A carbon steel wok is the ideal type of wok and is preferable over other materials, such as stainless steel (which sticks horribly) or cast iron (which is too heavy for maneuvering).
Carbon steel woks develop character with use and progressively become more non-stick over time.
Before a carbon steel wok can be used for cooking, it does need to undergo some preparation. Without proper seasoning, a carbon steel wok will not perform to its full potential.
Carbon steel rusts very easily. When carbon steel woks get manufactured and packaged, they’re coated with a non-edible factory oil to prevent rusting.
When you first bring your carbon steel wok home, you need to get it under a sink and thoroughly scrub it down with an abrasive scrubber and detergent to remove as much of that factory oil as possible.
It does take some elbow grease to remove, but it’s an essential preparatory step. Expect to spend a good amount of time doing this. I personally budget about 15 minutes of intense scrubbing.
This rough cleaning should really only happen when a carbon steel wok is coming fresh out of its packaging or if it’s being re-seasoned from scratch.
Once the oil coating has been removed, the carbon steel wok needs to be cooked over intense heat for several minutes.
If you can, I recommend taking this initial high intensity cooking of the carbon steel wok outdoors. It burns off a bunch of gunk from the surface of the wok, and it also fundamentally alters the carbon steel wok to make it non-stock. A byproduct of this burning process is a ton of smoke. You could do this indoors with your range hood cranked up and all the windows open, but it does get very smoky.
I like burning my carbon steel woks on my outdoor 100,000 BTU propane burner. It takes a few minutes of concentrated heat in each spot on the wok. During the burning process, I rotate the wok around on the grate so the heat hits each side of the wok as evenly as possible.
During this burning process, the carbon steel wok will smoke as it burns off any residue, then it turns a light grey, then black, then it’ll gradually turn a dark blue color. These color changes are a good thing.
The carbon steel turns blue because an oxide layer develops on the surface of the wok. For a more in-depth discussion of why the metal appears blue, check out this post by Make it From Metal.
Once the carbon steel wok has gone through its color changes, let it cool down for a few minutes, but not all the way until it’s cool to the touch.
Then, fold a sheet of high-quality paper towel or kitchen towel repeatedly until its a thick wad, then clamp it between some kitchen tongs. I highly recommend using tongs, since this process can get extremely hot and might burn you.
Dip the paper in some high smoke point oil, like vegetable oil or canola oil.
Use the oil-soaked wad to wipe down every surface of the carbon steel wok, both on the inside and the outside.
The goal is to get an extremely thin even coat of oil on every surface of the carbon steel wok.
Wipe away an excess oil. Make sure the wok doesn’t glisten with oil and that there are no beads of oil. If you see any of that, give the wok a wipe down with a dry paper towel or cloth. If you leave too much oil on the surface, it’ll impair the wok’s seasoning.
It’s extremely important to use a high quality paper towel or cloth towel so it doesn’t leave little bits of link all over the surface of the wok.
Once the wok is coated with an extremely thin coat of oil, blast it with a lot of heat on top of the burner. The wok should smoke up a ton.
The high heat causes the thin coat of oil to polymerize. Polymerization is the process where an oil on a work surface gets transformed into a non-stick hard coating.
The polymerized coating that forms is extremely durable, and acts as both a protective layer for the carbon steel wok and also a thin barrier between any food and the wok surface itself.
It is important that the wok is coated only in the thinnest of oil layers and then subjected to extremely high levels of heat. Without that combination of thin oil layers and high heat, the oil will turn out gummy rather than dense and hard.
During the polymerization process, the surface of the wok will appear to gradually turn black.
Once the oil has been blasted with heat and polymerized, turn the heat down and let the wok cool.
Repeat the thin coating of oil and blasting with high heat for polymerization another 2 or 3 times until a smooth, even, and dark coating forms on the carbon steel wok’s surface.
When the wok fully cools down, the surface should feel like a hard plastic film. At this point, the wok is ready to cook with and should be fairly non-stick with proper heating and oiling.
There’s a good chance the seasoning won’t be perfect. That’s OK.
With repeated usage, any divets or imperfections in the wok surface will fill in, and the seasoned coating will improve. Repeated usage of the carbon steel wok will usually make it a better, non-stick cooking surface.
Imperfections should be expected in a carbon steel wok. These woks won’t look pretty, but they work great. When prepared and used properly, food will slip and slide all over the surface.
A carbon steel wok is extremely forgiving and is very difficult to ruin. If you do manage to damage the seasoning, you can always scrub it down to bare metal using an abrasive pad, and start the seasoning over from the beginning.
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My 100,000 BTU outdoor wok burner. It’s a beast.
My favorite carbon steel wok so far. It’s shockingly inexpensive and reliable.