For intensely seared stir-fries – or any recipe that requires rapid cooking and tossing at a blazing heat – you need a trustworthy stir-fry pan. But before you’re ready to put it into service, you need to need to season the thing. That’s because any halfway decent stir-fry pan is made from carbon steel, which is light, durable, and capable of absorbing a huge amount of heat, but isn’t naturally nonstick – which means you need to add your own coating of oil to create a slick surface that’s good for tossing your ingredients around.
Carbon Steel vs. Nonstick
Nonstick stir-fry pans do exist, but you don't want one. The whole point of this piece of cookware is to get the thing as hot as is physically possible on your stovetop, which lets you quickly develop a beautiful brown char onto your meat, chopped vegetables, rice, noodles, or whatever else you're adding in. Then you stir everything up, keep tossing as the flavors meld, and you're done before you know it.
If you heat a nonstick pan up to the level intended for a proper stir-fry (which is to say: very, very, very hot), the coating will start to break down and release from the base metal, which means those toxic chemicals go into your food rather than staying bonded to the pan.
Carbon steel, on the other hand, can get ripping hot with no issue. But to develop a nonstick surface, which will let you toss and slide your ingredients around for a quick sear, you need to bond the metal with oil in a process known as "seasoning."
How to Season Your Pan
Here’s the basic process: get your pan insanely hot and then coat it with oil, which will begin to bond to the heated metal. As you use the pan over and over by cooking on high heat, the oil will polymerize (i.e. break down and fill into microscopic pores of the carbon steel), giving you a smooth, slick, non-stick surface to cook on. It takes time – you won’t have a perfect seasoning after just one day – but the results are worth it.
Before you get started, though, a note: open all your kitchen windows and turn your stove’s hood on high. The high heat of this process is going to produce a lot of smoke.
Scrub the pan with soap, hot water, and an extra coarse sponge. You want to remove whatever factory finish is on the metal before you start adding your own seasoning.
Turn your stove’s burner on to the highest setting and place the pan on top. Let it heat up for a good 10 minutes or so. The metal will start to darken and smoke – that’s normal. Rotate the pan throughout the process to ensure that it’s being heated evenly.
Take the pan off of the burner and pour in two tablespoons of an oil with a high smoke point. Peanut, canola, or grapeseed oil are all good. Then, using a pair of tongs, rub a bunched-up paper towel around the inside of the pan to coat the entire inner surface of the pan.
Return the pan to high heat for another minute or so. The oil will smoke. A lot.
Take the pan off of the burner again, pour out any excess oil, and using your tongs and a clean paper towel, wipe down the inside of the pan. Then let the pan cool – you’re done.
You can repeat steps two through five two or three times if you have some extra time to spare and want to be extra sure that you've developed a good seasoning, but once should be enough. After you're done, the carbon steel should look significantly darker than when you started. That's a good thing. The more you subject the pan to intense heat while cooking, the deeper the patina will become until you have a jet black, ultra slick seasoning coating the entire surface.
All you've got to do now is start cooking. For your first few uses, don't skimp on oil as you're stir-frying – if you don't use enough, or any at all, your food will stick to the pan and could start leeching the oil away from the metal, ruining the foundation of seasoning you worked so hard to create. Aside from that, you've got free range to whip up whatever you're in the mood for, so grab an apron and get to work.