Wok Wonderings

I get emails all the time about woks. Where to buy them, what to look for in them, and what to do with them once they come home.

Most of them have pretty standard, simple answers, but sometimes I get more complex questions which deserve to be answered publicly. In my experience, for every one reader who emails me a question, there are bound to be at least another four or five readers out there who have the same questions or experiences, but haven’t written because they are too shy to do so. Hence, I will write a post now and again outlining these questions and answers for everyone.

Remember, while I am very experienced in wokly matters, I am not the be all and end all authority on the subject; many of my answers will be a matter of opinion. I have my favorite ways to season woks, for example, but other folks, such as Grace Young, do it differently, and that is fine and dandy. Both ways work just fine and you will end up with a great patina in either case. Other answers, however, are pretty much a case of fact, and I strive to differentiate between the two.

What is the grey sticky stuff coating my new wok?

Enough preamble. First up, we have Andy, a friend of mine who lives in New York City. He and Lynne received a carbon-steel wok for Christmas which had no instructions on what to do with it. Neither of them know much about woks, except that one stir fries in them and one stir fries in them over high heat. Specifically, neither of them knew that a carbon steel wok must be seasoned before using.

So, out of the box the wok came, and into the kitchen it went. Excited to make something good for dinner, they cut up chicken and vegetables, and started cooking.

Over high heat, Andy noted that they smelled an odd odor, rather like a heating car engine or some sort of motor. When they threw the chicken in to cook, they noticed that while it was developing a nice brownish crust, it was streaked with ugly greyish bits that smelled metallic and dirty.

Luckily, they did not taste the chicken bits and threw them immediately away, because they were contaminated with the non-edible machine oil that coats carbon steel woks after they are made and before they are sold. This thick, viscous oil is used to keep the woks from rusting on their way from the factory to the store to the new owner’s kitchen.

Once a wok gets to the kitchen, this oil coating -must- be removed.

How?

With very hot water, dishwashing detergent, a scouring pad and elbow grease. Scrub the daylights out of any new carbon steel or unseasoned cast iron wok which comes into your possession. Scrub like your life depends on it. Scrub it once, rinse. Scrub it twice and rinse, and if it isn’t scrubbed down to bare metal, scrub it again for a third time.

Hopefully, this will be the very last time your wok will be scrubbed this vigorously.

To season it, heat the wok on high heat on your stove top. Pour about three tablespoons of peanut or canola oil into the wok, and using a long-handled spatula or set of tongs, push around a paper towel that has been folded into eighths all around the wok. When the oil is well spread, pick up the wok (with pot holders if you need to) and carefully tip it over the fire, allowing all parts of the outside of the wok to be heated by the flame. Turn the heat down to medium and keep moving the wok over it to keep it nice and warm, while rubbing the oil around with the paper towel now and again.

When this is done, remove the wok from the heat, let it cool down and wipe the excess oil away. Repeat the process once more.

Then, heat the wok empty over high heat until it begins to smoke. Add two tablespoons of peanut or canola oil and stir fry sliced ginger and scallions, scooping them and the flavored oil all over the wok with the wok shovel or by lifting the wok and swirling the oil around. When the ginger and scallions are quite brown, dump them out, let the wok cool and wipe the excess oil away.

After that, your wok is ready for cooking.

For another method of wok seasoning that is taught by Tane Chan, owner of The Wok Shop in San Francisco, check out Kirk’s detailed and illustrated post here.

Can an old wok get bad breath? If so, can it be saved?

Another question came from a vegetarian who had inherited an old wok that had been stored unused in a friend’s garage for years.

He said it smelled funny, like stale pork, and wanted to know if a wok could acquire “unwholesome wok hay,” and if that was the case, what could he do about it.

Unfortunately, the answer to his query is yes. A seasoned wok, left neglected in a dank place, can get a funky odor that will impart less than savory flavors to whatever foods are cooked in it. It sounds to me as if he has a wok that had been seasoned with lard once upon a time and was used often to cook meat, and the smell is not something a vegetarian would want in his food.

What to do about it? Well, unfortunately, when it comes to a case like this, it is best to scrub the patina out of the wok, bring it down to bare metal and start over by reseasoning it–this time with vegetable oil. Now, the good news is that this sort of treatment absolutely will not harm the wok in any way, and this young man will end up with a perfectly good wok for free, or rather the price of some elbow grease and patience.

How to scrub it out? Well, he can use the method outlined above for getting rid of the oil coating from a new wok, but he will have to work a good bit harder, since the seasoning is effectively baked in. He will likely be more successful by getting a really big box of salt, then dumping about a cup of it into his wok and heating it up on very high heat. Then, using a metal scouring pad and a long handled spatula or set of tongs, he needs to scrub at the wok. The heat allows the pores of the metal to open, and will release some of the oil and its scent, while the salt not only acts as an abrasive, it absorbs some of the oil and the odor.

Scrub the wok well, then cool it down, and rinse out the salt. Follow with a scrub with hot water and detergent.

Repeat as necessary until the wok is brought back to as close to a bare metal finish as possible.At this point, he can reseason his using whatever method he prefers.

Can a wok really never be too hot, or is that just a myth?

Elliott from Texas wrote to ask this question. I’m going to just quote his email here, with his permission, because he states the problem so eloquently:

“It seems like everything I read says that you can’t have the wok hot enough or there’s no such thing as a wok that’s too hot. Not wanting to smoke up the house by cooking on the stove, I purchased an outdoor propane burner designed specifically for woks, as well as a 14″ carbon steel wok from China. I finally got everything set up yesterday and went out to “season” my brand new wok. This burner I have is capable of throwing 65,000 btu but, everything I’ve read says crank it up…so I
did. The seasoning method I used was what came on a little flyer withmy wok, namely, heat it up and put some oil (canola) in, swish it around and let it cook until the surface of the wok turns brown. Here’s where the puzzlement began. As soon as I dropped the oil into the wok, poof…..it ignited and sat there burning. I’m pretty sure that’s not what was supposed to happen…right? So my question is: did I get the wok too hot? Maybe I put in too much oil? After the fire went out, I was left with a charred clump of nastiness in the bottom so I went and scrubbed that out and started over with the heat set MUCH lower this time. That seemed to do better and I ended up with a nice brown patina all over the wok.

I’ve not made a dish with it yet but am wondering….can I actually get the wok too hot?”

That saying, “You can’t get a wok too hot,” is not exactly a myth, but neither is it always true. In the case of most American home stoves, it is absolutely true. When someone is using an outdoor burner that pours out 65,000 BTUs of raw power, it is false.

As a rule of thumb, when your oil ignites upon contact with the wok, the wok might just be a little too warm to cook in.

That said, I was happy to find out that Elliott was cooking outside on a concrete and brick patio with a fire extinguisher and wok lid handy just in case something went awry. When you are working in high heat and high flame situations, safety considerations are quite important.

Most instructions on wok seasoning are not geared for anything other than traditional American gas or electric stoves which are lucky if they go up to 20,000 BTUs. These instructions certainly are not written for anything like what Elliott has on his patio, or for a professional wok stove which can throw out 300,000 BTUs. So when these instructions say high heat, they don’t mean that much high heat.

Elliott had enough sense to do the right thing, though I do want to point out it was in no way because he used too much oil. In fact, if he had used less oil on such high heat the effect might have been even more dramatic–it may have reached ignition temperature so fast it would seem to vaporize into an oily black smoke with only the slightest puff of flame visible. While that might look neat, it would not end up with a seasoned wok, and it could singe eyebrows.

What is my advice for cooking on an outdoor wok burner?

Scale back the heat a bit. While professional chefs in Chinese restaurants regularly crank their 300,000 BTU wok stoves up on high, they also are most often cooking with much larger woks and a lot more oil. This allows them to use higher heat, but even so–their woks do not last very long under this kind of stress. Woks used like this do not last spans of years–they last months. In order to avoid burning holes in your wok, ease up on the heat.

Also, it helps to ease up on the heat until you can stir fry fast enough to keep up with the heat! Having used a wok on a regular electric home stove, my 27,000 BTU AGA, and on a 300,000 BTU professional behemoth, I can tell you–you have to work very quickly and very precisely. I would not have been as successful with the professional stove if I had not been so experienced at stir frying on lower powered stoves and knew what I was doing. Learning to cook at such high heats is difficult.

Besides, even at lower BTUs, it is quite simple to make perfectly good stir-fry dishes, especially if you follow my techniques for better stir frying.

And one more nice thing–you are not quite as likely to set yourself or your food on fire at lower temperatures. Work your way up to the full power and then invite everyone over and show off!

One last question:

If a properly seasoned carbon steel or cast iron wok is naturally non-stick, why do you need a bamboo scrubber?

This one is an easy one.

When you use allow meats that have been marinated in cornstarch and sugar to caramelize on a hot wok, and then deglaze it, a thick, somewhat sticky sauce is created. When you scrape the finished dish out of the wok onto a serving platter, some bits get left behind. That sort of sauce is pretty sticky, and so now and again, they are stubborn and cannot be simply rinsed away with a strong spray of hot water. In cases like that, I use the traditional bamboo brush to gently scrub any sticky bits away.

The bamboo performs the job admirably on a hot wok without endangering my fingers or damaging the patina.

20 Comments

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  1. Hi Barbara – Thanks for the link. You do great work….it is important to get your wok seasoned correctly. The wok I seasoned for my post is going strong, and has kept a nice patina…even over my 50,000 BTU Big Kahuna.

    Comment by Kirk — February 20, 2007 #

  2. When the oil is well spread, pick up the wok (with pot holders if you need to) and carefully tip it over the fire, allowing all parts of the outside of the wok to be heated by the flame.

    For those of us without a gas stove (are there apartment kitchens in existence anymore with gas stoves?), would the oven method be better?

    Comment by Mel — February 21, 2007 #

  3. You are a font of useful information, as always. Happy Chinese New Year!

    Comment by Trig — February 21, 2007 #

  4. Hey Barbara,

    Great to see further information of woks thanks.

    My flat bottomed wok warped a bit when I got it very hot on our outdoor BBQ wok burner whereas it was okay when I was using it on the indoor electric stove prior to this. But this hasn’t really effected its performance on the electric stove thankfully.

    In terms of removing the coating on a new wok some suggest that you first add some oil, heat the wok, let it cool down and then scrub the coating off. Supposably this makes it easier to remove the coating. Some also use salt when scouring the surface.

    Cheers – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — February 21, 2007 #

  5. For Mel and others with electric burners:

    I would suggest going to your Asian market and buying a portable gas burner and a package of butane gas canisters. This is what I use, because it’s almost impossible to control the heat on my electric range. I love my little portable gas burner. It fits my 15 inch wok perfectly.

    I paid about 15 dollars for it last year and the butane canisters are about 8 dollars for a package of four (if you get them at the Asian market). Most Japanese and Korean households use portable gas burners for all their cooking, strangely enough.

    Comment by Roxanne Rieske — February 22, 2007 #

  6. Mel–I have done both stovetop and oven seasoning when I have had an electric stove. Both work. It just depends on how hot your electric cooktop gets. I think it is probably easier to use the oven method, though, because with the electric stovetop and moving the wok over the heat source, it is somewhat more awkward than it is doing it with a gas range.

    Roxanne–I have always shied away from those burners, and instead, have cooked quite well on flat electric burners by using a single-handled wok (also called a Northern wok or pao pan), and turning my largest burner on high. When the food got too hot, I would momentarily move it off the burner by the handle, and then sweep it back on the burner to heat it back up. This simulates the control that one can get with a gas burner and develops good forearm muscles at the same time! (Yes, it is the Chinese chef exercise program at work for you….)

    I don’t know why I have shied from the portable burners, but I have. Probably no good reason, though I have been tempted to get one in order to do a hotpot dinner for friends. So, we’ll see…you never know. In a month or so, you might see a post categorized under tools and toys about the new burner….

    Thanks, Trig!

    Gordon, I am glad to hear that your wok is doing well.

    And Kirk–I am glad that your wok is still going strong! Long live the Big Kahuna!

    Comment by Barbara — February 22, 2007 #

  7. Hi Gang,

    I’m not so sure about the portable burners as opposed to using a flat bottomed wok on an electric stovetop. I did try one of these portable burners quite some time ago but found that even though they are gas the BTU output is very low and certainly usually less that that of the biggest burner of an electric stove.

    The other issue is that of safety. It is not normally recommended that the cookware extend too far beyond the burner itself otherwise the heat can be relected down on the gas canister. Because woks are quite wide albit slope away from the base there is a certain amount of reflected heat. It doesn’t happen often but I know two friends who have had these canisters explode. Fortunately it was outside during a camping trip and posed no real danger. It is rare I know but does concern me a bit.

    I noted also on another site that sells woks that one also needs to be careful when using the portable burner on top of your stove. It is quite common for people to sit these on top of their electric stove so that the burner is below the range hood. But habit can result in the user accidentally turning the stove on instead of the portable gas burner. Hence there is a hotplate running full bore below the gas cylinder. I know this is just a lapse of concentration but it is easily done if you are not mindful.

    For me however I do as Barbara has mentioned and just lift the wok off the heat source when need be.

    Cheers – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — February 22, 2007 #

  8. [...] Barbara at Tigers & Strawberries gives us a lesson in Wok Wonderings. And while you are there, why not read Confessions of an Alpha Cook. [...]

    Pingback by Hippo Noodles » Blog Archive » Weekend Wrap-up: Feb. 18 - 24 — February 25, 2007 #

  9. I was wondering if any one had a clue on how or where to get the wok that is on the cover of Grace Young’s Book “The Breath Of A Wok”
    Thank You

    Comment by Richard Parker — April 24, 2007 #

  10. Richard,

    Here is a place to get hand-hammered carbon steel woks made in China that will be almost exactly the same as the wok on the cover of “The Breath of a Wok.”

    http://www.wokshop.com/HTML/products/woks/woks_handhammered.html

    I cannot say enough good about Tane Chan, her shop or her products. Her customer service is outstanding and her products are great quality.

    Comment by Barbara — May 6, 2007 #

  11. Hello, thank you for your great site. I was wondering where I can find a professional wok burner or wok(one two or three burner’s) table throwing a minimum of 100 000 btu’s?

    Comment by Paul — May 31, 2007 #

  12. Hello, thank you for your great site. I was wondering where I can find a professional wok burner or wok(one two or three burner’s) table throwing a minimum of 100 000 btu’s?

    Comment by Paul — May 31, 2007 #

  13. Hello, and thank you all for the information on portable wok burners.

    I’m in the market for an outdoor wok burner, though I might use it indoors from time to time. Does anyone have information on the relative merits of different brands/models? Many advertisements do not list the BTU rating, and it’s impossible to tell from pictures whether a burner is resistant to wind, easy to clean, easy to pack/store, etc. It’s also hard to guess at the cost/benefit ratio because I have never cooked with a high-BTU wok burner before. (For instance, would a non-commercial 50,000 BTU burner be “enough” for a while, or would a semi-professional cook such as myself quickly become frustrated with it?)

    I already own a 20/lb propane tank with long hoses to keep it away from burners. I’ve done a great deal of private and professional outdoor cooking, so even a “dangerous” high-BTU model should be something I can learn to handle. I want the biggest, baddest burner I can afford (up to USD $100 at present), so that when I do commercial cooking again, I’ll have the tools I want.

    Any comparison (or simple recommendation of any particular model) would be most welcome.

    Thanks in advance,

    myriadin

    Comment by myriadin — May 31, 2007 #

  14. I bought a carbon steel wok from The Wok Shop. I keep scrubbing it and scrubbing it… but whenever I wipe its surface with a wet paper towel, a bunch of black grease still comes off. What am I doing wrong?

    Comment by Holey — January 18, 2008 #

  15. How clean does a seasoned wok get? I’ve been thinking of getting one but have been considering nonstick instead because I could see my somewhat-germ-phobic partner being concerned that a seasoned wok is not scrubbed really well (this is the guy whose comment on wooden and bamboo cooking utensils is something like “wow, way to have something porous that’ll hold onto germs!). Is it possible that the patina could hold germs?

    Comment by Kat — January 31, 2008 #

  16. Please tell me how to use the bamboo steamer. I am new to wok cooking and my wok did not come with instructions either.

    Comment by Maria — February 17, 2008 #

  17. How do you use the bamboo basket?

    Comment by Maria — February 17, 2008 #

  18. I was searching for a super powerful wok burner that could match the professional burners found in Chinese restuarants. The best product I’ve found that has the high output and is specifically made for wok cooking (so it can handle round bottom woks) is the PowerFlamer from OutdoorStirFry.com. I love the fact that you get serious power for a decent price. After all, you can always turn down the heat if you want, but if you have a wimpy burner, you just can’t turn it up more!

    Comment by Dr. Gross — February 28, 2008 #

  19. My wok is baking as I write this! Thanks for the instructions, and the link to mmmyoso.

    I tried to wash off the patina after the first baking, using washing up liquid along with the scouring pad, and there were some sticky patches that were difficult to wash. Am I doing sth wrong here? Thanks!

    Comment by Maninas — February 21, 2010 #

  20. [...] posts in this series include Wok Wonderings, Let’s Talk Woks, Asian Kitchen Equipment Essentials, and Wok [...]

    Pingback by Barbara’s Mailbag: Wok, Don’t Run | food of china — November 16, 2011 #

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