Indians have been using cast iron cookware since time immemorial. Its abundance, inexpensive price, excellent heat retention and above all health benefits made them a favourite in households across the country. But in the mid 20th century, people started turning to aluminium cookware as they were cheaper, lightweight and almost maintenance-free. However, soon, people started becoming conscious of the impact of aluminium on health as they leach the
metal into the food. Its tendency to burn food and make them a sticky mess wasn’t doing any favour either. That is when nonstick cookware with PTFE coating on an aluminium base started gaining ground. Cast iron was almost ditched from all kitchens and everyone started their fling with nonstick.
But the world was in for a rude shock when Dupont, the parent company that produces Teflon was in the middle of a scandal for using harmful PFOAs to manufacture nonstick cookware. Its ill effects were so harsh that the US banned it in 2015. Though nonstick cookware are relatively safe nowadays, overheating them emits fumes that can be detrimental to health.
Realizing the harms of nonstick cookware, Indian households turned again to the pearls hidden in their grandma’s traditional kitchen. Not only cast iron, clay pots, soapstone, eezham, brass and other materials are making a comeback to Indian kitchens. Thus modern kitchens have an amalgamation of traditional and modern cookware. Out of all the options, cast iron has been the one that has gained the most acceptance. And reasons are plenty. First of all, they enhance the iron content in the food cooked in them.
Though not a replacement for iron-rich food or a solution for anaemia, it acts as a supplement to increase the overall iron intake. With anaemia being prevalent in almost 50% of women and children in India, cast iron cookware may play a role in alleviating the condition. However, for an increased transfer of iron, the cookware shouldn’t be seasoned too well and the food should be slightly acidic- both of which are avoided like plague by cast-iron lovers. Hence, many are not able to make the maximum out of the benefits of cast iron cookware.
Yet another reason why people prefer cast iron is for the excellent heat retention capacity of cast iron. Though slow to heat up, once it reaches a high temperature, cast iron retains the heat much longer than regular cookware. This is not only because of the low conductivity but also due to the high thermal mass of cast iron. That is why Dosa made in cast iron Tawa is far superior to what you make on nonstick. Similarly, fish and chicken that are fried on cast iron cookware develop a deep searing- something that can never be achieved on nonstick.
The high heat retention also saves fuel significantly. Cast iron Kadais are capable of retaining heat for a long period. So, often poriyal and other vegetable side dishes are half-cooked and left in the cast iron cookware for the residual heat to take care of the rest. Also, it helps cook fish, chicken and meat retaining its succulence and juiciness.
However, it is not all hunk and dory when using cast iron. Rusting and the tendency of food to stick are two major pain points of using cast iron. And the solution to both is creating a thick black patina by seasoning them thoroughly. Though it may appear to be intimidating, once you understand the science of seasoning, it isn’t that difficult. Seasoning is the process by which oil polymerizes with iron to form a protective layer. The key to polymerizing oil is heating it to above the smoking point. So, all you have to do is apply a thin layer of oil on the cast iron cookware, wipe off the excess and heat it on the stovetop or in the oven till the oil starts smoking. By repeating this 2-3 times, you can create a thick layer of seasoning that increases the stick resistance and prevents rusting.
Cast iron is definitely one of the best materials for cookware that is suitable for Indian cuisine. Though it requires comparatively higher maintenance, once you get a hang of it, it is easy, healthier and simply irresistible.