Grace Young Demystifies Cooking with Woks in New 'Wok Therapist' Video
Don't worry if your patina is scratched—it can always come back.
Grace Young is an indisputable wok master. She's the author of a James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge, and was recently nominated for her video webcast, The Breath of a Wok, which can be found on her website and YouTube channel. Known as the “stir-fry guru,” Young runs a Facebook group called "Wok Wednesdays" for fans cooking through one of her other cookbooks, The Breath of a Wok (of which her webcast is based on); there’s also instructional videos on her site, and tips for how to give your wok a facial.
What you don’t see, however, is the flood of advice-seeking e-mails she receives from new wok owners. Young likens them to new parents, anxious and intimidated as they purchase a wok and then let it sit for weeks (even months) on end, worried that they’ll season it incorrectly or mess up the patina. Thus, her latest video project, Wok Therapist, was born—a short, comedic film about Young’s experience with her “patients,” meant to make cooking with woks less intimidating.
“Cooking with a wok is one of life’s great culinary pleasures. It’s the reason the wok has endured for over 2000 years,” Young told me. “Stir-fries that have been cooked in a wok taste better because the concentration of heat in the well sears ingredients quickly and concentrates the flavor while imparting a smoky aroma. The Chinese say the older the wok, the better the food tastes. But the wok is so much more than a stir-fry pan. It’s so versatile, you can steam, boil, poach, pan-fry, deep-fat fry, braise, smoke, roast and even popcorn. Everyone should have a carbon-steel wok.”
The video, which clocks in around three and a half minutes, starts off with Young explaining that her mother wanted her to become a doctor or a concert pianist—she never meant to be a "therapist," she says, it just sort of happened. Although she's never met any of her patients (they find her online and via social media), without fail, they come to her and trust her with all of their worries and questions. Throughout Wok Therapist, we find that people are willing to pay someone cash to season their wok for them; others want to accelerate the wok aging process, and although Young firmly believes that “every wok ages differently, just like us,” she gives a few pointers for speeding it up.
Season your wok with flaxseed oil
You can season the wok with flaxseed oil in the oven to accelerate the patina, or make it “glow” when you give it a bacon bath. Popping corn also does the trick, dispersing oil all around and intensifying the patina. The traditional method, however, is stir-frying ginger and scallions, “a zen experience and important wok bonding time,” according to Young. While you cook, the heat opens up the pores of the metal, and the scallions and ginger clean the pan as the oil burns into the wok, sealing it from rust.
Be patient for the patina
The biggest source of new wokker angst, she says, is creating the aforementioned patina—a thin layer of brown film caused by oxidization over time. Once newbies have taken the leap and started cooking in their wok, they’ll look at pictures of Young’s older, thoroughly used woks and lament that they’ve done it wrong. This is quite common, Young explains, since a newly seasoned wok can appear splotchy, discolored, and even bear occasional burn marks. However, with trust, patience, and continuous use over time, a beautiful patina will develop.
Don't worry about scratches
While you’d think the worry stops there, a new threat quickly poses the wok—metal spatulas. Fans frequently ask Young if the scratches they cause on the bottom have scraped off the patina, and she patiently replies that this gives the wok character. Eventually, the scratches will dissolve into patina, she says—even if the patina is damaged, it can be restored with a wash, tender love, and cooking. After all, Young believes woks are resilient and will have good days and bad days—just like life.
“Everyone relates to wok angst,” Young said. “I hope it helps cooks to understand seasoning a wok is easy and that simply cooking with your wok is the best way to develop the patina. Most of all, let go of the critical wok chatter, go with the flow, and just enjoy cooking with a wok and be prepared to eat well.”
Wok Therapist can be found on Young’s YouTube channel now. If you already have a carbon steel wok at home, or plan on becoming a new owner, we have several recipes on the site to get you started—with Young’s tips on hand, all you have to do is decide whether to make the wok-seared steak majong with shishito peppers or chicken and papaya stir-fry first.