Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Fashioning Cast-Iron Pans for Today’s Cooks

American cooks have frequent affairs with spiralizers, dry fryers and other shiny new toys. But they also have a deep, lasting relationship with one of the oldest cooking tools in the kitchen: the cast-iron skillet.

“There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful,” said Ronni Lundy, a historian of the food and agriculture of Appalachia, where cooking in a well-seasoned heirloom skillet is a touchstone of heritage.

It’s true that my grandmother’s china is gathering dust. Your great-grandfather’s gold watch (admit it) lies unused in a drawer. But my parents’ 50-year-old cast-iron pans, with their glassine black cooking surfaces, are the inheritance I crave.

“I have two that are just coming along now,” Ms. Lundy said in the nurturing tone usually reserved for children, sourdough starters and rosebushes.

Well-seasoned cast-iron pans are the new broken-in jeans: proof of both good taste and hard use. In just the last five years, three new companies promising to make improved cast-iron skillets with a combination of traditional handwork and modern technology have begun production.

And cast-iron collecting has taken off. Buyers seek rare skillets like the Erie Spider, the Griswold Slant and the Wapak Chickenfoot; an elusive Sidney No. 8 is listed on eBay for $1,500.

With cast iron’s mystique comes mystery. The responsibility of seasoning a pan can be daunting; the idea of a pan that is never washed with soap can be alarming.

But it is worth overcoming these obstacles because a well-used, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is truly an all-purpose pan: nonstick enough to cook eggs, hot enough to sear anything and completely functional for roasting, stewing, simmering and baking.

“You can caramelize a crust in cast iron in a way that would never happen in a sheet pan,” said Charlotte Druckman, who has just written a book on cast-iron baking.

The nonstick surface of a cast-iron pan is achieved with natural ingredients like flaxseed oil, lard and time, not with synthetic coatings like Teflon or Thermolon.

For all these reasons, even cooks without a tradition of cooking in cast iron now want to start one. Finex in Portland, Ore., Borough Furnace in Syracuse and the not-yet-settled Field Company all got initial funding on Kickstarter from hundreds of small backers, who eventually receive pans in return for their sponsorship.

The Field Company, run by Chris and Stephen Muscarella (neither of whom is trained in metallurgy, casting or cooking), raised more than $1.6 million; their first pans will ship soon from a foundry they adapted in the Midwest. Finex is making 200 skillets a day and barely keeping up with demand from the United States and abroad, according to Mike Whitehead, a founder.

The Finex 10-inch skillet sells for $165; the Borough Furnace equivalent for $280; the Field skillet for about $100.

Why would anyone pay nearly $300 for a modern “artisanal” cast-iron skillet when a perfectly functional equivalent, made in South Pittsburg, Tenn., by the venerable Lodge company, costs $16 at Walmart?

The answer lies in the craftsmanship of the past. The cast-iron pots — skillets, spiders (which sit in the embers of a fire) and Dutch ovens — made in the United States from the 18th century through the first half of the 20th, were different from today’s: lighter, thinner and with a smoother cooking surface.

The Muscarella brothers grew up cooking with their mother’s old cast-iron pans — far from being collectors’ items, rusty skillets used to be offered two for a quarter at barn sales — and wondered why the pans they bought when they went out on their own were so comparatively unwieldy.

To find out why, “we went down a rabbit hole,” said Chris Muscarella, and came out determined to produce new pans in the old style. Modern all-machine casting, he said, cannot produce pans that are as thin and smooth.

by Julia Moskin, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Cole Wilson