How to clean a carbon steel wok

Published Categorized as Cookware, Cookware Advice, Guide

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If you have a wok which is on regular rotation in your kitchen, you’ll know just how fantastic they are. Chances are, your wok is made of carbon steel, as most great woks are. Or, perhaps you’ve recently welcomed a new carbon steel wok into your cookware family. If so, you need to know how to clean it.

See also:
Our review of the Top Carbon Steel Pans.
Best carbon steel woks you can buy.

Cleaning your wok is not just a matter of giving it a good scrub and tossing it into the cupboard. There are a few protocols which you need to adhere to in order to protect the amazing benefits your wok offers.

We’ve broken down the best process for cleaning your carbon steel wok, and why each process is so. 

What is carbon steel?

It gets a little technical when you really delve into the depths of steel alloys and percentages pertaining to different metal contents. But all you really need to know is that carbon steel is steel which has a carbon content of around 0.2% to 2.1%.

You might be wondering how carbon steel differs from stainless steel. Stainless steel has chromium added to it which makes it immune to rusting and gives it that shiny sheen. Carbon steel is less shiny and has more of a rustic, lived-in appearance.


Why are woks made of carbon steel? What are the benefits?

  • Becomes hot quickly: carbon steel is an amazing heat conductor. It soaks up the heat and becomes super hot, super fast. This is crucial for a wok, as many dishes made in woks call for a very fast, very hot blast of cooking. You don’t have to wait for long for the wok to reach the desired temperature.
  • Cools quickly: as well as heating up quickly, carbon steel also cools quickly. Some other common cookware metals take a while to get rid of the heat, but carbon steel gets back to room temperature promptly. This is great because it means you can get your wok cleaned faster, without having to wait for it lose heat.
  • Takes a high heat: woks are not delicate when it comes to heat. You can blast them with the highest heat your stove can muster, and they can take it. In fact, they’re designed for high heat.
  • Resists sticking: the beauty of a carbon steel wok is that over time, with each cooking session and each oil application, it develops a non-stick coating. It’s not completely non-stick, but because you’re likely to be cooking with oil and very high heats, food is less prone to sticking anyway. This is where the proper cleaning methods come into play, as you can damage that lovely non-stick layer with improper cleaning habits.
  • Hard-wearing: carbon steel is really hardy and can be clanged around a fast, hot kitchen without damage. It’s not going to chip or scratch if you happen to drop it or scrape it with a metal utensil.
  • Lightweight: compared with similar metals such as cast iron (heavy!), carbon steel is lightweight and easy to toss around. This is great when cooking very hot, fast dishes as you can easily lift the wok and give it a good toss and shake.
  • Works with all cooktops: carbon steel is compatible with all cooktops including induction.

Does a carbon steel wok need seasoning?

Yes, a carbon steel wok needs to be seasoned to keep it in good condition for decades. Seasoning is when you clean and dry the pan thoroughly before adding a layer of oil to the pan. If you don’t keep your carbon steel cookware seasoned, it can rust and become sticky (i.e. not non-stick).

Your wok will need a thorough seasoning when you first buy it, but after that, the cooking process keeps it reasonably seasoned. This means that because we are often cooking at very high temperatures, with the addition of oil, the wok becomes seasoned through the cooking process itself. As long as we are cleaning the wok after every use and reapplying a good rub of oil, that’s all we have to do.

But let’s get to the cleaning process…

How to clean a carbon steel wok

  1. Leave it to cool to warm: don’t dunk a piping hot wok straight into dishwater. This can cause warping. Carbon steel is less prone to warping than other cookware materials such as aluminum, but it still pays to allow the wok to cool a bit first.
  2. Rinse: once the wok is warm, give it a rinse with water. Do not use any soaps or detergents, as it can really mess with the non-stick coating you have built up during use. Just use water and a soft brush or sponge. Avoid using harsh brushes and sponges as they too can disrupt the natural non-stick coating.
  3. Remove stuck-on food: if there’s food stuck to the wok, gently nudge it with a soft brush or sponge until gone. If something more is required, leave the stuck food to soak in warm water to soften. It should then come off easy as pie. 
  4. Rinse again: give it an extra rinse to make sure all bits of food are gone. Again, just use water, no detergent.
  5. Dry completely: give the wok a wipe with a tea towel then place it over a low heat on the stove to dry up any residual moisture. We do this because moisture left on the wok can cause rusting. Also, we want a nice, dry surface on which to add our vegetable oil. 
  6. Rub with oil: drizzle a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil into your wok and rub it over the entire interior surface with a paper towel or napkin. This protects the wok from rust and upkeeps the seasoned layer.


Final thoughts 

One of the best ways to keep your wok in great condition complete with a natural non-stick layer is to use it often. Regular cooking at high heat with oil, plus the cleaning and re-adding of oil keeps a wok in tip-top shape for a long time.

Do be aware that carbon steel woks do take on interesting, rustic colors and markings over time. This is nothing to worry about, it just adds extra charm and denotes a well-loved wok.

As long as you have a soft brush, sponge, plain water and some vegetable oil standing by, you’re well equipped to care for your carbon steel wok.