiny, and wiping it with a paper towel leaves no black or brown ash on the towel.
Maintaining the Seasoning
A seasoned iron or steel pan requires heavier maintenance than a stainless steel or aluminum pan. Care must be taken to ensure that the seasoning retains its integrity. Follow these four simple tips to keep your wok well-seasoned.
- Keep the steel wool away. After seasoning, steel should never be used to clean the inside of the wok, or it will remove the seasoned layer. The only time you can use steel wool again is to clean the outside of the wok or if you see rust in the pan. If rust occurs, simply scrub it away with a steel wool pad, and re-season all over again.
- Heat wok before adding oil. Whenever you start cooking with your wok, heat it until it begins to smoke before adding oil to the pan. This will open up the pores in the metal, allowing the oil to close them so that the metal does not absorb water during cooking. It also prevents food from sticking to the wok, and aids in producing the highly desirable “wok hei” flavor.
- Avoid chemical detergents. Never clean a seasoned wok with soap or harsh chemicals, unless it is absolutely necessary to meet health regulations. These chemicals will damage the seasoned finish of the wok. Home chefs should clean their wok using warm water and a cloth. Professional chefs, however, may need to sanitize the wok. To kill potential bacteria, it’s better to cover the pan in boiling water for a minute than scrub it with soap or chlorine. Heat the wok on the stove to remove any excess moisture.
- Re-season after the first few uses. The first few times you use the wok, re-season it with one layer of seasoning before returning it to storage. Continue seasoning the wok after each use until the surface remains permanently dark, shiny and non-stick.
- Check for a damaged finish. Any time you look at your wok and see the seasoning start to fade, or if food starts sticking too much to the surface of the pan, re-season it using one of the methods described above.
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