A New Wok State of Mind

Last month while traipsing through San Francisco, I bought my very first wok -- well, my very first authentic wok, the real deal from China.

My new wok getting a proper seasoning. (Kim O'Donnel)

The idea of a new wok had been marinating in my brain for some time, inspired by Chinese cooking authority Grace Young. But it wasn't until I walked into Tane (call me "Octane") Chan's Wok shop in San Francisco, that I was faced with a do-it-now-or-you'll-regret-it moment.

Fifteen bucks and a few minutes later, I became the proud owner of a flat-bottomed, cast-iron wok (carbon-steel is the other variety), with an enamel exterior coating. Yesterday, I unwrapped my newly arrived kitchen baby and brought her into my world.

But before I could even consider cooking, I needed to give her a good scrubbing, to remove factory grime and any residual metal powder. This is one of the few times in the life of a wok that dish soap is not only welcome but encouraged.

With a copy of Young's "The Breath of a Wok, " at my side, I followed her instructions for both the wok's first washing and seasoning.

With a stainless steel scrubbing pad, I washed the wok, inside and out, and noticed that my scrubbing pad had turned black -- a phenomenon I had been warned of and told not to worry about. Next, I paper towel-dried the wok, and moved on to seasoning.

"A new wok represents the beginning of countless culinary possibilities," writes Young. And the "ritual of seasoning initiates the wok's culinary life."

At the most basic level, seasoning a wok means applying heat and oil to begin the creation of a patina, the desired nonstick surface that develops each time the wok is used. In addition to creating the nonstickiness, the patina also acts as a sealant and rust protector.

On a more symbolic level, Young says that seasoning a wok opens its pores: "It's like giving it a facial."

There are many "recipes" for seasoning a wok, several of which are mentioned in Young's book. The method I used includes the use of vegetable oil and Chinese chives. (I actually used flowering chives, but don't tell Grace.)

If you can't find Chinese chives, says Young, a good substitute is 1 bunch of chopped scallions and 1/2 cup of sliced ginger. These aromatics are used for their anti-bacterial qualities as well as to minimize the initial metallic taste of the wok.

Here's how it works: Heat the wok over high heat until "a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact," writes Young. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and 1/2 bunch of chives (or substitute). Lower heat and cook for at least five minutes (and for as long as 15 minutes, if you wish), using a wooden spoon or spatula to move the oiled chives all along the sides of the wok. Turn off heat and allow wok to cool before discarding the chives.

When cool, wash wok with hot water and a sponge. Dry on the stove, over low heat, at least 1 minute. Your wok is now ready for showtime!

Coming up next week: The wok's maiden voyage.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 7, 2006; 2:26 PM ET Discoveries , Kitchen Toys , Wok Cookery
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After purchasing my first wok, I walked into one of the few Asian grocers in Columbia, SC and picked up a couple of paddles. "Those are for restaurants!" the cashier tried to warn me. Good times.

Anyone reading this know how best to cook with a wok over wimpy apartment gas ranges? I can't install a 30,000 BTU burner, so I need to adjust my technique.

Posted by: adam w | September 7, 2006 4:30 PM

If you have a balcony you might(check fire regulations) be able to use a propane tank and burner commonly used for deep frying turkeys. These burners are inexpensive, and do put out the high BTU's. The round ones might even be the proper diameter to cradle the wok-take it with you when you burner shop. Don't use this set up in the residence-way too much heat and smoke.

Posted by: Paul Corsa | September 8, 2006 11:07 AM

Using a wok on an electric range depends a little on what you are doing. But it does work. My family lived in Taiwan for four years (Dad was in the Army) and Mom learned to cook there from our neighbors, and from classes. She brought back two woks and used them all the time. She had a sort of rack/stand thing that went over the electric grate and held the wok. She made a lot of meals over the years, and they all seemed to turn out fine, even some requiring very high heat. Might want to see if you can find the rack/converter thing in a kitchen supply store or online. Sorry I don't know what to call them. Too bad you can't see the picture in my brain... it is quite vivid!-)


Posted by: Anonymous | September 8, 2006 2:28 PM

Hi Kim,
Glad to have these detailed directions for seasoning a wok. I just bought one for the P-patch....remember me trying to toss the panzanella in a stock pot? Anyhow, I'll use these directions to season our new wok and we'll toast to you over our first meal. You and your friends are always welcome in our garden whenever you are in seattle. Cheers! Deb

Posted by: Deb Rock | September 8, 2006 5:39 PM

To adam w: you need a wok ring. See the link below


Posted by: leah | September 8, 2006 6:16 PM

I have a wok that I can't seem to get seasoned correctly. We followed similar instructions to these to season it, but it has a small area that won't "take". We have tried "re-seasoning", but didn't take again. Everything sticks to this one area. What can we do?

Posted by: Sabrina | September 13, 2006 5:00 PM

Well...I've heard there are places where you can buy a separate wok burner for minimal expense -- sorry I don't know the details.

As for the patch area, I found that it took a couple of tries to get my wok satisfactorily seasoned -- I'd just spread more oil and heat again, rinse, repeat.

Posted by: Rita | September 14, 2006 1:12 PM

I teach wok cooking in S.Florida where 80% of people have electric stoves. I'd like to address three issues which I deal with in my classes - heat source and shape & material of wok and seasoning the wok. I didn't realize there were so many misconceptions about stir-frying till I started teaching. Many comments I see are questions I hear in my classes. So, I hope these will help answer some of the problems people have.

1. heat source - to succeed in a successful stir-fry, you need high heat. Leah suggested getting a wok ring to Adam, this just makes your wok further away from the heat. You need the high heat.

My solution to overcome the problem of electric stoves is SIMPLE - purchase a portable BUTANE gas stove. Asian supermarkets sell them for about $30-$50 and are about 7,000 btu. The one I have from a supplier is 10,000 btu which is really nice. It's sufficient for homestyle cooking with 14" wok. You can set on top of your electric glass flat or coil (I do this myself). Safe for indoor use, propane is not. Butane refills are cheap, only about $2 and last 2 hours, stir-frys take 5 minutes, so you're able to cook many meals. It's great for hurricanes and power outages, RVs, camping, picnics etc. etc. PLUS you have the best of both heat sources.

2. shape & material - round bottom has a natural stir-fry motion and is perfectly shaped for use with gas flame. The one Kim is using has round inside with flat bottom outside which is fine but still using on electric is very difficult for stir-frying because you cannot control the temperature changes quickly and have to resort to taking your whole wok off the stove if you want to lower your heat. Gas is instantaneous, once you use it, you will be so spoiled, you will never look back.

Cast-iron is the best material for woks because the more you use it, the more patina it builds up and becomes a natural non-stick surface. The wok is a universal pan for cooking almost anything, not just Asian stir-frys. I have students who cook Italian, Mexican, Paellas, deep fry etc.

3. Seasoning the wok - it is tricky and this is the reason why I preseason the woks for my students to remove all the obstacles to starting wok cooking. If people are not successful on their first attempt, they throw in the towel in disgust and won't try again. It is near impossible to season on top of electric because you need the flame to go up the sides of the wok if you are seasoning stovetop method. With Kim's, she has to do it stovetop because I believe you have the wok with plastic handles, so you are not able to put inside the oven to season. I do both, season in the oven, then on stovetop so it's really seasoned well for use right away.

Hope these explanations answered some of the issues. My last thing I want to add is that is you need not only the right tools but the knowledge and that is what I provide my students.

Posted by: Eleanor Hoh | September 19, 2006 9:51 PM

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