In India cast iron cookwares are common even to day as most of the traditional foods are prepared using them. They come in different shapes and sizes and are usually preferred for high temperature cooking like frying. It is only recently that stainless steel or more commonly known as "ever silver" caught the imagination of house wives in the country as they are more easily cleanable after use. The good news is that cast iron cookwares are staging a come back even in a country like the US where Teflon coated steel and aluminum cookwares had replaced it in early 1960s. Obviously consumers have discovered or re-invented the advantages of skillets, pots and other vessels over the modern ones. Probably late realization that use of Teflon coated cookwares does pose significant health risks might have been one of the reasons for the revival of interest in cast its iron based counterparts.
Another reason for the increased interest in cast iron cookwares may be the quality of heat delivered during heating where better heat dissipation and retention are seen compared to the cooking vessel presently in vogue. While Teflon is widely used for creating a non-sticky surface currently, cast iron skillets and others use coconut oil, lard or grease to season them and make the surface non-sticky. It is also possible that once high temperatures are reached there is practically no hot spots in these cookwares which will ensure uniform cooking or frying. Two of the most widely used cast iron utensils in India are skillets for making dosa type of products and pans for frying of many products.
Use of cast iron dates back to fifth century BC when this was the preferred material for making warfare weapons, agriculture and architecture. Use of this material for making cookwares started much later, probably during the middle of 19th century, when cast iron cauldrons, cooking pots and other paraphernalia appeared in the kitchen. They became widely popular during the first half of 20th century. Enamel coated cast iron products entered the scene offering a better alternative to the crude looking cast iron pots and vessels. Since manufacture of cast iron cookwares started declining in many countries due to declining interest, availability of the same is somewhat limited. Also to be noted is that depending on the type of foods cooked elemental iron or iron compounds can be leached out in significant quantities into the food though there are no adverse findings regarding the effect of such leaching. More the moisture or the acidity of the foods cooked, higher will be the leaching effect. Though iron is an essential micro nutrient critically associated with many metabolic activities in the body, especially in blood regeneration, elemental iron and inorganic iron compounds are not biologically useful, the body not being able to absorb them into the blood from the GI tract.
Cast iron is made by melting the metal at high temperatures and pouring the molten mass into sand molds of desired shape and size. While some manufacturers subject them to polishing through the grinding process, most utensils are not polished as the surface of the latter, being extremely grainy due to the sand mold used, seasons better and uniformly providing a better barrier against rusting. Even unpolished cast iron utensils become smooth over a long period of use and there fore polishing is less frequently resorted to at the manufacturer's level. Once the cookware is cast it is seasoned for arresting the corrosion with the oil getting polymerized providing a hard layer on the surface. If properly cared for cast iron utensils last for ever! In a country like the US cast iron skillets, griddles and ovens are reported to be becoming popular because of their better heating qualities and lower prices. In India even to day most house holds use cast iron skillets for making dosa type preparations and appams. Though considered old fashioned, cast iron definitely offers a superior option to house wives and it is a fact that not much efforts are being made in India to take up research in this area for improving the design and performance. This is an area where a national food research institution like the CFTRI or DFRL at Mysore can do much with their strong food engineering groups.
Use of cast iron skillets for preparing dosa and other preparations requires skill and experience that differentiates old timer grandmas from modern house wives. Unless right amount of heat is applied, dosa making can make any body's life miserable with the product refusing to come out of the pan in one piece. There are local techniques like rubbing salt on the hot surface and/or applying oil and/ or water before spreading the batter uniformly. Modern day stoves fueled by LPG seem to have a tendency to heat the skillet non-uniformly but with a little bit of patience the hot skillet gets heated up uniformly with good result. Imagine the patience grandmas used to have heating the skillet on wood fired hearths where temperature control is next to impossible. Even then to day's house wives, in spite of all modern gadgetry can hardly come any where near the former when it comes to using such skillets. Using cast iron pans for deep frying or shallow frying is relatively easier though one has to be careful not to reach flash point due to high temperature rise that can cause a disaster!