Help me tame a cast iron wok
February 25, 2007 5:14 AM   Subscribe

Help me to tame my cast iron wok. Since I bought this Le Creuset wok I began to question my ability to cook. I realized (too late) that it is not really suited for Thai food but mostly for Chinese. Are there any good sources to teach me how to get the best out of this wok for vegetarian cooking?

So I bought this Le Creuset (I know, overrated) huge black cast iron wok. After using it for a month now I still don't feel that I got the hang of cooking with it. First, being cast iron it needs seasoning with oil, I did that following the Le Creuset instructions (rub with vegetable oil, heat for 15 min. repeat) this did not work well, as the coating was not even and food still stuck. I seasoned it in the oven for about 3 hours, this was better for a while, but after a week I had to repeat this process. Does a cast iron wok supposed to be so high maintenance? I know that i should not wash it with soap to look after the surface. And I still have crusts on the bottom that flake and chip next time I use it. Am I missing something?
Related to this: What kind of recipes work best for this wok? And what cooking techniques I need to master to be able to cook good vegetarian and sea food? I am pretty experienced in general oriental cooking. Any tips from owners of this cast iron beast will be greately appreciated.
posted by slimeline to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
it sounds like you might need a more vigorous seasoning process. Cast iron can take a while to really break in. First, I would scrub out the wok with steel wool and water to fully remove any crusts or cooked on food. Then rub down the entire surface, even handles and the bottom, with a solid vegetable shortening (works better for the initial season than oil). Put this in the oven, upside down, for 20 mins or so until it turns black. Every time you cook with it, clean out all food particles, then put it on the stove. Heat until it is totally dry, then add a few drops of oil and wipe with a paper towel to coat the inside, then continue heating until the oil begins to smoke a bit. After several uses, you will build up a more durable seasoning. Cooking acidic foods, like tomatoes or vinegar-based sauces, may damage the seasoning if it is not well established.

There are a couple of ways to go about your wok cooking. Chinese style is to use a very hight heat. This requires you to constantly keep the food moving in the pan so it does not burn and stick. With cast iron, this is even more important. You can also do well cooking at medium or lower heats, this will be more forgiving and will be less likely to burn food and have it stick to the bottom. Either way, a sturdy metal spatula is good to use; scrape the pan lightly as you cook to felease any food that has started to stick to the pan.

Basically, though - I think cast iron is a less-than-ideal material for woks. If you are using it for stir frys and the like then I would trade it in for a carbon steel wok (the kind they use in most Chinese restaurants). These are fairly inexpensive, much lower maintenance, and still develop a non-stick surface through seasoning. Not to say that your pan is no good - just that you might find a carbon steel easier to use.
posted by cubby at 5:41 AM on February 25, 2007

The problem with cast iron is that it has too much thermal mass. The carbon steel wok is much thinner, and responds to the flame (or its absence) more rapidly.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:03 AM on February 25, 2007

Can you use steel wool on cast iron? I have the same wok, and I notice that food tends to stick to it, but I haven't dared use steel wool on it yet. I just scrub it vigourously with detergent and a brush.

I do agree that it's probably not a "real" wok, for the reason Steven C. Den Beste gives: too much thermal mass.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:36 AM on February 25, 2007

Another important question is what are you cooking with it on? Electric stove? Gas stove? Gas ring specifically designed for woks?

Those were listed in order of preference, because of how hot they get - part of what keeps a wok from sticking is very high heat and very short cooking times. Cooking effectively with a cast iron wok on an electric stove would probably be nearly impossible (cooking on an electric stove with any wok is a pretty borderline experience, as they just don't get that hot).
posted by jacquilynne at 7:49 AM on February 25, 2007

It's taken a while to get my cast iron seasoned the way I like it but I'm really enjoying it now that I have. I seasoned them with coconut oil several times when I first owned them and now after a lot of use they have a great finish.

I clean mine with copper mesh pads, not steel wool.

After I clean them, I dry them with a towel and then rub them with a rag with coconut oil on it.

I don't have a wok, just frying pans but I'm planning on getting one soon because I do like cooking Chinese style with the very high heat for a quick time.

There's a lot of different ways to season cast iron and take care of it, so you have to experiment and see what works best for you.
posted by Melsky at 8:08 AM on February 25, 2007

Is this wok raw cast iron on the inside, or enameled? All of the other Le Creuset pans have an enamel coating on the cooking surface, even though they look like bare cast iron, and I would expect that the wok is no different. Their web page doesn't specify. In that case, the seasoning is pretty incidental, and it's flaking off because it won't really stick to the enamel.

Things are probably sticking because the wok isn't hot enough and you're not using enough fat.

Generally, with a wok, you want it to get as hot as you can and stay that way. Cast iron is a great way to do that. Pre-heat it slowly over a medium-low flame for about 10 minutes, and it will heat more evenly than if you heat it over a high flame for less time.
posted by Caviar at 8:09 AM on February 25, 2007

People have already pointed out that stir-frying is easier in pans that heat up and cool down more quickly than cast iron. Your pan, especially once you have it really well seasoned, would be excellent for many Indian dishes. The lid will come in handy there, too.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:15 AM on February 25, 2007

I agree with redfoxtail as well (I'm in an agreeable mood today): I do prepare a lot of Indian dishes in my cast iron wok. It's also great for Jambalaya.
posted by NekulturnY at 8:22 AM on February 25, 2007

Yes, that's enamelled. (It says so right in the Amazon description.) Don't use steel wool or copper mesh or anything that abrasive, they'll ruin the enamel. It won't take seasoning like bare cast iron will, and that's fine because it doesn't need it.
posted by mendel at 8:28 AM on February 25, 2007

whoops, should have noticed that bit about the enamel. in this case, disregard everything about seasoning. clean with soap and a sponge. But certainly don't waste your time trying to stir fry in it. Save it for stews, Indian dishes, general slow cook type stuff where you might first fry some of the ingredients and then add liquid to create a saucier dish. For stir fry, get the carbon steel pan and season it and clean it as though it were cast iron.
posted by cubby at 8:53 AM on February 25, 2007

I am going to suggest that you not use Le Creuset for a wok. First, it is not going to get the heat you want and second, it is not going to be reasonably non-stick enough.

You either go with carbon steel traditonal wok that you season using either Cook's Illustrated method OR Breath of a Wok (excerpt here)

You can also use a Vollrath wok which is used professionally in kitchens and does not break the bank. (here is how to season it and cook with it according to one chef)

The level of BTUs needed to do a hardcore stir fry is usually out of reach in most domestic scenarios unless you have a high output gas range and frankly it is hard to compete for sheer power of the typical Hong Kong output (250K BTU) where the restaurant people hammer the pans back into shape because of heat malformations. But you know, you can still get delicious stir fry that does have that breath of the wok. If you are feeling real hardcore there is always that Good Eats episode where Alton uses a propane tank rig to get the flame for a stir fry. YMMV
posted by jadepearl at 9:10 AM on February 25, 2007

Unload the damn thing on craigslist or e-bay.

If you have a gas stove, replace it with a nice basic round bottom carbon steel wok.

If you have an electric stove. Well, you are kind of screwed (as am I). If you can find a carbon steel wok with a flat bottom, try that.
posted by Good Brain at 10:41 AM on February 25, 2007

i have a le creuset wok as well as some other le creuset pans with the nonstick black inside, and my wok at least seems to be just cast iron (with no enamel). it doesn't look at all like the ones on amazon, so there must be different models. anyway, mine works like other cast iron pans. it stuck at first, but after a while it built up a pretty nice nonsticky surface. mostly we use ours for anything large that needs to be fried, as we tend to cook for a lot of people. the only other thing that comes to mind is that we took a thai cooking course in thailand, and they definitely used woks. i don't know if they have to be a special kind of wok, though.
posted by lgyre at 2:26 PM on February 25, 2007

If you season a cast iron wok, never ever clean it with soap. You will only remove the seasoning that you worked so hard to achieve. No soap (dishwashing liquid or detergent) should come near your wok.

Even steel wool is too harsh. Use a plastic-bristled scrubbing brush, and hot water, and scrub until the water looks clear. Then turn your stove top burner on low heat and put the wet wok on it to evaporate the water. Watch closely; you don't want the wok to smoke. Turn off the burner just before the last drop of water boils away, and let it cool.

The wok will look slightly greasy. This is normal. It is sanitary because the high heat kills anything nasty.
posted by bad grammar at 3:36 PM on February 25, 2007

Ok, so it's not a real wok. But if you want to use it like a round-bottomed cast iron frying pan, it can have a very useful place in your kitchen. If I had one, I'd use it to finish cooking very al dente pasta in a not-too-acidic sauce. Or, with a cover, for braising things.

I've found that cast iron cookware takes longer to season and requires more attention than a lot of sources suggest. I got a new pan last year, and I ended up oiling and heating it after every use for maybe 12 uses. But my standards are pretty stringent: I wash my pans as quickly as possible and with as little dishsoap as possible; I don't consider them seasoned until they can withstand that washing. Even my decades-old hand-me-down cast iron cookware needs a treatment now and then.
posted by wryly at 4:03 PM on February 25, 2007

cast iron wok,throw it out and buy a cheap wok from your local chinese supermarket
posted by baker dave at 2:51 AM on February 26, 2007

Quick cast iron cleaning tip:
I clean mine with paper towels and salt. The salt and paper absorbs the excess oil, scours the crusties off and a quick rinse finishes it off. I heat for a minute on the stove to dry off.

I never, ever use soap. I never need to reseason. I don't use anything that would scratch through to the raw metal (such as steel wool).
posted by Formiga at 9:53 AM on February 26, 2007

Oh yeah, I'll also say that a cast iron wok is a ridiculous idea. A home range burner isn't strong enough to get a light, carbon-steel wok hot enough to cook a proper stir-fry. Using something twice as massive won't help this at all.
posted by rxrfrx at 4:38 AM on February 27, 2007

Cast iron woks get plenty hot, and because they retain heat better than carbon steel, they actually get hotter, because they dissipate the heat you're putting into them more slowly. They just take longer to get there, and once they're hot, they're difficult to control because they're not as sensitive to heat fluctuations.

On that note, a cast iron wok is an outstanding vessel for deep frying.
posted by Caviar at 9:34 AM on February 27, 2007

By the way, a cast iron wok nested together with a carbon steel wok of the same size take up basically the same amount of space as either one alone, so there's little reason not to own both if you already have a cast iron one. I wouldn't recommend getting rid of the cast iron one unless you hate it and can recoup some decent money from it - just get a carbon steel one in addition.
posted by Caviar at 9:37 AM on February 27, 2007

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