The best way to ensure your next stir-fry turns out as good as your local Chinese restaurant is to have the right tools. Of course, that means a quality wok, which will let you toss and flip just like the professionals. However, taking care of your tools is just as important as knowing how to use them.
If you’ve spotted rust on your wok, you may have to settle for takeout until you can get it cleaned. Luckily, the process isn’t that difficult or time-consuming, as long as you know what to do.
If you’re wondering how to clean a wok with rust, take a look at our comprehensive guide. We’ll run through everything you need to know to get your wok spotless again. You can also find tips to help you prevent rust in the future, so you’ll always be ready to cook your favorite stirfry.
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Why Is My Wok Rusty?
If you work with cast iron or carbon steel wok pans, you may have already spotted some rust on your cooking surface. Rust results when iron-based metals are exposed to moisture in a chemical process called oxidation.
Normally, rust-prone pots and pans are protected by a layer of seasoning that helps keep moisture out. However, when this seasoning chips, flakes, or wears away, the exposed parts of the pan can develop rust. Once rust takes hold, it needs to be taken care of quickly to prevent it from spreading.
If left untreated, a rusty wok will quickly become little more than useless scrap. And since rust is not food-safe, you should never cook with a rusty pan.
How to Clean a Wok with Rust
If you spot rust on your wok, never fear! It may not be time to throw it out just yet. First, try cleaning it by following the steps below.
1. Evaluate the Damage
When ridding your wok of rust, the first step is to see whether it’s worth the effort. Unfortunately, not all rusty woks are salvageable. If the damage is too great, you’ll have to toss it away. On the other hand, if the rust is superficial, you’re good to go.
If it looks more serious, prod the area with your finger. Put enough pressure on the area to determine whether any structural damage has been done. If the metal buckles or bends, you’ll have to toss your wok.
2. Remove Rust
If it looks like you’ll be able to salvage your wok, the next step is to remove the rust. When removing rust, it’s important to work slowly and carefully to avoid further scratching or damaging your pan.
There are several methods to remove rust, but the most simple is vigorously scrubbing the area. Start with a rough sponge and rub the area until all traces of rust are gone. Make sure to rub gently, minimizing your pressure to the area affected by rust, so you don’t damage the rest of the pan.
If needed, you can try steel wool, which will remove thicker patches of rust. However, be cautious, as this can also scratch the surface of your pan. Another method is to scrub the area with salt, which is less likely to damage your wok.
Once done, sand the area with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it out. This will help remove any scratches caused by the steel wool and ensure every last trace of rust is gone.
3. Clean Thoroughly
Now that the rust has been removed run your pan under warm water and scrub with soap. Usually, carbon steel and cast iron wok pans shouldn’t be cleaned with dish chemicals. However, since you’ll be reseasoning it anyway, you can use any product you like to speed the process.
Once clean, heat the wok on your stovetop to evaporate all the water from the surface.
The final step of the process is to reseason your wok. This will help prevent it from rusting again, sealing it against moisture with a layer of polymerized oil.
To season, heat the wok over your stovetop for several minutes. Then, rub a bit of peanut or vegetable oil onto a kitchen cloth or paper towel. Rub the oil over the surface of the wok in a thin, even coat.
Next, use another cloth to wipe out any excess oil and continue heating. As the oil heats, it will darken the surface of the pan to a glossy black color. Make sure to heat every surface of the pan to make sure all the oil is polymerized.
Then, repeat the process three or four more times. That will ensure a thick and durable coat of oil that will stand the test of time.
For a more detailed guide on seasoning, check out our comprehensive guide.
Preventing Rust in the Future
Now that your pan is sparkling clean and protected from rust, your next job is to learn how to keep it from rusting in the future. It doesn’t take much time or effort, as long as you remember these tips.
Seasoning is something that needs to be done regularly to maintain. As you cook, the layer of polymerized oil will begin to wear away.
If you use your wok regularly, take the time to reseason it every two to three months. If you use it frequently, reseasoning it as often as once per month may be necessary. Each time, add at least two coats to ensure a complete seal.
If you want a more hands-off way to season your wok pan, take a look at our guide to seasoning in the oven.
Clean and Dry Thoroughly
The surest invitation to rust is to leave water in your pan after cooking. Always make sure to dry it thoroughly after cleaning it, and never leave food in the wok once it’s done cooking.
Washing carbon steel or cast iron wok pan is luckily very simple. All it takes is a bit of water and a soft sponge, and the nonstick surface should release food residue quickly. Avoid using abrasive scrub pads or harsh cleaning chemicals, as these can deteriorate your layer of seasoning.
Try a Bamboo Wok Brush
There’s actually a tool designed specifically to keep woks clean and rust-free after use. Wok brushes are simple and inexpensive tools that scrape off flecks of food that can carry moisture and cause rust. All it takes is a quick brush after you're done cooking!
Of course, avoid storing your wok in a place where it can accumulate moisture. Usually, placing it under the sink is not a good option.
Also, for an additional layer of protection, wipe down your wok with a layer of oil before storing. That will keep moisture out and have it ready for the next time you want to cook.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you still have questions about cleaning a rusty wok? Get the answers you need by reviewing some of the most common questions here.
Rust is not a food-safe material, which means you should never cook in a rusty wok. Even if the rust is minor, the patches of rust will cause food to stick, robbing the pan of its nonstick surface.
Stainless steel is specifically formulated to avoid rust, so you never have to worry about oxidation. The only types of pans that are susceptible to rust are those made of iron-based metals. That includes cast iron and carbon steel wok pans.
Most of the time, a rusty wok can be salvaged and even made as good as new. However, extensive rust damage will render a wok useless.
The way to tell the difference is to see how far the rust has penetrated into the surface of the pan. It will flake and chip when put under pressure if it's beyond surface-deep. Very extensive rust damage may even cause the metal to bend or buckle under your fingers.
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