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Fun Facts I Learned from my Lodge Cast Iron Foundry Tour

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Photo by Chris Chamberlain
Photo by Chris Chamberlain

CAST IRON SKILLET FANATICS TAKE NOTE

When Joseph Lodge first opened his cast iron foundry in the quaint Tennessee town of South Pittsburg in 1896, he developed his company’s philosophy right away.

“There are thousands of ways to make cast iron wrong,” he noted, “but only one way to do it right.” As evidenced by the long history of Lodge since then, and the cultish devotion of cooks all over the world to their products, the company’s maniacal focus on quality has served the family-owned operation well.

The Lodge foundry still practices the centuries-old Chinese method of sand mold casting in their facility, but a planned upgrade of much of their manufacturing equipment later this year should increase their productivity by at least 50% in an attempt to meet the global demand for their cookware.

A little more than a decade ago, Lodge began to preseason their cookware, offering a virtually non-stick cooking surface without the trouble of greasing down a new skillet. The elimination of this arcane process opened up the world of convenient cast iron cooking to customers who didn’t happen to cook with lard three times a week like a Southern grandma, and sales took off. Restaurant chefs all over the country demonstrate their devotion to Lodge and traditional Southern roots by cooking in commercial kitchens with cast iron and serving their dishes in precious little skillets.

Recently while I was in town to judge the Cornbread Cook-Off sponsored by Lodge, Martha White and FiveStar Ranges as part of the annual National Cornbread Festival in South Pittburg, I was fortunate enough to take part in a private tour of the Lodge foundry.

Here’s are some takeaways:

  • They are fanatical about quality at Lodge, particularly when it comes to metal science. In their testing lab, they analyze samples of their materials every hour looking for 19 different trace elements that could form imperfections in the iron.
  • The Lodge foundry is indeed a magical place, as if Willy Wonka formed a joint venture with Hephaestus. The large production space is dark and dusty, and smells of brimstone. Every piece of massive machinery used in the manufacturing process looks like it could kill you, but the safety record at Lodge is exemplary.
  • Cast iron is poured into sand molds for Lodge’s various products at the rate 1600 pieces per hour. This is still not fast enough to meet demand, so that’s why they are retooling the foundry.
  • Foundries are some of the original recyclers, so spare pits of iron are separated from finished products through a series of conveyor belts to be re-smelted.
  • Cast iron is actually gray, not black, unless it has been seasoned or painted. Prior to 2002, this is what Lodge skillets looked like when they arrived in stores.
  • Since the skillets hang from a hook while they travel through the seasoning sprayer, the oil drips down the surface of the pan and can form a small bubble at the bottom. While this is harmless to the performance of the skillet and would melt off the first time the pan hits the heat of a stovetop, Lodge doesn’t like to sell products with perceived imperfections. So they employ a nice lady to sit on a folding chair with a blowtorch to melt off each of the bubbles that pass by her on the production line. Nice work if you can get it …

Be careful. Once you commit to cooking with cast iron, you may never go back to those pricey high-tech “non-stick” pans ever again. Can’t do without mine.