Monday, January 27, 2014

Traditional tech - Cast iron pans vs. carbon steel in your kitchen

Last year, I had a lot of fun doing this post about Cooking tech : the kind of vessels that it is safe to use in your kitchen. I have replaced a lot of my non-stick vessels with anodised aluminium, and some with cast iron. But now a new factor has entered the picture - induction cooking.

In the last year, the market has been flooded with induction stoves, really cheap (some are available at price-offs for under Rs.2000). They are popular with consumers for a variety of reasons - a back up for when you run out of gas, a safe cooking method where naked flame is not allowed, and a light and portable gadget to carry on trips. However, induction stoves work only with compatible cookware - and when I bought an induction top, I realised that manufacturers are making a killing on this front. Non-stick pans with induction base are priced at least at a 30% premium over regular ones, and it's extremely hard to find anodised induction cookware. I imagine that most people will not want to invest in separate cookware only for the induction stove - we would want our vessels to do double duty. Hence this post. 

As you might know, induction-compatible cookware has to have a magnetic base (it contains iron or iron alloy). Most stainless steel vessels will work with induction stoves too, as they contain iron alloys. Aluminium (including anodised aluminium) is non-magnetic and will not work unless the manufacturer provides the base.

So what are the best vessels to invest in for both induction and gas stove? The answer is - iron vessels - either cast iron or carbon steel. All iron vessels are good, but there is a subtle difference between these two types. Let's understand it better.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is widely available, slightly cheaper than cast iron and seems to be more popular. It is produced from rolled steel sheets. It is thin and light compared to cast iron but much also stronger and less brittle. Since it is made from steel sheets, it is easy to create different shapes and sizes. Carbon steel will heat up evenly and quickly (which is an advantage over cast iron). The flip side - as it is thin, it may also burn more easily, and requires a little more oil and love during cooking. In my experience, it also needs more patience and skill to complete the seasoning process. I have had carbon steel vessels accumulate rust far more rapidly and persistently than cast iron.

Cast Iron

This is my comfort zone, and it's what my grandmother has traditionally used for cooking. It will take a longer search to find cast iron vessels and many regular vessel shops will not stock them. I found mine in Mylapore, Chennai. Again, cast iron tavas (flat pans) are easier to find than kadhai's or woks.

Cast Iron vessels are produced from smelted iron which is poured into a mould. The resultant vessels are extremely thick and heavy, with a slightly pitted rough surface unlike the smooth surface of carbon steel. Cast iron is also brittle and vessels may break if they are dropped from a height.

Here is a picture of my latest cast iron acquisition (Kadhai, 14 inch, Rs. 350, from Mylapore)

Cast iron takes longer to heat, but holds heat longer, shortening the cooking process. I love cast iron for the beautiful way that it browns and roasts - I can make better cheese melt sandwiches in my cast iron pan than in any oven! It is also as good as, if not better than, non-stick - you can cook with very little oil and food simply never burns or sticks. 

So to get back to the point of this post - I recommend a mix of carbon steel and cast iron vessels in the kitchen, for use on induction and gas stoves. Induction stoves require flat-based vessels to work well, and you are likely to find a wider choice of these - saucepans, skillets etc. in carbon steel. Tripolia Market in Jaipur has a great range of reasonably priced carbon steel woks and skillets. You will find the same in any good steel shop across the country.

With cast iron cookware, its a little difficult to get choosy because hardly any is available! I have a dosa tava which works well on induction (the lesser the base curves, the better it will work). The kadhai will also work provided that a substantial surface area is in contact with the induction cooker. If you happen to travel to the USA, pick up some Lodge Logic iron ware or if you can afford it, Le Creuset. 

And if you come across any shops selling good cast iron, let me know and I will update this post. Happy cooking!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dear Microsoft, can you focus on Office instead of Surface?

One of the advantages of being a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, is that you can fashion a much longer rope to hang yourself. You can afford many more failed experiments, you can pour much more money down the drain of innovation and new product development, you can hare off in many directions. You do not have to actually bet on the one big thing that will define the future and then stake your future on that.

Google's very philosophy of innovation involves investigating multiple and fascinating avenues including Google Fiber, Google TV, Glass and such bizarre things as wireless balloons that provide internet connectivity to remote rural areas. Some will work, some will never see the light of day, other projects may work patchily and be shut down after a short duration of operation

Microsoft too has extended its innovation in many areas - including search engine tech (Bing), gaming and entertainment (XBox Live), hardware (Kin, Zune and more recently, the Surface) and Windows Mobile, the foray into mobile operating systems. I am not counting the many developments on the enterprise software front, which are  core to the company's business. I am talking about the attempts to enter into new areas.

With the significant exception of XBox, Microsoft's foray into hardware has been a failure. One wonders if they should even continue to try. To my mind, Microsoft stands for enterprise and productivity software and it is this that has characterised the company from the beginning. 

When I bought an iPad one of my first regrets was that MS Office does not run on it. But I could not wait indefinitely for the Surface to release so I spent Rs.300 on a discounted Quick Office package from Google. It does not work perfectly, but it was available when I wanted it. That's where Microsoft lost  out on me. I would have paid a full price for a Power Point package then. This year, when they finally launched Office 365 for the iPad I was uninterested. I'm already invested in Office for the laptop and I do not want to add on a cloud solution. 

Enterprise is characterised by a slow pace of change, even in a small entrepreneurial set up like ours. I am unlikely to replace what I use overnight. This works in Microsoft's favor but it can also work against them. For instance, I notice that my colleagues and I have truly embraced Google Docs. Google has upgraded it to the extent that it has become a powerful tool, which we often use in preference to Excel. Office 365 has introduced a lot of these features but somehow, we grew used to Google Docs first. 

This brings me to the point of this blog post. The one reason that keeps me as a Microsoft user is the productivity tools - Office, Outlook, Skype and Windows OS itself, which runs almost every software on the planet. I can casually change from an Android phone to an iPhone or a Sailfish but I will never ever lightly take a decision to change my laptop operating system.

What I would like, is for Microsoft to realise my need and focus on addressing it. Make the most awesome productivity software. Make it available on every mobile device and operating system. Make it very hard for me to switch. Focus on two segments - a home enertainment segment (where the XBox is the central hardware device) and the office segment (where, despite shrinking sales, the laptop is still the central hardware device). This leaves me wondering, does Microsoft really need to focus on mobile and the Windows 8 mobile OS? After watching them for years and seeing the vast gap that still exists vis-a-vis Android and iOS, I would say no. 

I am unlikely to buy a Surface. I am unlikely to give up on MS Office. Microsoft, the rest is up to you - and the writing is very much on the wall.