I finally made my long delayed trip to Chinatown to buy a wok after the one I bought from Ikea fell apart--literally. I couldn't wait to get home and season it for use, and figured I'd take some pictures and share the info for anyone interested in doing the same.
For those who don't know, certain cookware (ie cast iron pans) need to be "seasoned," usually to guard against future rusting, but often with the added purpose of creating a proper cookable surface that will ultimately add greater depth of flavor to the food being cooked.
Nowadays, most cookware that would require such a process often come pre-seasoned from the manufacturer. But when it comes to woks, especially the ones worth buying, it is the seasoning process that will transform the bare machine-cut steel bowl into a marvelous non-stick cooking surface.
With most cookware, quality does not come cheap. The wok however, is not like most cookware. While you can spend upwards of $40 on a wok depending on who makes it and how it's packaged, the best wok you can (and should) buy is usually also the cheapest. I got mine for about $10 at Kam Man at 200 Canal St.
You'll have to decide one a few things such as the size, whether you want a lid, side handles or a panhandle, and whether you want one that has a flat or a round bottom. I prefer a larger size so I have plenty of room to stir and move ingredients around, so I went with a large bare-bones carbon steel wok with a round bottom (superior to the flat-bottom variety) and side handles. You want carbon steel, which looks like raw, unfinished metal, because it is porous, and when heated, absorbs oil to seal the pores, which eventually has the effect of creating a sheen non-stick cooking surface that continues to improve with use.
Although the non-stick surface variety do not require any seasoning, there are several reasons why they are inferior. First, the heat transfer is better and more direct in a wok in which the non-stick surface is a result of layers of oil that has been seared into the pores. Second, similar to a cast-iron pan, the more a wok is used the more it improves, as the surface is infused and enhanced with the flavors that have cooked in it. Even the food particles that carbonize and infuse themselves into the pan's surface add to this effect. I've heard it said that in Chinese cooking, the effect of the food on the wok is just as important as the effect of the wok on the food.
Lastly, the properly seasoned wok can take much more abuse and thus lasts longer than one with an artificial non-stick surface, which you have to take pains not to scratch, and thereby cannot use a traditional metal wok spatula. When a seasoned wok is scratched, it can be easily remedied by burning a few layers of oil onto the area to rehabilitate the surface. Thus an old seasoned wok is really like an old seasoned traveler, with each meal becoming a story of culinary adventure seared in its memory, later recalled and used to enhance the flavor of the next exploit.
With all that said, below is a step-by-step process on how to season your wok:
1.) Before you begin a note of caution. This process involves high heat and lots of smoke from burned oil, so you'll want to turn your fan on high, open up as many windows as possible, and if you have an air purifier, set it on full blast. Make sure you remove all flammable materials nearby and clear the entire stove top for good measure. And don't forget to grab some heavy duty gloves to enable you to handle a pan that eventually becomes extremely hot.
2.) To prevent rusting, carbon steel woks are rubbed with non-toxic machine oil at the factory, which you'll have to first vigorously scrub with a brillo pad or equivalent and hot soapy water. You're not worried about scratching or damaging the surface here, so you need not be dainty when scrubbing.
3.) You'll need a cooking oil that can withstand high heat and not become gunky. You can use peanut or corn oil (peanut oil is more commonly preferred) or if you want to go old school and you have some available, you can use lard. In fact, I've read that traditionally when a person bought a wok they'd receive a piece of pig fat to season it with. Nonetheless you want to make sure you avoid polyunsaturated oils, as they do become gunky at such high temperatures.
4.) Turn the heat on high, and place the wok over the heat until the entire surface is hot and smoking, and until all of the water from the washing has completely evaporated.
5.) Brush the wok all over with a thin layer of the oil. I like to use a folded paper towel and tongs to spread the oil. You want to cover the entire cooking surface of the wok.
6.) Hold the wok over the burner and rotate the wok over the fire until all the oil is burned into the cooking surface.
7.) After doing this for several minutes, turn off the burner and allow the wok to completely cool. When the wok has reached room temperature, wipe off the excess oil. Remember, the point is to have a thin film of oil, and not a gel-like or gunky buildup.
8.) Heat up the wok again over the burner until smoking. Brush another thin layer of oil, and "roast" the oil into the entire surface of the wok again. Then after several minutes of doing this, again allow the wok to completely cool.
9.) Once cooled to room temperature, wipe off excess oil again, and repeat this process several times until a shiny, black, patina-like non-stick surface is created, each time burning the previous layer of oil in, and adding another coating. You'll know it's ready to use when the surface no longer looks dry.
Cleaning a properly seasoned wok after cooking is effortless, as most foods will easily fall off. It's important to remember to never ever use soap, as it will erode the seasoned surface you've worked hard to create. All you need is warm water, and any stubborn pieces can be gently nudged either by the spatula or sponge.
Also, it's not necessary to remove all the oil used in cooking, as you'll need this oil to reseason the wok after cleaning. Instead of drying the wok with a towel, simply place it on the stove again and burn the remaining oil into the surface. If necessary, brush another thin layer of oil on, remembering to wipe off any excess that has settled after cooling. After several uses it won't be necessary to reseason after cooking, but if time's not an issue I prefer to do it anyway, as it will prolong the pan's life. You can also season it in the same way if the coating ever becomes depleted.
The amazing thing about a wok is how it is the ultimate example of necessity being the mother of invention. It's a metal receptacle meant to conduct high amounts of heat in a short amount of time- the quicker the food is cooked, the less fuel is consumed. It heats up quickly and cools down just as fast. This may explain its omnipresence in Chinese cooking over the past 3000 years, and the fact that it looks cool as hell at the dinner table probably explains its popularity today.