Cast Iron Skillets Get a Much-Needed Makeover

Via Field Company.
Via Field Company.

Cast iron skillets are many a cook’s prized possession. What heat retention! What versatility, durability, and quality! Wait: Quality is not actually that easy to find when it comes to cast iron. A cast iron-obsessed friend of mine told me recently that there is a widely acknowledged hierarchy of cast irons in terms of their surface-smoothness and seasonability. Modern skillets, as opposed to the hand-polished vintage variety, are often rough-surfaced and hard to season. Food sticks to them, the seasoning doesn’t adhere, the dang thing rusts and chips. Often, they’re also heavy as bowling balls–good luck gingerly flipping an omelet on that baby. This friend went so far as to say, “It’s a daily battle,” in reference to her cast iron’s upkeep.

With all this in mind, brothers Stephen and Chris Muscarella (older brother Chris is also a co-founder of the affordable home-chef service, Kitchensurfing) set out to re-invent the cast iron. The result? The Field Company skillet. Already, cooks everywhere seem to be grateful. In under three days, their Kickstarter campaign for the revamped cast iron has raised over $100k. Why? Like the old American made, hand-crafted models, the Field Company skillet is smoother, truly versatile (with a flat-bottomed-surface that can be used on gas and induction ranges, or the campfire), lighter (1-2 pounds lighter on average, compared to its peers), has a meticulously-designed, ergonomic handle (to make wielding it easier), green (made from a lot of recycled iron, manufactured in Indiana), and guaranteed for life.

I talked to Chris Muscarella to learn more about how the brothers came to re-invent the classic, alternately loved and hated kitchen item, and why now, in Brooklyn.

You started Kitchensurfing, you’re involved in some Brooklyn restaurants, how did Field Company happen?
CM: It started with a really simple question: Why don’t they make them like they used to? My brother and I both asked that question about a year and a half ago and it became something that we would sort of joke about and nerd out reading online and then talk about. And after a few months of that, we said: well, why don’t we try and figure this out?

And when we asked that, Stephen and I didn’t know if we were going to pour twenty pans in a barn somewhere or whether this would end up becoming something a bit more involved. It turned out to become pretty involved because there wasn’t a way to make what we wanted to make at any kind of reasonable price without a lot of work and diligence.

Why cast iron, why now?
CM: Cast iron is timeless and iconic—it looks as good in an urban loft as it does next to a campfire. If you only had to own one pan, a great cast iron skillet is it. You can bake in it, sauté vegetables, put a mean sear on a steak, make a great deep dish pizza. They’re incredibly versatile.

Why now? There’s a couple ways to answer that question. First, I think that people are getting back into cooking as a form of creative expression they can do regularly—and for many people, it’s their primary creative outlet. That means that there’s a growing appreciation for great kitchen tools that aren’t too gadgety; you want something as simple as a great paintbrush. Second, we think that people have a real desire for objects that help them escape from screens and digital technology.

Why do you need to make another cast iron pan? What makes the Field Skillet different?
CM: We fell into this project pretty organically. Which means—we started cooking a lot with cast iron and loved it. The more we learned, the more we were pointed towards vintage cast iron being superior product. They were made in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania from the late 19th century and stopped being made by the 1950s. They were smooth, lighter, and sleek—and that’s because they were polished by hand when labor wasn’t as expensive.

Our design goal when we started was to try and use modern technology to make a cast iron pan at least as good as the vintage stuff, and try and one up it in some ways if we could.

What was the R&D process like? What taught you the most?
CM: There was a very theoretical part to the R&D, which included cutting up lots of pans and examining the microstructure of the metal and trying to determine whether they were alloys or not, calculating the thermal mass of iron, and so forth. And then there was very practical experimentation with seasoning, trying out pans of all different weights on a stove and dropping cold steaks into them and measuring the heat loss. Ultimately, we couldn’t have gotten to where we did without doing both. For example, there’s a popular Internet article that calls for people to use flax oil for seasoning cast iron, but then there’s a 200,000 person FB group dedicated to cast iron that thinks it’s bunk. We had to reconcile a lot of misinformation.

How does the new cast iron fit into current Brooklyn technology, food, and culture trends?
CM: So, of our backers on Kickstarter, a lot of them work in technology and media (you can get a sense for that by seeing about who’s tweeting about the project). These are the people that are making the future that you read all the crazy headlines about: VR, machine learning, Internet of Things, bluetooth telepathy, and so on.

I think that’s a perfect encapsulation of where culture is right now: we’re moving wildly towards this Jetsons-esque vista and at the same time we’re all sitting there trying to figure out how to be more human at the same time.


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