Seeking Advice About Woks

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It has occurred to me, more than once, that I may be slowly killing my family. When I make dinner with our wok, which happens about once a week, I can't help thinking that there's something very wrong with the metallic odor it releases, the clouds of smoke it emits when I leave it on the flame for too long, or the flecks of black residue that sometimes come off of its surface. Is this thing poisoning us, or what?

Thank God we live in a word in which there is an expert in everything. So I brought my heavy, anxious heart to Grace Young, a wok guru. Young wrote The Breath of a Wok, which sits on my shelf, and the more recent, Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge, which won the James Beard Foundation Best International Cookbook Award. In her books, she tells you everything you ever needed to know about woks — including where to buy them and how to use them — but I wanted to know about my wok. I bought it about four years ago, and I can't believe that it still doesn't have the awesome all-black patina of the sort I see when I peek into kitchens at Chinese restaurants.

Luckily, Young was willing to play wok therapist, and she looked at a photo of my wok.

"Hmmm, this is what I like to call an adolescent wok," she says. "It looks awkward. And it makes its owner nervous and uncomfortable, so they dump it. But it takes so long to evolve into a black wok."

Young says that American Chinese restaurants only use carbon steel woks, like the one I have, but they use them so much in a day, that the woks only last three to five months. And in China, where they use crazy high heat (so high that the chefs have no hair on their arms or eyebrows), the woks last about a week. So, I just have to be patient.

As for the health factors; Young explains that my wok is just made of iron and carbon, which is totally natural and without danger. In fact, the iron that my family and I get from the wok is good for us. Young referred to pediatric nutritionist Joyce Leung, who claims that the iron absorbed from a wok is far better than what you get taking an iron pill.

Young's cure for my problem with the uneven surface — which sometimes causes problems with one side getting sticky — is to let the wok heat until I can flick a drop of water on it and it evaporates within a second or two, before adding the oil. She suggests swirling the oil, and tilting the wok to make sure the entire bottom is covered. She also says that I should use a small metal spatula; not the wooden one I currently use. The preheating is the key, however.

And then, in an aside, she mentions that I can also cheat the patina by cooking popcorn in the wok, because it disperses the fat and burns it into the surface. . . .

WTW! (Translation: What the Wok!)

Cook popcorn in a wok? That's genius: wedding my two loves, popcorn and Chinese food. I had never thought of doing that. I wasn't off the phone for more than 15 minutes before trying Young's recommendation of two tablespoons of oil with a 1/3 cup of pop corn.

It came out perfectly. I wouldn't say the wok really aged that much, if at all, but it was still the best taste therapy possible for an anxious, troubled cook.