How Not to Season a Wok
As promised in the first post of my series on learning to cook with a wok, I am now going to talk about seasoning.
Seasoning is an essential step for carbon steel woks. If you have a non-stick wok, you don’t need to worry about seasoning. Ditto for most cast iron woks which typically come pre-seasoned and don’t require the degree of seasoning required for carbon steel, although you should follow manufacturer instructions for first use and maintenance of the seasoning.
What is seasoning? To answer that question I’ll borrow the definition from Serious Eats:
“Contrary to popular belief, ‘seasoning’ in the context of cookware is not flavor that builds up in a pan over time. Instead, seasoning is an accumulation of incredibly thin layers of oil that have transformed, via heat, from liquid grease into a solid, plastic-like polymer.”
It is this gradual buildup of polymerized oil that creates the non-stick surface in carbon steel pans. An unseasoned carbon steel pan is silver in colour–that is the unfinished steel you see. Cast iron, on the other hand, tends to be black from the pre-seasoning it receives before reaching store shelves.
If you don’t season carbon steel, food will stick to it constantly. As for the best way to season this type of pan, I learned that the hard way. The instructions that came with my wok were not good. I followed them to the letter and ended up with several large, sticky blobs in the centre of my wok. No amount of heat could break these things down. I had to fix this mess then start the seasoning process over from scratch. It was not fun. To help you avoid the same result, I’ll share my experience of how not to season a wok and the knowledge I gained through my trials and errors.
Pro tip: seasoning a wok is a very smoky business, so open your windows and turn on your exhaust fan before you put the wok over heat.
What Not To Do When Seasoning a Wok
Contrary to what my instructions told me, you need a lot of heat and a lot of time to season a wok, and you need to start with a considerable amount of scrubbing and heating to remove the manufacturer’s coating.
The first step is to deal with that coating. Carbon steel rusts very quickly in the presence of any moisture. To avoid rust, manufacturers apply a protective coating of oil to their pans that must be removed before seasoning.
I think my handling of this coating was my first mistake. I followed the instructions that accompanied my wok, which said I should rinse the wok under hot tap water for 5 minutes to loosen the film, then scrub with lots of dish soap for 3-4 minutes. The instructions also said to ensure the wok was completely dry before seasoning. I dried with a towel and then let the wok air dry.
The next step, according to my instructions, was to rub oil into the wok–no indication of how much–then heat “gently” until the wok started to smoke. After the smoke started, I was to remove the wok from the heat to let it cool, then wipe away the excess oil.
Something in these two steps went dreadfully wrong. Instead of a smooth, lightly seasoned wok, I ended up with sticky blotches that were thick, bumpy and impossible to burn off. They were in the centre of the wok, on the primary cooking surface, which was now dark brown while the walls of the wok remained silver. I knew nothing about this was right and began searching Google for a remedy.
I didn’t bookmark the site I found so I can’t cite it, but the troubleshooting information I uncovered told me one thing: I needed to start over. I got out some steel wool and scrubbed away the bumpy splotches. Then I found new instructions for seasoning that worked. Through this second process I was able to diagnose what went wrong with the first.
Here’s what I think happened:
- First, washing did not get all of the industrial coating off. Unlike my wok’s instructions, most sites I found indicate that you need to heat the pan after you wash it to ensure the coating is burned off. Do this before you add oil for seasoning.
- Second, you need higher heat. Heating oil “gently” does not do the job. The oil doesn’t polymerize and just sits on the surface of the pan.
- Third, you need to move the pan around to ensure all surfaces are evenly seasoned. This takes a very long time and generates a lot of smoke. A few minutes to heat the bottom, as suggested by the instructions I had in hand, is not nearly sufficient.
- Fourth, you need to use as little oil as possible. As noted on Serious Eats, a “heavy hand with the oil will mess up your seasoning, leaving you with a splotchy, sticky coating that can be difficult to fix.” Um, yeah. I can attest to that.
After saying all of that, I still recommend that you start with manufacturer instructions so you don’t void any warranties but if you run into trouble, you may want to follow the advice I found. First, for a great primer on why and how to season carbon steel pans in general, consult the Serious Eats article I referenced above. For instructions specific to carbon steel woks, I recommend reading this article by Woks of Life, which includes the very important step of wrapping the helper handle of a wok in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
For correcting my seasoning mistakes, I combined the advice of both Serious Eats and Woks of Life:
- After using steel wool and washing multiple times, I figured the industrial coating had been removed. I dried the wok over high heat, let it cool a bit, then added hot water to cool it further (as per Woks of Life).
- I dried it over heat, as per Woks of Life.
- I then applied a very thin coat of oil, as per Serious Eats.
- I heated the wok, turning it as needed, until the colour started to change, aiming to keep an even colour on all surfaces.
- I repeated the oiling and heating process, seeking the faint shade of brown described by Serious Eats, although I overdid it one spot and had to go to a darker shade overall. The centre of my wok ended up very dark, because of the prior mishap and extra seasoning, but it was fine. (See my before and after shots at the end of this post.)
- I’ve been using the wok often, which is one of the best ways to maintain the seasoning, and it is wonderfully non-stick.
Other things to note about seasoning a carbon steel wok:
- During the initial removal of the industrial coating there will be smoke. If you follow the Serious Eats method, which uses a thin coat of oil throughout the turning and heating process, there will be a lot more smoke. I mentioned this above but I cannot stress it enough: be sure to have your exhaust fan on and windows open.
- Seasoning takes a long time. Be prepared to stand at the stovetop turning your wok for at least 20 minutes. If you repeat the method, as suggested by Serious Eats, it can take longer.
- It can be oddly gratifying to see the colour changing in the wok as you season it. It is actually a very cool process to watch.
With seasoned wok in hand–at last–I was ready to cook. More on that in my next post.