Non stick woks and frying pans come in all shapes and sizes nowadays and I’ve certainly used a few of them over the years with good results. If you’re serious about stir-frying however, investing in a proper carbon steel wok is a smart decision. If you’ve cooked with non stick pans often, you’ll know that over time the coating inevitably comes off the pan, making cooking difficult and even creating the possibility of some of that coating going in to the food you intend to eat which is far from ideal. A properly seasoned wok creates a natural non stick layer which ensures you can cook over a high heat with consistent results over time. Even more importantly, a carbon steel wok can withstand high heat which adds a unique flavour to your cooking (‘the breath of the wok’).
Choosing a carbon steel wok:
Most carbon steel woks are suitable for all hob types but check before buying. Woks come in various sizes, with either a round bottom or flat bottom finish. For home use, a flat bottom is the one to choose, round bottom woks typically being intended for use over the gas burners used in takeaways and restaurants. When it comes to choosing the size of your wok, it’s best to go for something in the small – medium range. For one portion cooking (which is ideally how you want to stir-fry anyway), a flat bottomed 12″ carbon steel wok is ideal. The wok heats quickly and holds its heat so well that each portion can be cooked in just a few minutes and so it’s easy to prepare 3-4 portions one after the other if need be. Of course, if you have a larger hob you can choose a larger wok to suit your own needs. Expect to pay around £8-10 for a good quality carbon steel wok from Chinese supermarkets, or a little more online. To accompany your wok, you might choose to purchase a wok stirrer for cooking and a wok brush for cleaning.
Seasoning your carbon steel wok:
When you’ve got your carbon steel wok, you’ll have to season it before you begin to cook with it. This essentially means burning off the manufacturer’s coating which is on the wok, cleaning the wok out and heating it with oil to form a natural non stick layer. A good seasoning on your wok will give you a pan you can use again and again, and in fact the performance of the wok should even improve over time with extended use.
In the image above, the larger 14″ wok has been seasoned and used several times and is noticeably different in colour in comparison to the silver appearance of the brand new unseasoned 10″ wok below it.
Give the wok a good clean in hot soapy water, rinse and dry completely. This is the one and only time you’ll use washing up liquid on your wok, from this point on it should require nothing more than water, heat and a scrub with a wok brush.
With the carbon steel wok washed and fully dried, open any available doors and / or windows and put the wok on the hob over a high heat. This is much easier to do on a gas flame hob, but with time and patience it’s possible to do it on a ceramic, electric or induction hob also. This process creates a lot of smoke and a noticeable aroma, unpleasant but an important part of seasoning your wok. As the wok gets hot, you’ll see it begin to change colour and appear to blacken in. Tilt the pan over the high heat until all of the coating is removed and the surface of the pan has changed colour, this will take a few minutes. When the coating has burned off completely, remove the wok from the heat and set aside to cool. Rinse the wok out with water and a wok brush, dry completely again and return the pan to the hob. Switch the heat on low for 5 minutes in order to help ensure the wok is completely dry before moving on to step two of the seasoning process.
Slice a selection of stir frying vegetables (onions, spring onions, garlic, ginger, peppers etc). Heat the wok over a medium heat until it just begins to smoke. Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and the prepared vegetables and stir-fry for around 15-20 minutes, adding a little more oil as necessary when the wok appears dry. Move the vegetables around in the pan in order that the hot oil is carried all around the surface. Again, you’ll notice the wok colour change a little and appear well used compared to the brand new silver and shiny wok you started with. After 15-20 minutes, empty the vegetables out and discard them. Allow the wok to cool, rinse out again with water and a wok brush, dry completely with a clean tea towel and place over a low heat for 5 minutes to dry completely. Add a little oil to the wok and wipe it all around with kitchen paper until the entire surface is coated. Switch the heat on medium-low and allow the wok to sit over the heat for 10 minutes.
Using and caring for your carbon steel wok:
Your seasoned wok is now ready to use. At this stage, with a high heat and some oil, the wok should have some good non stick qualities. Over time, the natural patina will build on the wok and performance should improve with regular use.
Things to remember when cooking with your wok:
- Always heat the wok on a high heat until just smoking before adding oil. Cooking over a high heat will help to ensure food doesn’t stick.
- When adding marinated meat to the wok, allow the meat to settle in the pan for 10-15 seconds before stir-frying. Allowing the meat to settle in the pan will help ensure it doesn’t stick, particularly useful when the marinade includes cornflour or potato flour.
- Use a wok turner to scrape and stir the ingredients in the pan during cooking, ensuring ingredients don’t catch in the pan any more than desired.
- Oil the surface of the wok generously before cooking – restaurant chefs add more oil than is necessary to the pan and then drain off any excess, ensuring the entire surface of the wok is coated.
- In the early days of owning your wok, try to avoid cooking acidic dishes (vinegar, lime juice etc) or boiling / steaming with the wok.
- Conversely, deep frying in the wok will assist in building the natural non stick patina.
- Rice noodles will stick, even in very well seasoned woks. This is actually desirable, the slightly charred and smoky flavour adding to dishes like Pad See Ew etc.
To care for your wok, simply wash it out after each use with just water and a brush. If the wok has ingredients which need more vigorous cleaning, add a little water to the wok and heat until boiling. This will ensure any ingredients in the wok simply slide away and it can be cleaned easily. After cleaning, wipe dry with a clean tea towel and place over a low heat for 5 minutes to dry completely. Add a little oil to the wok and wipe it all around with kitchen paper until the entire surface is coated. By ensuring your carbon steel wok is completely clean, dry and coated with a little oil after each use, it should remain rust free with a natural non stick coating and last a lifetime.
Things to remember when cleaning your wok:
- Allow the wok to cool before cleaning in order to avoid shock from drastic temperature changes which may warp the shape of the pan.
- Use only hot water and a wok brush to clean your carbon steel wok – washing up liquid isn’t necessary.
- Keep your wok clean and dry at all times – drying with just a tea towel isn’t enough. Return the clean, dry wok to a low heat on the hob for 5 minutes in order to ensure it’s completely dry.
- Apply a small amount of cooking oil around the surface of the wok with a piece of kitchen paper before storing the wok for future use.
If you’d like to purchase a wok like the one I’ve described above and also help support this site, you can follow this link.