Isaac Morton is the first to admit that selling a product designed to last a lifetime isn’t capitalism at its best. “Building something you never have to replace is probably not a great business model.” His Charleston-based Smithey Ironware Co. makes virtually indestructible cast-iron skillets. And he’s well aware that cast iron can be a hard sell—it’s heavy, hard to care for, and can be tricky to remove food from compared to nonstick skillets. True, Smithey skillets are hefty. They have to be, Morton says. “You want something that’s able to retain heat properly, and thick walls are better at retaining heat.” As for being nonstick, he says polished cast iron makes for a surface that, with the tiniest bit of oil, lets steaks or eggs slide right out. It’s like the well-seasoned finish on the oldest cast-iron skillet in your grandmother’s kitchen. Buy a cheap one and you can feel the gritty surface that will cling to food. Run your hand over the bottom interior of one of Smithey’s skillets and you feel smooth metal that releases seared food. “Cheap skillets have a rough, sandpapery surface. We’re creating a polished cast iron that starts out similar to vintage,” he says.
Morton’s fascination with using modern techniques to create vintage-style pans began when he was in real estate investment with a hobby of collecting old cookware. The price for cast-iron pieces kept rising and he wondered what it was that made the old pieces more valuable than the brand new ones from a local store. What he noticed was, for the collectors who actually wanted to cook with their ironware, the patina of a well-seasoned vintage piece was the key.
Morton started ruminating in 2010, tinkered until about 2014, and opened for business in 2015.
Not that the tinkering prevented mistakes. It’s a long way from a degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, to designing ironware. “I learned that the handle on a piece of cast iron will snap off in a heartbeat in a foundry,” Morton says ruefully. “The first handles were very thin and they couldn’t withstand the beating they’d take. But you advance by failure and, hopefully, you get better at what you do. I redesigned the handles to be slightly thicker, a little more stout.”
While there are a lot of people out there looking to buy their first skillet, many of them haven’t cooked in cast iron as much as previous generations and are apprehensive about breaking in or “seasoning” a skillet. The lengthy process involves oiling down the pan and letting the oil cure into the surface by heating it super-hot and then gradually cooling it down. “It’s like putting a coat of paint on a house,” Morton says. “You’re protecting the iron from exposure to air and water. Air plus water equals rust.”
Morton was determined to create a skillet that was seasoned right out of the box so that cooks could use the cast iron right away, although he does say that extra seasoning is always good.
Once Morton receives his skillets from the foundry, the process of machine-grinding and polishing, hand-polishing, and seasoning begins. Smithey Ironware skillets can be found online and in retailers from California to Charleston, including online shop at food52.com. The skillets aren’t cheap—a large one is a couple hundred dollars—but Morton says this is artisan cookware. The appetite for artisan cast iron seems to be growing. Morton says sales have quintupled since he’s been in business, and he gets orders from as far away as Hawaii and Bermuda. “People from all around the world are emailing us asking where they can get a Smithey,” he says. He estimates that each skillet takes about twelve hours of labor, including the painstaking hand-polishing and multiple rounds of seasoning. “I spend about eight hours with each one,” says employee Stephen McClellan with a grin, gingerly transferring each skillet from the blazing hot oven to the cooling table. “I cry a little bit when each one goes out.”
CASTING ASIDE CAST IRON MYTHS
Although Morton hopes you’ll buy a Smithey skillet, he says the old iron warhorses in your kitchen can probably be brought back to life. “Unless you drop it and it cracks, or if you crack it by taking a scalding hot pan and putting it under cold water, you can restore almost anything,” he says. “With rust, just scrape it off with a toothbrush or scraper or steel wool, pat with a thin layer of oil, and heat it to the smoking point in a 450-degree oven.”
If your pan is crummy and nasty, you can put it in a self-cleaning oven and then season it. “You’ll want to put some foil down on the bottom of your oven, though, because there will be dust and ash from what cooked off,”
The two biggest cast iron fears? Seasoning and cleaning. Morton’s pans are pre-seasoned, which just leaves the fear of cleaning. “There’s the big debate with cast iron, soap versus no soap,” Morton says. “The reality is that a little bit of soap is not going to hurt a well-seasoned pan. With ours, I’d wait about six months before you put soap on the surface.” He says a skillet’s like a favorite pair of jeans—you don’t necessarily want to wash it after every use. “There’s no need to worry about whether your skillet is clean. Water and oil are not dirty. You just have to get the food remnants off with warm water, then dry the skillet and lightly oil it. And I’d leave it out on the stove; air is good for it and, if you hide it away, you’re less likely to use it.”
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