A mouse probably shit in my wok. How to clean?
August 24, 2010 8:47 AM   Subscribe

A mouse may probably took a shit in my well-seasoned wok. How thoroughly must I clean it?

The wok is this carbon steel model. It's a couple of years old, well-used and well-seasoned. I have cooked all kinds of things in it, mostly veggies and tofu, but sometimes meat.

Over the past year, a few mice showed up in my apartment, and could sometimes be heard (or seen) scampering across the kitchen counter, leaving droppings. At one point, one night, I heard what sounded like a mouse scrabbling against the curved surface of the wok. I later found that a section of the "seasoning" was missing, as if it had been eaten or clawed away.

Since then, the mice have gone (I humanely trapped and freed three of them, and the apparent fourth seems to have died or gone away), and the kitchen is much cleaner than it used to be, I have my food mostly in sealed containers now, etc.

However, I haven't used my wok in quite a while, because I'm concerned that it's not really clean, and that there may not be a way to clean it without scraping or burning off every particle of the "seasoning" and starting from scratch. In fact, if that's necessary, I may prefer to just get a new wok. I've also considered sticking it in the oven or the broiler at maximum heat and trying to cook the coating off that way.

All that said, I had come to like the idea of my wok, seasoned with the grease of hundreds of meals, and it seems such a shame to discard it or scrape it clean because it didn't manage to stay sterile all the time. I'm puzzled whenever I read someone talking about their wok that has been seasoned for generations. And I think, really? Nobody ever sneezed into it? A child never threw a dirty toy into it? Nobody ever touched the inside of it without washing their hands first? I realize that these things are not the same as mouse shit, but wok/seasoned cookware people, I ask you as a sub-question, where do you draw the line in terms of telling yourself that you need to let go of your "seasoning" situation and actually clean the thing down to the way it was when you first got it?

Needless to say (perhaps), I have since rinsed my wok thoroughly with hot water, wiped it with paper towels, and heated it up on the stove. It has been sitting face-down in a cabinet for months.

I'm not looking for pointers to the most conservative course of action here, which is obvious. I'm really just hoping to get advice from other people who used seasoned cookware, and/or have a well-grounded scientific (or tradition-based) understanding of what it's really necessary (or just typical) to do in a situation like this one.
posted by bingo to Food & Drink (32 answers total)
If you put the wok in your oven on high heat you will sterilize it.

And, even if the mouse had not shat in it, it still would not be sterile because bacteria and spores and viruses and possibly flies and other insects have touched it.


If you want to sterilize it heat is your answer.
posted by dfriedman at 8:54 AM on August 24, 2010

every item of food you buy fresh or pull out of your garden has mouse shit or the equivalent in it. you rinse it in the sink and cook it to 165 deg/F and don't worry about it.

why not heat some oil up to boiling, dump it, wipe it down and call it a day?
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:54 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Autoclaves sterilize items at less than 300F.

Your oven should be able to reach temperatures much higher than this.
posted by dfriedman at 8:56 AM on August 24, 2010

What they said. We've all eaten way more mouse shit than we'll ever know. Heat it up really high to kill anything living on the surface, don't tell dinner guests that the wok used to be a mouse toilet, and you'll be fine.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:57 AM on August 24, 2010

I really have no idea what's "typical" to do in a situation like this, but in the past when I've had mice in the kitchen and specifically found mouse poop in my cast iron pan, I took the steps you did (wash [no soap obvs], wipe out, and heat) and continued using it. I am not a scientist or a doctor, but I am a person who cooks and I think it would be a waste to discard your well-seasoned wok for this reason. The only concerns I might have are A) did the scraping expose some kind of dangerous metal under the wok surface (unlikely) and B) was the mouse poop black pellets, or was it brightly colored like they'd been eating poison (bright green, in my experience, from eating green poison). I might worry more if there was poison involved. Other people in your building might use poison even if you're not. But I think you would have mentioned that in the first place, so really I think you're fine.
posted by CheeseLouise at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2010

The droppings were all black pellets.
posted by bingo at 9:03 AM on August 24, 2010

why not heat some oil up to boiling, dump it, wipe it down and call it a day?

I like this idea, because it would dissolve any compounds that aren't water-soluble. I'd do that if it were my cookware.
posted by cabingirl at 9:09 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

When we say "heat some oil up to boiling," do we mean, actually fill the wok with oil to near the rim, and boil it? Because that sounds dangerous. On the other hand, merely coating it with oil and heating it up to "boiling" is really going to mean heating to smoking, right? Having trouble visualizing this particular cleaning ritual.
posted by bingo at 9:15 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Any poisons would likely degrade at high temperatures used for sterilization along with the amount transferred being relatively minimal, especially so if the mice did not die. Autoclaves do sterilizes below 300F but that is in a high (sorta) pressure, water environment. In which case it is slightly above that temperature.
Shake it out, rinse it with some water, toss it in the oven for a couple hours brushing some oil on occasionally and making sure it doesn't pool.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 9:17 AM on August 24, 2010

I'm thinking, pour maybe a cup or so of oil into the pan, swirl to coat the sides. Heat to smoking, swirl it (carefully!) around again, then dump the oil into a container for disposal. Then wipe down the wok with paper towels.
posted by cabingirl at 9:19 AM on August 24, 2010

No, don't fill the wok to the brim with oil and then boil it, as you mentioned, that would be dangerous since the oil would spill over and possibly catch fire. But just oil the wok and heat it; you do this anyway whenever you cook. Cooking is itself a sterilization process, which is one of the reasons why we do it. In other words, just wash the wok, then when you want to stir-fry something in it, let it heat up first, then go ahead.

Mouse droppings are certainly not something that you want in your food, but they are not comparable to plutonium, which is dangerous even if you have as little as a single atom of it. Normal cleaning procedures are quite capable of dealing with mouse droppings. No need to panic.
posted by grizzled at 9:23 AM on August 24, 2010

A single atom of plutonium is not dangerous.
posted by dfriedman at 9:39 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

So you see, you have nothing to worry about. Even if the mouse dropping was made of pure plutonium, you're in the clear.
posted by grizzled at 9:48 AM on August 24, 2010 [12 favorites]

So what if a Nibblonian shits in my wok?
posted by mkultra at 10:04 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have some really old cast iron that belonged to my husband's grandma. I use soap and water to clean it. I avoid scrubby plastic sponges, and use one of those plastic pan scrapers when something (rarely) gets stuck.

The part where I'm really careful is how I dry it. I warm it on the stove and use a paper towel to wipe up any excess moisture.

Honestly, I don't see how one good wash would wipe away years of seasoning.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:14 AM on August 24, 2010

The wok's not all that absorbent. I'd wash it, dry it on top of a burner (gas stove) and use it. Mice probably run over your plates all night long.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:39 AM on August 24, 2010

Mice defiled my cereal bowl for several weeks this summer. I upended the bowl into the sink, allowing the dried leavings to fall in. Then, I ate cereal from the bowl. Without rinsing it before hand.

I'm still alive. If you have a hail and hardy constitution, and live in an area with no transmission of diseases by mice, you probably will be too--even if you don't decontaminate the wok by heating.
posted by Gordion Knott at 10:56 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

A thought experiment: imagine that somehow a small chunk of raw chicken had fallen into the pan. Raw chicken is a terrible thing, as we all know - chock full of evil bacteria of all sorts. And liable to draw flies and breed more bacteria and who knows what.

If I had a cast iron pan and discovered a small chunk of raw chicken in it, I'd clean the pan as usual. The next time I used it, I might let it heat up a little bit longer than usual, to kill off any germs. But it wouldn't be the cause of any kind of panic.

The revulsion reflex with regards to poop is a fine one, don't get me wrong. But in this case, I think you're best off putting it out of mind and carrying on as you usually would.
posted by ErikaB at 11:22 AM on August 24, 2010

After Hurricane Rita, a friend of my brother found his 100 year old Jambalya pot deep in a muck filled swamp. Many more terrible things than a tiny mouse poo in there. He cleaned it thoroughly and then rendered two pounds of bacon in it...down to black crisps. The pot's good as new. Or...er...good as old.
posted by ColdChef at 11:26 AM on August 24, 2010

ColdChef, sounds like in that case, his cleaning actually involved returning it to its original state, i.e. scraping all the "seasoning" off of it, right?
posted by bingo at 11:28 AM on August 24, 2010

Is there some reason you're not thinking of just washing it? Guess what? It won't destroy the seasoning. I think people tend to go a bit overboard with the mystique of cast iron/wok seasoning. Just be gentle and quick with the washing, and make sure to dry it on the stovetop/oven immediately.
posted by O9scar at 11:36 AM on August 24, 2010

I think you are grossly exaggerating the problem and over reacting. Wipe out the wok, put it on the heat, get the temperature up high enough to sizzle a few drops of water, let cool, wipe again. Germs, if any in the first place, will have been destroyed. Humans have co-existed with mice, bugs, all kinds of creepy crawlies for millennia. We survived. It natural, part of nature. If a few mouse droppings scare you, you never want to know too much about how your food is prepared, stored and sold. Relax.
posted by NorthCoastCafe at 11:46 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

ColdChef, sounds like in that case, his cleaning actually involved returning it to its original state, i.e. scraping all the "seasoning" off of it, right?

No. He cleaned the gunk out of it (moss, swamp water, mud), but did not scrape it. He never scrapes it. Only cleans it with oil and copious amounts of clean water. The frying bacon cleansed it and re-seasoned it, but he did not scrape away any of the cast iron pot's natural seasoning.
posted by ColdChef at 11:53 AM on August 24, 2010

That's exactly the bullshit cast iron mystique I was talking about! Seriously, soap and water. The wok will be fine and will not lose its seasoning.
posted by O9scar at 12:07 PM on August 24, 2010

Well, O9scar, a ton of cookbooks and cooking-related websites say not to clean a seasoned wok with soap. The instructions that came with my wok also mentioned this. If it's mystique, it seems widely-adopted.
posted by bingo at 12:39 PM on August 24, 2010

Yeah, I would simply go through the seasoning process again. One very easy way to re-season a wok which has a pretty good season already is to put it over a gas stove on high and fry up a mess of sliced potatoes in lots of peanut or corn oil -- this is similar to ColdChef's bacon trick, but I prefer it because it's cheaper and creates less smoke and mess.
posted by vorfeed at 2:38 PM on August 24, 2010

yeah, no, I didn't mean like prepare a cauldron of boiling oil with which to scald thine enemies; I just mean throw a little oil in, swirl it, heat to smoking, dump and wipe. basically, re-season the tiny portion that your little buddy scraped with his claws.

ErikaB, if I found a hunk of raw chicken in my beautifully seasoned wok, I'd add ginger, lime and scallions (along with some oil) and stir fry that sucker. And so would you! Wait - what time should I get there, and what kind of beer do you like?
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:49 PM on August 24, 2010

Rinse it out really well and then bake it in the oven on high. That'll sterilize anything. Mouse poop really isn't that nasty from a health perspective.
posted by kryptonik at 3:54 PM on August 24, 2010

Fry the bacon, squirt the soap, scour off the seasoning, dry the pan, put it upside down in the sink, get the gasoline, douse the kitchen, burn the house to the ground, seal the ground with concrete, seal the concrete with cast iron, season the seal, and keep the damn mice off it.
posted by gum at 5:09 PM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

The mouse poop isn't what I'd be concerned with. You can eat those as canape sprinkles, if you're a cocktail party sort.

However, if a mouse has been on something, that something is covered with dotted lines of concentrated mouse urine and, to a lesser extent, pelt oils. For every mouse turd you find, there is probably a whole national park of pissy, greasy hiking trails on your pans.

I don't know that cooked hantavirus is necessarily anything to worry about, but your wok seasoning is mouse flavoured now. It could be technically sterile after you heat it up, but the idea of your rich and complex seasoning gives me cooties.
posted by Sallyfur at 5:52 PM on August 24, 2010

Is there any reason not to rinse out the wok with bleach solution? (It's the recommended disinfectant for hantavirus, apparently.)
posted by Orinda at 9:41 PM on August 24, 2010

Thanks, everyone. Though this discussion could go on, I'm feeling like it's not going to. This is kind of the opposite of what I expected, so that was a nice surprise.
posted by bingo at 8:53 PM on August 25, 2010

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