I often take pictures of my food cooking in a wok so it was no surprise when a couple of people asked about wok selection and care. Last week, Man Nghi wrote this: “I have the heavy Chinese cast-iron wok at home but often it is very useful to have a non-stick one too.” She’d seen one for about $59.99 and thought it pricey, which led to this question, “Is that the normal price for a good non-stick wok? I would ask my mother however she does not own one.”
Her comments hit on a lot of points for me, mainly that for decades, my mom didn’t have a wok at home. She stir-fried in a well-worn deep cast iron skillet. Viet cooks tend to not be big on woks. Chinese-Vietnamese people, like my friends Eric and Sophie Banh in Seattle, are more inclined to use them for cooking Viet fare. I can totally understand why Man Nghi’s mom isn’t a Viet wok user.
When I started out cooking for myself and tinkering with Chinese food, I initially tried a regular carbon-steel wok. My food kept sticking and I switched to using a large nonstick skillet. In the late 1990s, I wanted to try the wok again but was gun shy. I bought a nonstick wok for about $20.
The nonstick wok instantly made me feel like a Chinese food pro. Slices of marinated meat slid around the pan with ease. I turned out fabulous dishes as if I’d been using one for years. The trouble hit when the bits of nonstick coating came off into the food I was cooking.
I didn’t realize that you couldn’t heat the darn thing up at high temperatures without consequences. Stir-frying is about high heat, fast cooking. The flecks of black came off during a dinner party, as I was finishing up dishes to bring to the table. I picked out most of the bits and hoped for the best. The next day, I threw the wok away.
I didn’t cook with a wok until years later, after I’d been inspired by reading Grace Young’s Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. Grace was on a wok mission, arguing that traditional woks worked best. Poking around a Ross Dress-for-Less one day, I found the flat-bottomed wok you see here. As Tane Chan, owner of the Wok Shop in San Francisco says, a good wok doesn’t have to cost much. My $20 wok came in a box as a Joyce Chen kit and the unusual discovery of it at Ross of all places was akin to Asian cooking kismet (a cheap deal!). After assembling it, I threw away the other accoutrements as I can’t figure out how to comfortably wield those long chopsticks.
I followed Grace’s instructions to wash then season the wok with a bunch of Chinese chives (the same stuff used in classic Chinese dumplings!). Then I started cooking, blasting it with heat without fear of nonstick coating fleck coming off.
Food stuck time and time again. Watching me repeated scrape bits from the wok wall, my husband suggested that I buy a new wok. “Because the sticking is suppose to go away,” I’d responded in frustration.
Then I decided to deep-fry in the wok. Perhaps the oil would penetrate the metal to hasten the formation of a nonstick surface? Plus, less oil was required for wok frying and it heated up in a jiffy. About 2 years into using the wok once or twice a week, there was a beautiful black coating in the lower third. Food still stuck less, though stir-frying noodles or making fried rice could sometimes be challenging if the noodles or rice wasn’t dryish.
I rarely washed the outside of the wok, which is why it looks slightly crusty versus the smooth interior. A fast scrub after each use with hot water and maybe a drop of soap was all it took to clean up the wok. Then I dried it over a low flame while we ate dinner.
As the wok developed its patina, I found myself using it more often, even keeping it out on the stove for days on end. I didn't just like it. I loved it. The wok naturally became nonstick. I was even frying eggs in it, something I’d rarely do in my All Clad stainless steel skillets.
One day last year I simmered a dish in the wok and had to re-season the wok. I felt like I’d take a half step backwards. But I just kept using it for stir-frying, panfrying, and deep-frying. On one occasion, I slid the wok into the oven to hide it from guests after I finished deep-frying a batch of wontons. I left it in the oven overnight and the next day, turned the oven on to bake something. By the time I remembered the oil-filled wok, the oven was hot. I carefully carried the hot wok outside to cool on the cement patio.
When cooled, the wok and wood handled had surprisingly developed a rich patina in the oven. A beautiful, unintended consequence. I’d read that you can season a wok in the oven and I’d done it by mistake.
So what’s the advice on buying a nonstick wok? Get a carbon-steel or lightweight cast iron one. It doesn’t need to be expensive. To turn a cheap wok into a priceless piece of cookware, you just have to use it often. Religiously, as if you’re exercising the wok and your wok cooking skills.
If someone told me that the break-in time would take years, I would have been patient back in the 1990s. Had I truly realized that the fundamental idea behind Chinese wok cooking is that it’s your go-to cooking vessel for all kinds of cooking methods, I would have understood that traditional Chinese cooks have 'nonstick' woks by using it at a super high frequency. My perception of the wok was that of a dilletante.
My long journey to achieving nonstick wok status required practicing a wok routine. A little blind neglect helped my cause too. To answer Man Nghi's question, the best nonstick wok is one you make yourself.
If you have wok experiences or questions, feel free to share.
Related post: 9 Recipes for Wok Workouts (I'm such an enabler, eh?!)