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Woks - Buying, Caring and Use of


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#1 eatingwitheddie

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 08:45 PM

For almost 30 years I used the same 14" flat-bottomed steel wok. Even when the handle loosened i wouldn't give it up.

Last November everything changed. I bought a new wok, still flat-bottomed and still 14" and still made out of steel. But it was a thinner gauge metal, a highly conductive metal that heated more quickly and didn't retain the heat very long. It worked better! Could've knocked me over with a feather. It was hand-hammered and made in Hong Kong. I LOVE it. Haven't used that old wok even once since then.

What kind of wok do you use, and why, and for what?

#2 snowangel

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 09:09 PM

I have two cheap, probably crappy woks (one flat bottom, one rounded bottom) woks purchased at Pratunam Market in Bangkok in the mid-70's. I probably paid 5 baht for them at the time. I have no clue whether they are stainless or aluminum. They must be "stamped" because the handles are not rivited on -- they are part and parcel of the woks.

I should mention that until I redid the kitchen, I had a stand-alone propane burner thing with a lot of rings of jets. My stove is electric.

Both of these woks heat and cool very rapidly. I have learned on the electric stove to use two burners at once -- one high, one medium or low.

I should also add that the kitchen remodel was extensive cosmetic, but did not include new counters. The fact that my kitchen no longer has a place for my propane burner thingie has prompted me to tell DH that next summer, we will be replacing the counters on either side of the stove (probably with granite) and will be building in said burner thingie (techno talk).

I've used these old woks for years, and love their responsiveness to heat. I can't imagine why anyone would want a "high end" flat (or round) bottomed wok.
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#3 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 09:14 PM

This is great because I get to use the word "metallurgy" again on eGullet.

I think there are going to be three primary factors here: 1) the composition of the metal in your wok; 2) the thickness of the metal; and 3) the shape of the wok. I wonder which of these three is most responsible for the improved performance of your new wok.

I'd be interested to know the exact type of metal used in each wok. Apparently, as between various types of iron and steel, there can be a very big difference in conductivity.

I don't really have a good grasp of how thickness relates to conductivity. My understanding of the concept of conductivity in cookware is that it refers to the ability of cookware to distribute heat evenly over its surface in order to avoid hot spots. I think it's a fairly complex issue and that each metal has an ideal thickness for this purpose. Too thin or too thick and it won't be the best conductor it can be. This concept of conductivity, it seems to me, is not the same as the concept of how fast heat is spread. Perhaps a scientific type can straighten us out as to the exact formulae.

Finally, I know you said the dimensions of the two woks were the same. But are they the same in shape? For example, is the flat part of the bottom the same size? Do the walls come up to the same height? These factors might be important.

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#4 snowangel

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 09:27 PM

My two woks (they are about 16" at the top) look exactly the same, except that it looks like one had a 50 lb. cement block dropped on the bottom of it. Whatever manufacturer imprint (in Thai) was ever on this is illegible. Remember, I've had it since mid-70's, and used at least twice a week ever since. They are really lightweight. But, I've used them for so long, I don't think I'd know how to cook in any other woks.
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#5 johnjohn

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 09:28 PM

It worked better!

Eddie - Could you be more specific. What did you like about it.

Did you buy it in the NYC area? I am looking to buy a nice one. I have a nonstick flat bottom one also with a loose handle.

Any places in NYC area that you would reccomend I look for a quality wok.

johnjohn

#6 Jason Perlow

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 10:38 PM

We have 3 steel woks, all bought in NYC's chinatown over the last 8 years, all of the curved bottom variety. We have a large one with twin U-shaped handles, 1 medium and one slightly smaller one.

The big one we use for deep frying and fried rice and noodles that requries heavy chan work, the smaller ones get used for just about everything. Next to the cast iron skillets the woks are probably the most used pans in the entire kitchen, we use them for literally everything, not just asian food -- although we do eat a lot of asian food.
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#7 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 10:46 PM

Woks are really interesting to me because they cook based on a set of principles that are somewhat at odds with what we look for in Western-style cookery. The holy grail of Western cookware is evenness in heating and the avoidance of hotspots. But the goal of a wok is almost exactly the opposite: woks are about one big hot spot in the middle and much cooler areas as you move away from the center. When you get into a restaurant stir-frying situation, with one of those 100,000+ BTU/hr dedicated wok burners, it's the crazy-heat in the center combined with the relatively cool edges that allows one to cook amazingly good beef with broccoli in about a minute. A curved-bottom wok works best with a dedicated wok burner (or a burner with an interchangeable grill). Otherwise, a flat bottom wok will allow much better contact with the flame from the burner. One of the reasons woks are so personal is that a given size and shape might work really well with one burner -- soaking up the maximum amount of available energy -- but fail miserably with another.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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#8 Jason Perlow

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 10:50 PM

Yeah, its good that we have removable grills, our curved woks sit very nicely in the Garland. :biggrin:
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#9 Schielke

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 11:22 PM

Yeah, its good that we have removable grills, our curved woks sit very nicely in the Garland.  :biggrin:

Oohh, I gotta try that!

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#10 IrishCream

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Posted 12 February 2003 - 11:49 PM

Several years ago, I threw away my old cheap aluminum wok when I received an expensive (relatively) Atlas steel flat-bottomed wok as a gift. Strangely, this wok has never gotten seasoned. It looks exactly the same today as it did then. I confess I rarely cook with it, cuz food sticks! Does anyone have experience with this brand of wok? How do I season it? Should I just ditch it?

edit: What I mean to say is that after stir-frying in it several times, it never lost its shiny stainless steel appearance and food continued to stick...so I gave up.

Edited by IrishCream, 13 February 2003 - 02:57 AM.

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#11 Double 0

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 12:55 PM

I have two Joyce Chen woks. They're both steel with some type of coating inside that is non-stick and does not scratch (I use metal utensils). One is about 11in and the other is 15in, They're both flat bottomed. I realise that these aren't traditional because they didn't need any seasoning but I love these two woks. I use them for soups, steaming, quick chile,deep frying, stir frys, and tempora. The cleanup is a snap and no special care is needed.
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#12 g.johnson

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 01:32 PM

I don't really have a good grasp of how thickness relates to conductivity. My understanding of the concept of conductivity in cookware is that it refers to the ability of cookware to distribute heat evenly over its surface in order to avoid hot spots.

Strictly speaking, not at all since ‘conductivity’ is an inherent property of the material. You're really talking about 'conduction'.

I think it's a fairly complex issue and that each metal has an ideal thickness for this purpose. Too thin or too thick and it won't be the best conductor it can be. This concept of conductivity, it seems to me, is not the same as the concept of how fast heat is spread. Perhaps a scientific type can straighten us out as to the exact formulae.

You might say that unless you’re really comfortable with three dimensional second order differential equations. In practice, you’d have to solve the equations numerically. The result will also depend on what’s in the pan. Nonetheless, I’d say, as a rule of thumb, that the thickness of the pan base should be at least of the order of half the distance between the hot spots on your burner. I don’t think the pan base could ever be too thick from the point of smoothing hot spots.

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#13 Dave the Cook

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 02:08 PM

You might say that unless you’re really comfortable with three dimensional second order differential equations. In practice, you’d have to solve the equations numerically. The result will also depend on what’s in the pan. Nonetheless, I’d say, as a rule of thumb, that the thickness of the pan base should be at least of the order of half the distance between the hot spots on your burner. I don’t think the pan base could ever be too thick from the point of smoothing hot spots.

Smug Getting the Chance to Show Off Twice in Two Days Bastard.

I am loathe to counter both Dr. Johnson and Harold McGee in the same post, but a discussion at A Cook's Wares.com presents a much simpler approach:

The rates for the commonly used metals in pans are as follows. The higher the number, the greater the speed of heat conductivity.

Copper .94
Pure Aluminum .53
Cast Aluminum .33
Steel .16
Cast Iron .12
Stainless Steel .05

Using the following mathematical formula, the optimum thickness for even distribution of heat within a pan's interior surface, so that hot spots are avoided, can be calculated.

thickness of metal  x  thermo-conductivity coefficient = 2.65 (THERMCO)

The optimum thickness for metals most commonly used for pans is as follows:

Copper 2.82 millimeters
Pure Aluminum 5 millimeters
Cast Aluminum 8.03 millimeters
Steel 16.56 millimeters
Cast Iron 22.08 millimeters
Stainless Steel 53 millimeters

Does this oversimplify to the point of uselessness?

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#14 g.johnson

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 02:28 PM

OK, scratch my previous post. I was assuming rapid heat loss from the inner surface of the pan which would give a large temperature gradient. With slow heat loss, the situation will be rather different. I’m sure they’ve got it right. The precise answer will depend on the spacing of the hot spots of the burner but they’ve probably made a sensible approximation. I’m not sure, either, that the answers are ‘optimum’. I think thicker will always be better from this point of view.

Edit: Chastened Scientific Bastard

Edited by g.johnson, 13 February 2003 - 02:29 PM.


#15 blackduff

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 02:34 PM

I don't know how to make the nice quote boxes but this should do anyway.

The rates for the commonly used metals in pans are as follows. The higher the number, the greater the speed of heat conductivity.

Copper .94
Pure Aluminum .53
Cast Aluminum .33
Steel .16
Cast Iron .12
Stainless Steel .05

Using the following mathematical formula, the optimum thickness for even distribution of heat within a pan's interior surface, so that hot spots are avoided, can be calculated.

thickness of metal x thermo-conductivity coefficient = 2.65 (THERMCO)

The optimum thickness for metals most commonly used for pans is as follows:

Copper 2.82 millimeters
Pure Aluminum 5 millimeters
Cast Aluminum 8.03 millimeters
Steel 16.56 millimeters
Cast Iron 22.08 millimeters
Stainless Steel 53 millimeters



I want to take exception to the values starting with the steel at 16.56 millimeters, Cast Iron at 22.08 and Stainless Steel at 53 millimeters. Who uses pans this thick. 16 millimeters is almost three quarters of an inch thick. There are 25.4 millimeters in an inch, so think about the numbers here. Stainless steel pans that are two nches thick? Something is wrong.

I use a steel 14" wok and the thickness is about 3 millimeters or 1/8th of an inch. It works great and is almost pure black now. Nothing sticks and no teflon. This wok is used about five times per week.

Blackduff

#16 Dave the Cook

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 02:56 PM

You make a good point, but it's not relevant to woks, because even heating is not what woks are about.

These numbers are useful if your only goal is to minimize hotspots. They don't account for heat retention. A copper-bottomed pan will heat more evenly than steel because it's a better conductor, but it won't hold the heat as well for the same reason.

If you wanted a cast-iron pan that heated as evenly as a copper pan, it would have to be almost an inch thick, and it would take forever to heat up. In the real world, though, the cast iron holds the heat so well that with sufficient pre-heating you end up with the appearance of even heat. You can mitigate this further by pre-heating a pan in the oven.

But woks are a different case, as FG pointed out. You don't want to minimize hot spots.

Edited by Dave the Cook, 13 February 2003 - 03:31 PM.

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#17 eatingwitheddie

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 08:30 AM

It worked better!

Eddie - Could you be more specific. What did you like about it.

I have a very small home stove with one burner that is oversized. When I put my wok on the stove I have room for little else. Frequently I serve multi-course Chinese dinners and go to great care to think them through ahead of time so that I'm not constantly cooking and I can enjoy the company of my guests. With this in mind I try to limit the number of items cooked in my wok to 2 courses. I often include a cold dish, a steamed dish, a braised dish, a soup and/or a boiled dish. This is how I get the variety I want without being governed by the limitations of my stove

One of the most significant factors in keeping my cooking moving is how long it takes to reheat my wok, and how long it takes to get it extremely hot. I'm constantly cooking something, then cleaning out the wok and reheating it. With my old steel wok which wasn't very thick, but thicker than my new one, it would take 2-3 minutes to get quite hot, maybe even longer. My new wok gets quite hot in 30 seconds, and after a minute it's smoking like crazy. I don't even know whether the heat is uneven or not because when you stir-fry the constant and random movement of the food in the pan mitigates the problems caused by hot spots. In fact in many instances the hot spots are good, enabling me to color something more quickly than usual. This is the case when making pan-fried noodles for instance. The ability to retain and evenly distribute heat which we want in a Western saute or saucepan just isn't what we need in this instance.

#18 eatingwitheddie

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 08:54 AM

Did you buy it in the NYC area?  I am looking to buy a nice one.  I have a nonstick flat bottom one also with a loose handle.

Any places in NYC area that you would reccomend I look for a quality wok.

While I use it in NYC, I actually bought my wok in a cookware shop in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Some thoughts on what to look for:

1) If you cook on a domestic gas stove I strongly suggest a flat-bottomed wok with a long handle. I feel that a 14" diameter is the best all-purpose size. When you use a wok with a traditional curved bottom and a ring I don't like the way the heat is directed inside the ring while leaving the rest of the wok quite cool.
2) A hand-hammered wok. Over the years I've seen woks that have circular hammer marks around the upper 2 inches of the interior edge of the wok. While I never really understood the significance of this aspect I've come to believe, through entirely empirical means, that the type metal that lends itself to this hand hammering also happens to heat up very quickly.
3) I often use an electric wok, not for stir-frying but for steaming. I set it on my kitchen counter and top it with 12" bamboo steamer baskets. It works perfectly for steaming a fish or some dumplings.
4) I like the idea of non-stick woks and usually keep a cheap one around. I just replace it as its surface deteriorates.

In NYC there are 2 pretty good stores that specialize in Chinese cooking equipment. I don't know their names, but one is located on the south side of Grand St just west of Allen Street. The other is on the west side of The Bowery at Chatham Square just across from the HSBC bank. I don't know whether either carries hand-hammered woks.

#19 Varmint

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 08:55 AM

I'd appreciate any links to retailers selling these types of woks.
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#20 Jinmyo

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 10:13 AM

For my purposes I use a range of woks.

Several largish steel woks, well seasoned. I'll be surprised if they don't outlast me.

An electric wok for: steaming or quickly tossing off a very simple vegetable dish. Also for presenting something steamed at the dining table (seats 25) such as a dim sum or tofu item I want to appear at a particular time and for the blast of aromas when the lid is lifted.

Two non-stick woks for egg dishes.
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#21 Ruth

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 12:38 PM

I have five or six woks of different sizes but for all practical purposes I prefer the flat-bottomed heavy steel woks with wooden handles, a 12" and a 14", I bought in San Francisco's Chinatown about fifteen years ago. They were made in the US and some time ago I saw the identical pans at the Broadway Panhandler but I do not know if they are still being produced. I also have a very cheap 16" that I use exclusively for deep frying ducks and whole fish. The metal is much thinner. It was the only flat-bottomed 16" I could find at the time but it seems to do the job. AllClad has a pan which is totally wok-shaped (I've forgotten how they name it) but with a wider flat surface at the bottom. It is a wonderful sauté pan but I would be reluctant to subject is to the kind of abuse I give my steel woks.
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#22 Ruth

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 01:33 PM

Talking about woks - have you seen the induction wok that Ming Tsai uses on his cooking shows? I went green with envy the first time I saw it and checked with Garland - $3000.00! The burner is made so that the wok (included) fits into it and can be heated to a tremendously high temperature at the sides as well as the bottom.
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#23 Dave the Cook

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 01:36 PM

Talking about woks - have you seen the induction wok that Ming Tsai uses on  his cooking shows? I went green with envy the first time I saw it and checked with Garland - $3000.00!

Also requires a 220V outlet, so if your range is gas, add another couple of hundred bucks for the electrician.

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#24 Fat Guy

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 01:51 PM

I'd appreciate any links to retailers selling these types of woks.

http://www.wokshop.com/

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#25 jawbone

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Posted 26 February 2003 - 10:04 AM

I have a very cheap work, one that is very thin (it's actually a bit bendable). I have seasoned it many times but still have terrible problems with food sticking and burning. Would a non-stick skillet solve my problems without compromising flavour? Will a non-stick surface appreciably diminish the "wok-seared taste"? or inhibit the Maillard reaction?

I use my wok for dishes like pad thai. I cook on an electric range.

#26 eatingwitheddie

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Posted 27 February 2003 - 05:54 AM

I have a very cheap work, one that is very thin (it's actually a bit bendable). I have seasoned it many times but still have terrible problems with food sticking and burning. Would a non-stick skillet solve my problems without compromising flavour? Will a non-stick surface appreciably diminish the "wok-seared taste"? or inhibit the Maillard reaction?

I use my wok for dishes like pad thai. I cook on an electric range.

Go for it. The wok taste is elusive -- flavoring the dish well is about 99.5% of the game.

By the way my hand-hammered wok is quite thin and bends easlity. It works great and was easy to season. It gets very hot quickly and cools off just as fast. Are you sure you've seasoned your wok properly? Need help?

Edited by eatingwitheddie, 27 February 2003 - 05:54 AM.


#27 jawbone

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Posted 27 February 2003 - 07:55 AM

I gave my wok one last try last night on a fried rice dish and it worked quite well. This was probably my 12th time using the wok and the last several times I have noticed the blackened/seasoned area growing a bit (it now extends an inch or two up the sides). I live in a small apartment and my kitchen has no range hood, window or exhaust system of any type so my seasoning attempts have probably been more timid than they should have been. (my method: get the wok good and hot, put in a few tablespoons of oil and few teaspoons of salt and rub like crazy -- I should probably repeat this more than once or twice but by that point my wife and I are choking on the smoke :wacko: I have done this 5 or 6 times altogether now.)

I guess I will be patient and give it a few more tries.

#28 eatingwitheddie

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Posted 27 February 2003 - 08:24 AM

"Jawbone wrote:"

I gave my wok one last try last night on a fried rice dish and it worked quite well. This was probably my 12th time using the wok and the last several times I have noticed the blackened/seasoned area growing a bit (it now extends an inch or two up the sides).  I live in a small apartment and my kitchen has no range hood, window or exhaust system of any type so my seasoning attempts have probably been more timid than they should have been. (my method: get the wok good and hot, put in a few tablespoons of oil and few teaspoons of salt and rub like crazy -- I should probably repeat this more than once or twice but by that point my wife and I are choking on the smoke  :wacko: I have done this 5 or 6 times altogether now.)

I guess I will be patient and give it a few more tries.


You don't need the salt.

HOW TO SEASON & CLEAN YOUR STEEL WOK
To season a steel wok:
Put a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in your wok and place it over high heat. Tilt the pan to make sure the surface is oiled all over. When the wok starts to get quite hot, after 30-90 seconds, wash it out with cold water using a coarse stainless steel or copper pad to scrub the wok's surface clean. Dry the wok over high heat and wipe clean with a towel. Repeat this process 3 or 4 times for a new steel pan.

To clean a steel wok: While your pan is still warm rinse it quickly with some cool water, then with more cool water flowing into the pan, scrub the wok's surface with a coarse stainless steel or copper pad until it's free of all food particles. Rinse it once more, then dry it by placing the wok over high heat and drying it with a towel.

Edited by eatingwitheddie, 27 February 2003 - 01:20 PM.


#29 jawbone

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Posted 27 February 2003 - 10:39 AM

Thanks Ed!

I am going to try your method. I think my method was something I had read that was intended as instructions for seasoning cast iron. It never occured to me that the different materials required different seasoning techniques (I wonder why -- will mentioning the word "metallurgy" prompt some responses? ) :smile:

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#30 eatingwitheddie

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Posted 27 February 2003 - 01:12 PM

Thanks Ed!

I am going to try your method. I think my method was something I had read that was intended as instructions for seasoning cast iron. It never occured to me that the different materials required different seasoning techniques (I wonder why -- will mentioning the word "metallurgy" prompt some responses? ) :smile:

Jonathan

The fact is I do exactly the same thing to a cast iron skillet. I have and use 20 of them.