Most pans have a film of machine oil coating the pan inside and out to prevent rusting before use. Wash the pan thoroughly with hot soapy water and a stainless steel scouring pad. Dry it well with paper towels, and then further dry it by placing it over low heat for a minute or two. Next, rotate the pan from side to side over high heat until you see a wisp of smoke. Pour a tablespoon of oil with a high smoke point into the pan (rice bran, peanut or sunflower) and rotate it all around the wok. Keep it over a high flame for 30 seconds or so. Let the pan cool for a moment, wipe out the oil, and then repeat this process three or four more times with oil and paper towels. Continue until the towel used to wipe out the pan is no longer grey. Let the pan cool, wash with hot water, dry with paper towels and then dry over a hot flame for a minute or two. Your pan is now ready to go. You will have taken the first steps in the years-long journey to build the prized, naturally non-stick, mahogany to black patina revered by all cooks.
Grace Young suggests other seasoning methods involving pork fat, Chinese chives and/or fresh ginger. The idea is the same, sealing the surface of the pan with hot oil to begin building the face of the wok. Her best advice is to use the pan often, at first avoiding acidic ingredients or using it for boiling or steaming. She writes that she bought a wok as a fiftieth birthday present for a friend. I was impressed that she wanted to present the gift after it was seasoned and the face of the pan was fortified by a month’s use. In the course of this conditioning, she made an unusual discovery; making popcorn in a wok hastens the development and strength of the patina (in addition to making delicious popcorn).
The instructions for cleaning a wok are similar to those for cleaning cast iron skillets. Do not use anything abrasive, dry the wok immediately after washing and finish the drying process by heating the pan over a low flame for a minute or two. With a new wok, I repeat the whole seasoning process for a number of times after each use. Often you are told not to use soap on your wok, but I use a mild dishwashing liquid to no ill effect when I’m cleaning the pan. Make sure you dry it over a low flame before putting it away.
When I mentioned to people that I wanted to write about stir-frying in the Spring issue, the comment I heard most often was, “I think I still have a wok, it’s been in the back of the cupboard for ages.” Woks don’t get the use they should because most people think of them only for stir-frying or Chinese food. They can be used to steam, smoke, pan-fry, deep-fry, braise, poach, boil and of course sauté. There is also no need for you to be limited to Asian flavor profiles. Chances are your wok has not been used for a while and will need to be re-seasoned. If it is rusted or sticky, Young suggests heating a cup of salt in the pan on high heat for a minute. Reduce the temperature to low and push the hot salt around the pan with a metal spatula for an additional five minutes. Let the salt cool until just warm and continue to rub it into problem spots with a clean, double-folded rag. Use caution, hot salt can really burn. Rinse and repeat the seasoning process as if it were a new pan. You will have brought your wok back to life.
Even with a lot of experience in the kitchen, I can still feel intimidated by the intense heat and cooking speed needed to produce wok hay. Once you light the fire, the process goes very quickly, so your mise en place and understanding of a particular recipe are extremely important. Fortunately, as with the face of your wok, one improves with practice.
A stir-fry usually has a main focus and then one or more secondary ingredients. Even if the goal is an intriguing juxtaposition of flavors or textures, there must be a basic compatibility in the choice of ingredients. It is not a monolithic technique. Stir-fries are classified as “dry” or “moist” depending on whether broths, sauces or any kind of liquids are added. “Clear” stir-fries focus on the main ingredient, well seasoned, but without further elaboration. For “velvet” stir-fries, the main ingredient has been lightly coated with an egg white and cornstarch mixture and then blanched in oil or water before the dish is finished in the wok.