Referring to the ‘Vaarpatta Kadai’ (Tamil) in this post as Cast Iron which is very brittle. Regular Iron Kadai which is ‘Irumbu Kadai’ is Wrought Iron which is not as brittle. Both are good but Vaarpatta kadai or Cast Iron kadai/wok/tawa is better with enhanced taste and less rusting quality as it is heavy and denser and involves slow cooking.
In this post, we deal with only Cast Iron and not Regular/Wrought Iron cookware.
Not only in Chennai, even in Doha I have moved over to Cast Iron kadais/woks/shallow-to-deep frying pans and Tawas from Teflon-coated Non-stick pans/woks/tawas. Cast Iron is what my grandma used as I remember from very young years, and my friends in Kerala rebuked me for switching over to the chemical (Teflon) coated cooking pans/woks in last few years. Could this be a reason for increasing incidences of cancer in India? Because Indian cuisine essentially requires direct cooking over fire to highest temperatures. We cook for hours this way which may also include pressure cooking. So in such a scenario, how reliable is even two or three coats of teflon in the non-stick ware we use in our kitchen? Won’t the teflon melt or smoke? The manufacturers say ‘no’ but I am a housewife, a full-time cook for my family and challenge me! Teflon definitely smoulders in a minute of heating, giving out the nastiest chemical/pungent odour, and thinking of that going into our intestines spooks me completely. Using stainless steel spoons is unavoidable in our cooking – because Indian culinary ways demand so. Plastic spoons and ladles are not ideal to stir our steaming hotpots. Usage of steel spoons may also erode the teflon coating in the nonstick pans exposing us to graver health risks. Teflon nonstick ware now comes with an additional ceramic coating (!) as if enough is not enough. We in India are not the sauce and soup types. Our cooking blends much of deep frying, shallow frying, wet grinding, dry grinding, roasting, sauteing, seasoning all at nearly 100 degree celsius, a plethora of green vegetables, fresh spices, foodgrains and pulses and meat. What do you think is the best and healthiest choice of kitchenware under the circumstances?
Never discarded cast-iron totally from routine life all these years, was only toying with teflon pans as they come with good finishing and are cook-and-serve line mostly.This is not so possible with cast-iron. Using the non-stick pan every morning to make omelettes always stayed at the back of my mind and I wanted to put an immediate stop to that – and have almost. Got back to cast-iron so the texture (of cooked food, in this case omelette) is different and better.
Along with cast-iron, I also use regular Iron/Wrought Ironware in my kitchen. This is easily rusty and needs greater maintenance.
CAST IRON WARE – THE TASTE ENHANCER
As for dosas and rotis/chappathis, anyway I was using mostly cast-iron tawas because right from the start, I have had this strongest opinion that the taste changes in non-stick pan and the browning does not happen the way it does with cast-iron. Dosas come out dry in nonstick tawas.
Ofcourse a mild single coat of oil is required for use in cast-ironware from time-to-time which is minimal/negligible. I use a fresh cut onion instead of tissue paper every time to swipe the cast iron pan/tawa with a tsp of oil which gives it a special aroma especially while making dosas. (eco-friendly thus, cutting out on tissue use).
From making daily omelettes in my cute little tiny cast-iron wok to cooking chicken curries and gravies to vegetable stir-frying to bringing stews to a boil and toasting the dosas/chappathis/parathas and even the bakery bread, cast iron it is for us now completely. Nonstick ware is mostly reserved for use when we have guests as it is quick and easy and user-friendly. Naturally cast-iron takes time and also a bit of oil – healthy oil. A minimum of 1-3 tsps of healthy coconut oil/mustard oil/gingely oil/peanut oil is good for our skin in my opinion. Leave out Olive oil which is good only for salads.
Nothing can roast to that adorable golden brown the way Cast Iron can!
WORLD’S MOST ECONOMIC COOKWARE
Cast Iron ware is brittle – in the sense, will break if dropped with purpose. But cast-iron is priced very economically and is available with some old stainless steel utensil sellers in Chennai. But is limited in edition. A cast iron wok smallest size will not cost over 150-300 bucks and the biggest one, not over 350-850/- bucks depending on the seller. Whereas one has to shell out 5-10 times these prices for the same size/volume Teflon nonstick ware.
Cast Iron also effectively uses energy even if it cooks slow. The heat spread is even and it is rare for food to get burnt in cast iron.
I recommend everyone to think of cast-iron in place of teflon coated non-stick ware in order to have a truly healthy kitchen. I am also using ‘matka’ (clay pots) wherever its possible like when cooking greens/paalak (spinach). Most in the south do. Thinking of bringing down some copper utensils especially the tumblers from the loft. I have inherited quite a good collection of brass/copper cookware, my family heirloom from mother’s side. This includes a 5 box tiffin carrier (lunch box), plates, big pots and pans etc. Antique, high value today and also healthy choice. Want to include some of these in everyday cooking from now on.
MAINTENANCE AND USAGE OF CAST IRONWARE
Cast Iron is very heavy for handling. Needs to be dried completely every time after usage and oiled after scouring clean. Requires good/adequate space for storing and must not be stacked one over another (to avoid rusting).
When you buy cast iron, it will look mostly very rusty (browning red). Wash it and scrub it thoroughly a number of times after immersing in water for 1-2 hours. Then wipe dry, coat it in oil and leave for a day. Again scrub it mildly and wash it and dry it and oil it. Repeat the process for a week for the rust to wear off totally and for the black colour to set in.
Takes time to practice in cast iron. At first it will be sticky entirely.
For first time use, heat the cast iron kadai/wok/tawa/pan, oil it generously and fry boiled rice to remove the remaining rust off the cast iron. Repeat the process if necessary. Cool the pan/tawa, wash it again and dry it. Store it on oiling.
Next, use oil generously and deep-fry papads/potato chips first to get the cast iron kadai into cooking mode once the rust is worn off completely. Deep fry at least a couple of times. Scrub mild and coat with coat using a small piece of cotton cloth or an onion slice or tissue paper before storing.
Use the cast iron tawas to do chappathis or toast bread first before trying the dosas on.
These are the essential ‘conditioning’ steps to make fit the cast iron ware for our regular kitchen use.
By now, the cast iron kadai/tawa/pan is almost adapted for our regular use.
The final qualifying test is, when you can roast potato/aloo curry comfortably in your cast iron wok/kadai to golden brown without the curry sticking to the sides and coming away comfortably and /or when you make that first thick ‘kal dosa’ nicely without tearing/breaking with the watery rice-urad dal Idli-dosa batter in the cast iron tawa that comes out free with ease. When your cast iron pan/wok/tawa passes this ultimate test, then both of you are winners and friends for life!!!
For the cast-iron woks/pan/tawas to get completely non-sticky in character except for a minimal use of cooking oil, it will take time. Atleast a month of regular use for deep-frying and chappathi/roti making is recommended before this non-stick mode sets in. Once it does, the cast ironware will put all No.1 quality teflon coated branded nonstick ware to shame. Best Indian kitchenware in my opinion. Traditionally followed for millenniums. Why we Indians don’t bother with patenting beats me.
Cast Ironware must not be scrubbed everyday. If you have to, do it mildly. Otherwise, a mere slapping and rinsing well with running water must be enough – once the cast ironware cools off to room temperature the natural way. Never attempt cleaning/scrubbing it when it is hot/warm. This will turn the cast iron to sticky mode once again so that the tedious re-conditioning has to be done with no option. Always rub in a tsp of oil after use to keep off rust on both sides. Keep over newspaper sheets or other papers on storage shelves/cupboards.
Needless to be told, Cast Iron is an indirect source of iron. Ancient Indians have included different metals in their eating habits chiefly for their health benefits: Copper for drinking water from, for instance. We source it the way we source vitamin D from direct sunlight. Nowadays iodine is added to our cooking salt. Iron is likewise best consumed indirectly through our kitchenware for whatever shortfall we may find in our food intake. Cast Iron is not a chemical like ‘teflon’ in nonstick ware. We do not know the exact health risks from long term use of nonstick ware but any chemical that goes into our intestines can only harm and not help. Cast Iron is a healthy choice that way. Prolonged use of Aluminium ware is reported to be responsible for Alzheimer’s.
Wrought Iron (regular iron) kadais/woks/tawas are also easily available in all parts of India along with Cast Iron ware.