Seasoning a wok is an important step in preparing it for years of use. Woks are not the same as normal pots and pans, and they require this step so they will cook your food properly and keep the taste of the food as well. There are two main materials woks are made with, cast iron and carbon steel. Both styles of wok need to be seasoned prior to use, and both need a slightly different process to season them. Since carbon steel woks are the most common, we will start there.
Seasoning Carbon Steel Woks
Carbon steel woks are lighter, more versatile, and easier to care for woks since they are lighter and typically easier to handle. They come from the factory with a thin layer of film or oil which is there to protect the wok from rust while it is waiting to be sold.
1- Clean the Wok Thoroughly by Scrubbing
The film that comes on the carbon steel wok is not something you want to get on your food. The first thing to do in the process of cleaning your wok is to remove that oily coating completely. To do this, fill your sink with hot soapy water and submerge your new wok completely in the sink or washtub.
Normally, using a hard scouring pad or metallic scrubby is not recommended to clean your wok (as covered in the ‘how to clean your wok’ article), but in this case, it is required to completely remove this oily layer. Take an abrasive or metallic sponge or scrubby and scrub your wok hard. Using small circular motions press the scrubber against the wok on all the sides and scrub each area for 20 seconds or more.
Rinse off the wok and make sure the water is running completely clear from the wok. If you see any discoloration or cloudiness in the water, there is still some oil on the wok, and you need to scrub it more. Once the water is completely clear, you are done with the washing process.
2- Heat and Burn Your Wok
This is probably the most important step in seasoning a carbon steel wok. It kills any possible bacteria that may be present, and it prepares the metal for the next step. Once your wok is fully cleaned from the previous step, make sure to let it dry completely. You do not want any moisture on your wok when you start this step of the process.
Place your wok on your stovetop and turn on the burner on the high setting. Your wok will begin to heat up and change colors. This is normal, and nothing to be alarmed by. Be very careful during this process as your wok will be extremely hot and dangerous to be close to. Using a potholder, use the handle of the wok to turn it making sure all sides are getting completely heated.
The goal is to have your wok become a gray dull color after being fully burned on all sides. Once your wok looks like it has been completely burned, you have completed this step.
3- Oil Your Wok
Before you start this step, let your wok cool down completely. This may take a long time since it was heated up to such a high temperature. Do not attempt to oil your wok while it is still hot. There are multiple options here on which oil to use to prime your cooking surface. Most experienced wok cooks prefer a high heat oil like sunflower oil or vegetable oil. There are special products made just for prepping woks too, like special waxes or wok oils.
Take a soft rag or paper towel and put a small amount of the oil on it and rub the oil onto the entire inside of the wok. Make sure not to miss any sections, take your time, and be methodical to avoid any missed spots. This step is critical to ensuring the cooking surface is smooth and works the way it is supposed to work when you are cooking food.
4- Burn and Smoke the Oiled Wok
This is the last step of seasoning or priming your new wok. This is where the surface gets completely prepared for cooking your first wok meal. This step is similar to the burn step earlier, but in this step, you want to make sure you have your kitchen fan on, and your doors open because it produces smoke that can set off your smoke alarms.
Place your wok on your cooktop or burner and turn the heat on high. As the wok heats up, you will start to notice smoke coming off the surface where the oil has been applied. This is what we want to happen and is no reason for concern.
Using a potholder to hold the wok handle, rotate the wok from side to side until you see all the oil you placed on the surface smoke and burn off. You will notice the color change on the surface of the inside of the wok to a darker gray color now. This is the goal of this step, to burn off all the oil and leave behind the slight flavor and prepare the surface for cooking.
Seasoning Cast Iron Woks
There are a few different ways to season a cast iron wok, but the one that seems to have the most agreement as being the most beneficial to cast iron is the salt seasoning method. The idea behind this method is to use the salt’s chemical makeup to speed up the heating process and to use the flavor the salt leaves behind to help flavor and season the things you will be cooking later.
1- Clean the Wok
Just like the carbon steel woks, cast iron woks also need to be rigorously cleaned before you season them. They can collect dust or bacteria from the time they are created until you finally purchase them and get them in your home. Also, some cast iron woks come with a coating from the factory to avoid rusting just like the carbon steel models. In any case, detailed and thorough cleaning is the first step.
Place your wok in a sink full of hot water with some good dish detergent. Use an abrasive sponge or rag to rub every surface of the wok. Pay special attention to the sides, these are easy to miss, or to not scrub enough because they are awkward for your wrists. You will see some debris and stuff coming off, that is OK, that is the stuff we want to remove from the wok.
After you have used some force and an abrasive rag and detergent to fully clean your wok, it is time to rinse it clean. As you rinse off all the water and debris keep an eye on the water, once it is completely clear, you have successfully cleaned the wok.
2- Salt it Up
Take about a cup of kosher salt or sea salt and pour it into your wok. With the salt in the wok, put it on the stove and turn on high heat. As the wok heats, use a wooden spoon or spatula to constantly stir the salt. Try to make sure the salt gets rubbed on the sides of the wok evenly as well as the bottom. Do this process for around 20 minutes, paying special attention to get the salt everywhere, especially the sides.
Once you have done this for 20 minutes, you can take the wok off the stove (use a potholder so you don’t burn your hands). Pour out the salt into the sink and place your wok back on the stove on a spot that is cool. Let the wok cool for a while, usually it takes about 5 minutes to become cool to the touch, maybe more time if your kitchen is hot.
3- Oil the Wok
Cast iron woks are obviously different than carbon steel woks. They are made from cast iron which has a completely different chemical makeup. Because of this, it is best to use grapeseed oil to prime your cast iron wok. You could use vegetable oil or another type, but grapeseed oil can withstand higher heat before it reaches the smoking point, so it is preferred when working with cast iron.
Take a paper towel or soft cloth and dab some grapeseed oil on it. Use the cloth to gently rub the oil all over the cooking surface of the wok. Make sure you do not miss any spots, and methodically rub the oil all over until every area of the wok is coated evenly with the grapeseed oil.
Since we are using cast iron this time, the oiling step is the final step. There is no need to perform the smoking step where you burn off all the oil until it reaches the smoking point. The cast iron was already overheated and sterilized during the salting step. Once you have coated the wok with oil you are done!