3 Quick Ways Clean A Wok With Burnt Food

The wok is one of my favorite pans to cook with in the kitchen. But, it can take a lot of practice to get used to, especially when most of us are used to cooking with flat bottomed saute pans and skillets.

After years of working the wok station in several professional kitchens, I’m happy to call myself at least proficient at the task. However, I can’t tell you how many burnt dishes I’ve had to throw away and how many burnt woks I’ve had to clean.

So lucky for you, I’ve also become more than proficient at cleaning up wok mishaps. And I’m happy to say, cleaning a wok with burnt food is a fairly easy fix.

Method 1: Boil It out

how to clean a wok with burnt food

This should take care of any minor burnt food messes. It’s the most gentle method and is a good technique for everyday wok cleaning as well.

1. Empty The Wok

Using your wok spatula or a hard plastic scraper, get rid of as much burnt food as possible. 

2. Add Water

Add enough water so that all areas of burnt food are submerged. 

3. Boil And Scrape

Bring the water to a boil and let simmer for around 5 minutes, adding more water if it is evaporating too quickly.

Now, begin to gently scrape the burnt food areas. A wok spatula is really the perfect tool for the job. It keeps your hands away from the boiling water and it’s contoured to fit the curve of a wok.

4. Rinse

Dump out the dirty water and give your wok a good rinse. If everything looks good, go ahead and dry your wok on the stove and apply a light coat of oil. You can also easily repeat the process if it’s almost there, or you can move on to Method 2 if there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Method 2: Fry It Out

Chef is pouring cooking oil in wok

If plain old water just won’t cut it, this method uses oil for a bit more heat plus the abrasive quality of coarse salt. Since this method uses oil, it also has the benefit of keeping your seasoning layer intact

1. Empty The Wok

Just like with any other method, you should try to scrape as much out of the pan as possible before you get started.

2. Add Oil

Place your wok over medium-high heat and add several tablespoons of high heat oil. Whatever your favorite stir fry oil is should work just fine. There should be enough oil so that the burnt area has a generous coating.

3. Salt Scrub

When your oil starts to shimmer, or you see bubbles rising from the burnt area, add about the same amount of salt as you did oil.

Then, using a folded paper towel and a pair of tongs (or your trusty wok spatula) scrub and scrape the salt and oil over the burnt area of your wok. After several minutes, most of the burnt food should have been released or scraped off with salt and paper towels.

4. Rinse

Once you’ve gotten all of the burnt food off, go ahead and dispose of the paper towel and salt slurry.

Pro Tip: The salt, oil, and paper towel will be HOT. Avoid melting your trash bag and pour everything into something like a can, box, or bowl until it has time to cool.

Now, give your wok a good rinse under hot water and admire your work. If you’re satisfied, dry the wok on your stove and give it a light coat of oil. Otherwise, repeat steps 2-4 or move on to Method 3. 

Method 3: Burn It Out

best carbon steel wok

If all else fails, we can beat the burnt food at its own game and simply burn it even more. This method can be difficult on an electric stove, and a little time-consuming on a gas stove, but an outdoor wok burner will work wonders. 

I used to do this periodically in professional kitchens as a way to reset and re-season a wok when the seasoning began to flake off or just wasn’t up to snuff. But be warned, this can produce a lot of smoke, so doing it outdoors is a good idea.

To do this, all you need to do is place your wok over high heat and allow the burnt food to completely burn away. You may need to tilt and rotate your wok in order to evenly burn any areas up the sides of the wok.

Once all of the particles are burnt off and wiped away, your wok is ready to be seasoned with oil.

Tips To Avoid Burnt On Food In The First Place

Cooking a vegetable stir fry

The main thing that will help you keep food from sticking and burning to your wok is temperature control.

While oil is something that will help food from sticking, you don’t need a lot. A small layer of oil is all you need as long as your wok is hot enough. For most stir-fries, you should heat your wok and oil until you see faint wisps of white smoke before adding any ingredients.

When adding food to your wok you should do your best to avoid adding very wet and very cold ingredients. Both of those things can quickly drop the temperature of your wok and will lead to more sticking.

Recap

Burning food onto a wok happens to the best of us. But there’s no need to panic and definitely no need to throw your wok out. No matter how mild or severe the mess, you can almost always get your wok back to like-new by either boiling, frying, or burning it out.

But, if you ever do find that your wok has gone past the point of no return or you’re just looking for an upgrade, here are a few of our favorite carbon steel woks for any kitchen.   

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Use Soap To Clean My Wok?

Soap can be used to clean a carbon steel wok but it may damage your wok’s seasoning layer. And in most cases, water, oil, and salt are all you need to keep your wok in great shape.

How Often Do I Have To Season My Carbon Steel Wok?

Woks should be re-seasoned whenever the old seasoning layers start to chip, flake, or simply wear off. If you notice bare metal spots or rust, it’s probably time to season your wok.

Can I Just Soak My Wok To Get Rid Of Burnt Food?

You can soak your wok to get rid of some minor burnt-on food, but boiling accelerates the process. This minimizes the amount of time your wok is exposed to water, which can help you avoid rust spots.

Photo of author

William Mack

About the author

William is a classically trained chef, who spent years cooking in top NYC restaurants before bringing his talents home to Colorado. Now a stay-at-home dad, William has brought his passion for professional cooking home, where he continues to cook and bake for his wife and daughter.