How to Clean, Season, and Maintain a Wok, According to an Expert

Cookbook author Grace Young shares her best tips for keeping your wok in peak condition.

Wok pan with wooden handle
Photo: Lisovskaya / GETTY IMAGES

A well-loved wok is a thing of beauty. Frequent cooking builds up a glossy, natural nonstick coating, and gentle cleaning removes excess grease, but doesn't disturb those precious layers of seasoning. When cared for properly, a good quality carbon steel wok can last decades, even generations. Treated roughly or ignored, however, a wok can lose its luster or start to rust.

To learn how to clean a wok and keep it in peak condition, we reached out to Grace Young, a Chinese American food historian and the author of many cookbooks including The Breath Of A Wok and Stir-Frying To The Sky's Edge, who recommends following these steps to maintain what might well be the most versatile pan in your kitchen.

How to Clean a Wok

Never put a wok in the dishwasher. Young recommends this simple cleaning routine, instead:

  1. Let your wok cool, then soak it in hot water for 10 minutes.
  2. Gently buff it with the soft side of a Scotch-Brite pad. "If anything is sticking, you can lightly buff it with the rougher side," she says.

Dry It Well

After you clean your wok, skip towels and dry it over low heat on your stove's burner; towels can leave behind bits of paper or lint. Be sure to tackle this task quickly: Never leave a wok soaking in the sink or dripping in a drying rack—it will rust.

Store It Carefully

Keep your wok in a place where other pans won't scratch it. If you live somewhere humid or use it only occasionally, place it inside a paper bag to protect it from humidity and dust, Young suggests.

How to Season a Wok

Wash and season a new wok before you cook with it, says Young. Chinese chives are traditionally used to season, but she suggests scallions and ginger, which are readily available year round. Young developed a recipe for this purpose and has shared it with us.

First, a few words of wisdom: "After you wash the wok and dry it on the burner, the wok may turn yellow, orange, bluish, and even black. Don't be alarmed. It may not change at all. This is natural," she says. "After you stir-fry the scallions and ginger, the wok may look splotchy and blacken on just one side. It may look like you ruined the wok, but again, don't be alarmed. This can happen. The important thing is once it's seasoned, use your wok for cooking."

How to Season a Carbon-Steel Wok With Scallions and Ginger

  • 1 bunch scallions, washed, dried (thoroughly remove excess water with a towel) and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup sliced, unpeeled ginger
  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil
  1. Wash the inside and outside of a carbon steel wok with hot water using a stainless steel scrubber and liquid dishwashing soap. Rinse with hot water. Repeat several times. Open the windows and turn the exhaust fan to high speed. Dry the wok on a burner over low heat for one to two minutes until no water droplets are visible.
  2. Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within one to two seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil and add the scallions and ginger. Reduce heat to medium and stir-fry for 15 to 20 minutes, pushing the mixture up the sides of the wok to the edge. If the mixture becomes dry add an additional tablespoon of oil. Remove from heat and allow the wok to cool. Discard the scallions and ginger.
  3. Wash the wok with hot water using a sponge. Dry the wok on a burner over low heat for one to two minutes to make sure the pan is totally dry. The wok is seasoned and ready for cooking.
wok and cleaning sponge
Courtesy of Grace Young

How to Maintain Your Wok

Now that you know how to clean, dry, and store your wok, learn how to properly maintain it—which begins with using it frequently.

Use It Often

Treat your wok like a do-it-all pan, not a special-occasion one. "The best thing you can do is use it constantly," says Young. Each time you cook with your wok, you enhance its patina. That helps it develop into a resilient, natural nonstick coating. This is especially important for a new pan. Cooking with oils and fats—deep fat frying, in particular—is great for a wok's patina.

"A young wok is always thirsty for fat and seems to love pork fat the most," says Young. When she spoke to us, she was busy seasoning one of several woks she donated for an auction held by Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate. She'd been cooking bacon in one of the woks every day—and "now it's glowing and the patina color is getting darker," she says.

Cook Carefully at First

A wok's patina develops over time, so if your pan is new, the seasoning is still delicate. If you cook certain foods or clean it too roughly, you can weaken the patina. One menace to your wok's seasoning is acidic ingredients. Wait until your wok has matured to cook with pineapple or lemon juice or to make sweet-and-sour dishes, says Young. Tomatoes and vinegar can be dangerous, too. You should also avoid steaming, boiling, or poaching in a new wok, as those cooking methods can dry out the patina.

Restore Your Wok's Surface

If you haven't used your wok in a while, its surface might feel sticky or there might be some rust. This is a sign that your wok needs some extra care—so give it what Young calls a "wok facial." It's a quick way to remove sticky areas, bits of food, or rust using pantry ingredients:

  1. Heat the wok over high heat until a drop of water evaporates in a second or two.
  2. Remove it from the heat, add 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil (always using half as much oil as salt), and rub it wherever the wok is sticky or rusty with a thick pad of paper towels, taking care not to touch the hot wok. The salt will likely turn brown. Brush out the salt.
  3. Rinse the wok, then dry it fully over low heat until no water droplets are visible.

If your wok is very rusted, you may need to re-season it afterward. Follow Young's recipe above to give it a new patina.

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